The Bengal Annual: A Digital Exploration of Non-Canonical British Romantic Literature

The Nineteenth Century Literary Annual

As print culture in England exploded in the first half of the nineteenth century, publishers began introducing new forms of serialized print materials, which included serialized publications known as literary annuals. These multi-author texts were commonly produced as high-quality volumes that could be purchased as gifts in the months leading up to the holiday season. As a genre, the annual included poetry, prose, and engravings, among other varieties of content, very often from well-known authors. Literary annuals represent a significant shift in the economics surrounding the production of print materials for mass consumption—for instance, contributors were typically paid. And annuals, though a luxury item, were more affordable than books sold before the mechanization of the printing press. 

The 1830 Bengal Annual is a unique instance of the literary annual. It has 49 literary texts and 7 engravings, but allocates a large amount of space to short stories, which was unusual. It also does not have the physical characteristics of typical London-based literary annuals, such as gilded edges on the pages or silk-covered boards. The pages are thin and printed letters can be seen through the opposite side of the paper. As one of the only series of annuals produced and printed in India, we do not have comprehensive knowledge of how that process worked, or what challenges the publishers might have encountered with the printing process or in funding their endeavor (or recouping their expenses through sales).

Literary annuals and other periodicals are interesting sites of literary study, as many of them can be read as reinforcing or resisting the British Empire. London-based periodicals were distributed to all of Britain’s colonial holdings, including India. As The Bengal Annual was written in India and contains a small representation of Indian authors, our project investigates it as a variation on British-centric reading materials of the time, which perhaps offered a provisional voice to a wider community of writers, though not without claims of superiority over the colonized territory it exploits.

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