Reviews 2017

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. 195 pages. £16.99 (paperback).

Melanie Keen’s Science in Wonderland is a fascinating merging of science, history, and literature, demonstrating the compelling insights made possible by interdisciplinary practice. The book explores the intersection between fantasy and science in Victorian culture, describing this intersection as a means of understanding the development of the emergent "scientific specialisms" (7). Beginning with an overview Victorian science, scientific education, and education in general, Keene goes on to argue that consistent and creative reference to fantasy literature served as a means of both defending the legitimacy of emergent sciences and rendering them palatable. Challenging the traditionally perceived division between fantasy and reason in Victorian culture, Keene explores and delineates the complex and often contradictory relationships that existed between the fairy tale and science, defining them as interdependent and intertwined in both popular imagination and professional perception. The disciplines explored by Keene include archeology and geology (chapter 1), entomology (chapter 2), microbiology (chapter 3), evolution (chapter 4), astronomy (chapter 5), and engineering (chapter 6), all of which are elucidated as facets of the Victorian creative imagination. Inevitably, with its clear focus on both education and the fairy tale, this discussion turns frequently to children and children’s literature.

In The Irresistible Fairytale (2012), Jack Zipes declares that "stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided" (1). It is precisely this function of the fairytale that Keene identifies as the driving force behind the Victorian merging of fairytale and science in educational and popular literature. In Chapter 1, "Once Upon a Time," for example, Keene discusses the conflation of prehistoric creatures such as dinosaurs and fairytale creatures such as dragons as the nascent disciplines of geology and archeology attempted to both relate to popular fantasy elements as a means of attracting followers and demonstrate the superiority of real scientific fact over fantasy. As with many of the chapters in the book, however, there is a disappointing lack of depth to the textual discussion, particularly where it is related to the subject of children’s literature and child readers. While the introduction’s focus on children’s literature and education suggests an emphasis on childhood in keeping with this subject matter, chapters such as "Once Upon a Time" and "Real Fairy Folk" (Chapter 2) often touch only lightly on the theories of children’s literature. "Real Fairy Folk," for example, explores the identification of fairies with insects through specifically scientific educational fairy tales but offers only the briefest analysis of a lengthy passage from Charlotte Maria Tucker’s Fairy-Know-A-Bit (17), thereby missing the opportunity to fully examine the implications of this transformation for child readers and the educational impacts that they might have. Keene limits herself to stating that "the fairy’s first description" emphasizes "his insect-like attributes" (71), neglecting, however, to fully analyse exactly how that connection in shown in the passage. The academic reader is left wondering exactly how deep and genuine the confusion between insects and fairies was. Throughout the book, the interdisciplinarity promised by the title and introduction is lost as the book sketches out a surface-only exploration of the connection between fairytale and science.

Regardless of this shortcoming, however, this study is packed with intriguing insights and connections. That it was during the Victorian period that "fairies shrank to Tinkerbell proportions, became be-winged, became benign" (55) as a result of entomological explorations is a fascinating proposition, suggesting that emergent scientific disciplines had a long-reaching impact on children’s literature. Even though Keene does not explore this impact, her approach suggests areas of significant research possibilities for future scholars not only of children’s literature, but also of history and science as well. A similar argument can be made about the other chapters in the collection. For example, "Modern Marvels"(Chapter 6) discusses the way in which engineering and magic were compared and conflated, with engineering and technology demonstrating "the power of scientific men over the forces of nature" (153). As fascinating as this metaphorical connection is, as described by Keene within the Victorian popular imagination, it points to even more intriguing analyses of the effects of this conflation on children’s technological education and the transformation of children’s literature genres. Keene’s study, therefore, makes up in ingenuity for what it lacks in depth: it provides a glimpse of the many insights possible by introducing interdisciplinary perspectives to the study of children’s literature history. At the same time it is an enjoyable read: the lack of in-depth academic critique perhaps results from the more popular appeal of the book, and indeed it is both engaging and easy to read. To return to Zipes’s discussion of the function of fairy tales, Science in Wonderland hints at the ways in which Victorian educators manipulated the fantasy genre to establish what would become entrenched values of realism in the twentieth century children’s literature, making scientific perspectives seem not only attractive, but the only possible reality.

Keene’s book, therefore, provides an accessible introduction to a fascinating aspect of Victorian children’s culture: namely, the impact of newly emergent sciences and technologies on children’s literature and education. The study is illustrated with numerous black and white illustrations, providing essential visual support to the textual arguments presented; even better than these illustrations, however, are the eight pages of glossy, full-colour illustrations which bring the magic of Victorian literature to life. Although the structure of the book seems to indicate a popular, rather than academic, audience, the study repays academic scrutiny through the many insights and opportunities it brings to attention, suggesting many avenues for in-depth, scholarly analysis in the future.

Jennifer Harrison
East Stroudsburg University, USA

Works Cited

Zipes, Jack. The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2012. Print.