Non-Fiction Reviews

Science in Wonderland
The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

(2015) Melanie Keene, Oxford University Press, £16.99 / US$24.95, hrdbk, xiii + 227pp, ISBN 978-0-199-66265-4


There are a lot of things that the Victorians originated that are still part of our culture. This book examines several of them, literature for children, bringing education and science to the masses and the idea of what fairies are. As scientific discovery progressed through the nineteenth century, it went alongside an increase in literacy in the public and renewed interest in fairies in fiction. So how were the new young empire-builders of tomorrow going to learn about this revolution in scientific understanding? Though the use of fairies who would tell the children of the wonders of the world around them. The focus of Keene’s book is to examine this forgotten brief sub-genre which ran throughout the 1800s.

The dinosaurs became in their descriptions, conflagrated with dragons. Fairies became even more linked with insects, already being reduced in size and gaining wings in the popular mind, acting as guides for young minds through this world. They were also used to explain chemistry with different types representing the periodic table.

Keene also referrers to contemporary articles that accursed science of ending fairytale wonder or replacing it with fact that would give them nightmares. This can be seen as the start of the tendency to moan that childhood entertainment has gone downhill since writer stopped being a child.

A lot of the titles discussed will be fairly obscure to modern readers. The most well-known of the mentioned are The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley and The Master Key by L. Frank. Baum, the latter concerned with electricity by way of a summoned demon.

They overall impression this work conveys is the gradual movement towards new technology and scientific thinking, a new world of microscopes, lenses and electricity, becoming familiar. There are still texts to help children understand how science works, but they rely less on fairy characters.

This is not going to be accessible to everybody. This is a well written examination of a style of fiction that did not last long. For those people interested in the subject matter and in the ways that that Victorian popular culture began to adjust to science, it is worth seeking out.

David Allkins

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