From 1795 to 1834, an English woman named Anne Wagner kept a most astonishing record of the accomplishments of her friends and family. Her “Memorials of Friendship” is like an autograph book, commonplace book, guest book, and scrapbook all rolled into one. I stumbled across the book in an online exhibition on the poet Shelley hosted by the New York Public Library, and I was soon paging through the library’s digital gallery of every page of this remarkable keepsake.
Over almost 40 years Anne and her family, friends, and visitors filled this little book with poetry, paintings, collages, and tokens of friendship. A pencilled note on one of the first pages reads “Has requested this book be kept with great nicety.” Was this Anne’s request to her contemporaries who embellished the book’s pages? Or a note to posterity to cherish this memento?
Anne’s sisters and friends did not confine themselves to one page each- it seems that whenever they thought of an appropriate poem or image they made a new entry. One frequent contributor is Anne Wagner’s niece Felicia Browne, who became Felicia Hemans at her marriage in 1812. Felicia was already an accomplished poet at age twelve when she penned the affectionate verse on the page above, and at age fourteen she published the first of many volumes of her poetry. Her work was as popular in her day as Lord Byron’s, although she is almost forgotten today. It’s because of Felicia’s pages that Anne Wagner’s friendship book has found its home at the New York Public Library: one of grown-up Felicia’s correspondents was Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the the NYPL holds the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.
One thing that grabbed my attention was the variety of media Anne Wagner and her friends used to decorate their pages. Images snipped from prints, bookplates, or calling cards, gold paper, printed silk fabrics, and hand-painted motifs might all sit together on one page. I wonder if this style of decoration is what Jane Austen had in mind when she described the riddle-book that Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith make “ornamented with cyphers and trophies”? (Emma, chapter 9)
Since I’m interested in handwriting right now, I’m delighted to see so many examples of accomplished handwriting in one place! Several friends from the continent signed Anne’s book, and their handwriting tends to be strikingly different from the English contributors. Some include only name, date, and place along with some appropriate verses from a well-known poet, while others are much more ambitious, composing pages of poetry especially for Anne.
The paintings and the poetry are none of them masterpieces, but I find them charming and fascinating despite (or maybe because of) their simplicity. They are meant to be private mementos of affectionate relationships, and have no pretensions to being museum pieces. The book must have been precious to Anne, who treasured it and asked her loved ones to add to it over thirty-nine years- but it’s a small, fragile thing that could so easily have proved ephemeral in the nearly 200 years since it was completed. I wonder how many similar books have been lost?
When I read about young women’s accomplishments at decorative arts, there’s so much emphasis on status and husband-hunting, I often wonder what the women themselves got out of the experience. This book shows one important use for those skills- honoring friends and family and commemorating those relationships.
Women were not the only contributors- some of the watercolor pictures are signed by George Browne (Felicia Browne’s father or possibly her brother). Men too were expected be accomplished in useful arts like drawing and painting. But the majority of pages with names are by women, suggesting that sisters, nieces, and female friends particularly valued making this kind of memento.
There are a few locks of hair included as keepsakes. Elizabeth Venables added this poem with hers: “To Miss Anne Wagner. / Tho’ time shall change my Gypsy(?) hue, / And silvery honors o’er them strew;/ I still unchang’d shall think of you.” I haven’t found much information about Anne Wagner’s life, although information about her family and her famous niece Felicia is more readily available. But I’m glad to know at least that she had an abundance of affectionate (and accomplished) friends and relatives.
If you enjoyed this small selection of images from Anne Wagner’s book, I suggest you read the essay about the book in the online exhibition at the NYPL. 168 pages from the book have been digitized and can be viewed at the NYPL’s digital gallery.