Victorian Poetry Network "much to do with Victorian poetry"

Victorian Apps Review (1)
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Image courtesy of Wkimedia Commons

In duty’s ordered care I use,
With thrifty care, the bale of time;
And who shall censure, if I choose
To piece the fragments into rhyme?
(Epigraph to Lily Overington’s Random Rhymes and Christmas Chimes)

Recently a trend has developed in the app (application) store for iPad and iPhone: libraries, museums and developers have been launching apps with Victorian themes. This post is the first in a series of reviews of those apps with Victorian content, pointing out the features that might be suitable for the Victorianist, and especially the poetry scholar and student.

Victorian Christmas App front page (used with permission of BiblioLabs)

The Victorian Christmas app for the iPad ($9.99) takes material from the British Library’s nineteenth-century collection. The app even has its own Facebook page, which is a canny marketing move but also surely discloses the app’s main audience as the general iPad owner (of economic necessity, presumably, to the British Library’s various app enterprises). The material included is purely book volumes, which encompasses anthologies, annuals, bound leaflets, picture books, and reprints; it would be interesting to have included periodical print, including special Christmas numbers of, for example, Household Words and All the Year Round. Over 75 titles are included in Victorian Christmas, including gift books (such as Christmas in the Olden Time [1886], from Scott’s Marmion), pantomimes (for example, Edward Litt Leman Blanchard’s Faw! Fee!! Fo!!! Fum!!! or, Harlequin Jack, the Giant Killer [1867], which stands out for its wonderful title alone), carols and hymns (notably an illustrated version of Edmund Hamilton Sears’ “It Came upon the Midnight clear” [1891], 22 novels (such as Phillips Brooks’ A Christmas Carol [1890]), 24 short story titles (including W. Percival’s Happy Homes: A Christmas Story [1863]), and 11 poetry titles.

It’s probably the latter that will attract readers of VPN, so I give them all here: T. Hoare’s The Nativity (1883), Thomas Mott’s The Sacred Period (1822), Henry Charles Beeching (ed.) A Book of Christmas Verse (1895), Edward Moxon’s Christmas (1829), Mary Brine’s Christmas Rhymes and New Year’s Chimes (1891), Aurora’s Christabel. A Tale of Christmas, and other poems (1875), Lizzie Lawson’s Old Father Christmas (1888), Frances Wood’s Christmas Carol: Leaflets from Raphael’s Pictures (1894), Lily Overington’s Random Rhymes and Christmas Chimes (1895), Eliza F. Manning’s The Coming of Father Christmas (1892), and Beeton’s Christmas Annual (1860) — which, by the way, has some fabulous adverts. It’s worth pointing out that all the material here is also available on the British Library’s Nineteenth-Century Collection app, a much much vaster enterprise, but the Christmas selection  is “a stand alone apt” (as the developer, BiblioLabs, explained in an email to me), effectively a curation of the greatest Christmas hits.

L.M.'s illustration to "The New Picture Book", in Lizzie Lawson's Old Father Christmas (used with permission of BiblioLabs)

This all adds to a proverbial embarrassment of riches, and while the app is clearly designed to appeal to the general iPad user (the app’s blurb advertises its wares by drawing on nostalgia about joyful Victorian Christmas festivities), there is plenty of material for the Victorianist, and especially the poetry scholar and teacher, and the price tag seems reasonable for both its fascinating content and beautiful design. The very nature of the verbal-visual Christmas books, most of which appealed to a general market and were attractively illustrated, makes Victorian Christmas particularly useful for those interested in print culture, popular poetry and the history of illustration. Most of the material might be termed non-canonical, although there are better known authors represented such as Scott and Coleridge, whose works were reprinted and repackaged for a Christmas audience, and also M.E. Braddon and Dickens. There is a huge variety of different genres, and the quality of the images is excellent (with the capacity to zoom), even at times giving a flavour of the book’s materiality and sheer texture in its watermarks, decorative embossing, marginalia and even (for the authentic reading experience…) staining. The collection can be organized by “favourites”, searched by title (sadly no content search is available), and even (for the ultimate social-media-minded Victorianist) easily shared on Facebook and email. There is a small group of titles “featured” (a kind of greatest hits of the greatest hits), with brief editorial information provided. As a scholar of poetry, I would like to see the dates of publication, as well as publisher and illustrator details, more readily accessible and searchable, along with more extensive background information on each title. There is an option to “buy print copy”, but it’s greyed out in my version of the app for some reason.

Front cover of A O'D. Bartholeyns' Legend of the Xmas Rose, illustrated by Delapoer Downing (used with permission of BiblioLabs)

The app should open up possibilities for teaching rare material, especially as a special study of the book market within a Victorian poetry course, or perhaps as part of a course on Victorian illustration or popular literature (although I can see potential practical if not ethical problems in requiring students to own an iPad in order to access the material). For research, perhaps the selection of material is too narrow to undertake a quantitative analysis of the  Christmas market, and especially of poetry books, but nonetheless it makes readily available material that is not easily accessible elsewhere. The downside is living with an app that seems to be designed primarily for the general iPad owner, and without some of the scholarly apparatus that researchers might like to have. Nevertheless, the British Library’s Victorian Christmas admirably demonstrates not just how crucial the gift book market was to the construction of Christmas itself, but also the centrality of poetry to the festive season.


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