Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain by Melanie Keene

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

Thomas Gradgrind is the famously awful teacher from Hard Times. His philosophy:

‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

Happily for the children of the nineteenth-century British school-room, Gradgrind’s view was not widely shared. Gradgrind despises ‘the robber Fancy’ and fairy tales, which are clearly nonsensical and lacking in Facts. But as Melanie Keene points out, he uses metaphorical language and fairy-tale imagery to do so. This is the theme of this fascinating survey of Victorian books for children, in which Keene examines how cannier writers than Gradgrind intertwined fairy tales and science in all sorts of interesting ways, sometimes even conflating them, to make scientific education more entertaining for young readers. Yet for all that, the tension between Fact and Fancy still lurked beneath the surface.

Many of the Victorian middle classes found science exciting and fashions for scientific amusements – fern-collecting, rock-pooling, stargazing – boomed throughout the nineteenth century. Some found this disturbing, and complained that science was killing fairies and destroying the romance and beauty of the natural world. But such people were at the extreme end of a spectrum of views on the subject whose opposite extreme was Thomas Gradgrind. The middle ground was occupied by writers who co-opted the language and tropes of fairy tales in order to explain science to children, themselves building works of the imagination from a bedrock of scientific fact. The attitude of many of the authors of ‘the fairy tales of science’ was that reality was superior to stories, even while they used those stories to teach; this perhaps smacks of having your gingerbread house and eating it. Science’s relationship with fairy tales in nineteenth-century Britain was therefore quite complex.

Keene devotes a chapter to each scientific field in which books for children were written during the Victorian age: palaeontology, entomology, evolution, chemistry; the tiny world revealed by the microscope (and worlds even tinier than that) and the distant stars brought closer by the telescope. Within each chapter she analyses a wealth of examples which frame science in fairy-tale terms. Although this is an academic study, and Keene assumes a certain level of familiarity among her readers with Victorian culture and literature, jargon and discussion of other studies are eschewed and it is very readable.

For nineteenth-century authors of palaeontological works, dragons proved a helpful way of explaining dinosaurs to children. Every child knew what a dragon was. However, the ‘real’ monsters, the dinosaurs, were, the authors assured their readers, even more thrilling than their mythical counterparts. And real! (Punch was concerned that the model dinosaurs in the ‘fairy’ Crystal Palace exhibition might actually prove too terrifying for many children.) Fairies, now believed to be tiny and benign, were often conflated with insects, especially butterflies. They might act as guides to children, like Fairy Know-A-Bit, explaining the wonders of the world; or they might receive the attributes of chemical elements as in Real Fairy Folks: Or, the Fairyland of Chemistry: Explorations in the World of Atoms. In this fairyland, Chlorine fairies keep hospitals clean, and the principle of chemical bonding is laid out in the image of the Hydrogen fairy and the Chlorine Fairy holding hands to create hydrochloric acid.

In other books, that scientific marvel electricity was characterised as a fairy, ‘the amber spirit’, a demon. That great staple of Victorian childhood, the pantomime, used the latest technology, including electricity, for its magical effects. Here science underpinned fairyland. Far from driving dragons and goblins out, as Charles Lamb and his fellow thinkers complained, scientific invention was being deployed to make fairyland ever more real to enchanted theatre-goers. Still, there was tension: one popular pantomime, The Land of Light, dramatises the exile of the fairies who have fled from the Industrial Revolution only to be further humiliated by the character of Science, whose ‘magical’ abilities are greater than those of Oberon.

What might this effect have been on the children reading these books? It’s hard to say. Keene proposes that using fairy tales to frame discussions of evolution shaped readers’ relationships to the natural world and how science could be theorised and practised. The element of the fantastical has been helped us respond, she argues, to such apparent weirdnesses as quantum theory and relativity. In the wider culture, it’s tempting to discern the roots of Surrealism here, particularly in some of the illustrations. Once seen, the engraving of weird butterfly-ladies ‘sipping their cups of dew’ is not easily forgotten.

Keene offers only one example of the readership’s perspective: the charming album written by two teenagers, Madelene and Louisa Pasley (‘We explained to a series of daily governesses that we would rather study ENTOMOLOGY than ARITHMETIC—but none of them was interested in beetles and all of them persisted in setting us SUMS’). In it the pair write of their intrepid adventures in the world of entomology, in the teeth of disapproving adults such as those governesses. Like the authors of many of the books Keene has examined, they frame their scientific discoveries as stories in which many of the characters they encounter are insects. The intermingling of fairy tale and science awoke in them a sense of wonder and delight at the world around them and the urge to study it: science as rational magic, marvellous and fun.

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Helen Parry sips cups of dew at a gallimaufry [].

Melanie Keene, Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 978-0-19-966265-4, 256 pp illus., hardback.

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