Seen at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University.
At first glance, The English Bijou Almanac for 1839 scarcely appears to be a book at all. Measuring just three quarters of an inch by nine-sixteenths of an inch, the volume is slightly smaller than a person’s thumb. The cover bears the words The English Bijou, bracketed on top and bottom by two red circles rimmed with gold dots and surrounded by an ornate series of curves, lines and dots. More expensive editions of the same volume feature hard binding in morocco or vellum, elaborate cases in velvet or tortoiseshell, and matching magnifying glasses that fit into the case. This almanac lives up to its name as a bijou; it is a precious object that encases its literary content in a jewel-like form.
While The English Bijou Almanac delights as a precious object, it poses a variety of mechanical challenges to the reader. The text of the volume is printed in a miniscule, italicized font that is difficult to parse without a magnifying glass. The reader who strains his or her eyes to read this text also confronts the considerable mechanical challenges of turning thin pages and of keeping the tightly bound work open without blocking the text with his or her fingers. Indeed, the reader’s hands feel massive in relation to the volume, like clumsy instruments that are barely capable of the necessary manipulation of pages. It is difficult to imagine any reader attempting to overcome these challenges and to use this precious and impractical object for practical purposes.
Still, the English Bijou Almanac presents ostensibly useful charts alongside poetic fancies. The combination of useful and entertaining material is typical of nineteenth century almanacs. Yet the emphasis here falls dramatically on the poetic material. Practical charts, including a calendar and lists of the royal family, the Sovereigns of Europe, the Queen’s Ministers and the Ladies of the Court, appear only after a series of poems dedicated to luminaries like the Duchess of Kent (mother of Queen Victoria), the Duke of Wellington and Beethoven. The title page proudly emphasizes that the volume is “poetically illustrated by L.E.L. [Letitia Elizabeth Landon]” and each poem (or poetic illustration) is accompanied by a visual image which further attracts the reader’s gaze. Within this context, the practical charts included at the end of the volume seem almost an afterthought: a practical pretense for a work that itself embodies an extreme vision of literary minuteness.
Despite the seeming improbability of The English Bijou Almanac’s existence, Albert Schloss published editions of the work yearly from 1835 to 1843 to great acclaim. Indeed, the 1838 volume was dedicated to Queen Victoria and the 1839 almanac included a portrait of Prince Albert in honor of the impending royal nuptials, both with the Queen’s permission. Landon’s poems, which appeared in the first five years of the Bijou Almanac’s publication, lent literary credibility to a work that was already a marvel of miniature printing. In this almanac, the last one for which she wrote, Landon composes a short poem entitled, “A Farewell.” “My little Fairy Chronicle, / The prettiest of my tasks, farewell!” she writes, commemorating her work as belonging, not to the everyday world of reality, but rather to an alternative realm of fairyland. In remaking the almanac as a bijou and a fairy chronicle, Schloss acknowledges the potential utility of miniature books (as portable reference volumes) even as he defies this utility by creating an almanac that delights precisely because of the incredibly small dimensions which make it impractical to use.