Reviews 2016

Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain. Melanie Keene. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. 256 pages. €16.99 (hardback).

In her first monograph, Graduate Tutor and Research Fellow at Homerton College in Cambridge, Melanie Keene, challenges the widespread notion that the Victorian era saw scientific discourse and tales of marvellous creatures and events as polar opposites. On the contrary, as Science in Wonderland persuasively demonstrates, the two became deeply interconnected in the course of the nineteenth century: rather than banish wonder and imagination, the numerous scientific discoveries and technological advancements that marked the said century became a source of marvel in their own right, and, as such, appeared "a lot like fairy tales" (6). The effects of electrical energy were, thus, likened to fairies, dinosaurs to dragons, and microscopic beings found in a drop of water to monsters.

In Science in Wonderland, Keene traces the transformation of fairy tales into an important means of communicating scientific knowledge. In doing so, she explores how numerous British and American authors used recognizable fairy-tale motifs, plots and characters to present this knowledge in a comprehensible way. The discussion is organized into six thematic chapters, each dealing with a different discipline or technological/scientific discovery. The text is complemented by nine plates and 21 illustrations, including various drawings (published in magazines and newspapers), book covers and playbills, etc.

The introduction situates the book’s central concern within the wider context of nineteenth-century developments in children’s publishing, the changing role and appearance of fairies, contemporary discussions on (im)proper reading for children, as well as the supposed harmfulness of fantasy in general and fairy tales in particular. The so-called scientific fairy tales or fairy tales of science are distinguished from didactic fairy tales, the latter being used to teach moral lessons and the former to communicate scientific knowledge. Chapter one explores how important geological discoveries radically altered the perception of history, giving the abstract, almost mythical past the concrete form of epochs, centuries and millennia. Special focus is on palaeontology and mineralogy, which proposed to reveal "what had really happened once upon a time" (22). Entomology – especially the study of butterflies which were (due to their size, wings and movement) likened to fairies – is at the centre of chapter two. As Keene points out, this is the moment "when fairies shrank to Tinkerbell proportions, became be-winged, became benign" (112) and gradually assumed the shape in which they are best known today. The discussion of entomology also helps demonstrate that the link between science and fairy tales worked both ways; namely, while fairies were being turned into insects, insects were simultaneously portrayed as supernatural, fairy-tale creatures.

Chapter three shows how, thanks to new inventions that radically altered the human perspective such as the microscope, the everyday world was suddenly revealed to be a source of wonder and amazement in its own right, as people were afforded glimpses into the rich life hidden in a leaf of grass or a drop of water. Dedicated to evolution, chapter four explores the status of the fairy tale as a "favoured analogy for telling the history of life on earth, and for explaining the relationships between past and present" (127). Chapter five examines various "magic glasses" (140) that appeared in the nineteenth century such as magic lanterns, telescopes, cameras and spectroscopes, while chapter six is dedicated to technological discoveries, often utilized in popular shows and pantomimes (e.g., the highly successful The Land of Light). The conclusion is followed by a brief annotated list of suggestions for further reading, endnotes and an index.

Keene’s research encompasses a variety of authors, ranging from nineteenth-century luminaries such as Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley and L. Frank Baum to more obscure science writers and texts; these include curiosities barely known outside of expert circles such as Annie Carey’s biographies of common objects (e.g., a lump of coal, a sheet of paper), the illustrated album of real and imaginary insect-hunting adventures composed by teenage sisters Madalene and Louisa Pasley, and Lucy Rider Meyer’s Real Fairy Folks, Or, The Fairyland of Chemistry (1887), which presents fairies in the guise of atoms. The multifarious examples selected for closer scrutiny reveal the perspectives of writers, scientists and (albeit to a lesser extent) readers (e.g., the aforementioned album of the Pasley sisters). In addition to scientific and literary works, Keene also considers articles, book reviews and public discussions published in various 19th-century newspapers and magazines .

Keene demonstrates extensive knowledge of her field, which she communicates in a highly accessible and readable manner. However, the way in which information is presented can be confusing at times, especially since the author, supposedly trying to avoid tedious repetitions, often hints at the titles of the analysed works rather than state them in full, or they are delegated to the endnotes. Nevertheless, her prose is fluent and jargon-free, which makes the book appealing to a wide readership. The latter seem to be Keene’s implied audience as the book lacks many of the usual trappings of a scholarly monograph, such as a bibliography, a section on methods, or an overview of the book’s structure and content in the introduction; instead, the close of each chapter announces the subject matter of the following one. In some places, relevant information that would enhance understanding of the main discussion is tucked away in the endnotes and the analysis of the selected texts is, for the most part, reduced to retelling the content with a special emphasis on scientific/supernatural elements. Finally, the book would have benefited from at least some consideration of genre issues and the relationship between "scientific" and "ordinary" (Victorian) fairy tales.

Despite these shortcomings, Science in Wonderland presents a highly informative and engaging read. Given the wealth of information it provides, it will be useful to scholars and enthusiasts with an interest in the nineteenth century, children’s culture and popular science. The book seems especially interesting in light of current trends to popularize science, which also often cast characters from children’s popular culture in the roles of teachers and guides through the wondrous worlds of various scientific disciplines.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia