Mythical characters from folklore and fairy tales saw a revival unprecedented in 19th-century England. Fairies, and their realms, for many authors served as prominent means to comment on contemporary society and fairy tales were used as parables. Taking into consideration the many modern inventions such as steam engines, machines and electricity that transformed everyday life, new methods of educating the young readers of Victorian England were introduced simultaneously.

scienceA bizarre fusion of children’s books spread, that mixed up both fictional fairy lands and recently discovered technology. The former image of the fairy as a malevolent being changed in the 19th century into a faithful companion to all mankind, particularly children. (Many Walt Disney characters are based on fairy characters from that period; to use but one example, Tinkerbell has an ancestor called Puck, known as a sprite in English mythology.)

This tendency may already have been a contemporary form of protest directed at new technology and the “exactness” of things, the measurability of everything and the scientific, but dry and lifeless approach to explicate and experience the world.

The fascination with all sorts of supernatural beings, spiritualism, seances and a covert super world was typical of Victorian England. There were even (failed) attempts to explain fairies and their micro worlds scientifically, as last representatives of an extinct race or of fairy realms out in the woods where there were supposed to be miniature cities and kingdoms inhabited by fairies, sprites and their allies. And the first English edition of the Brothers Grimm’s German Popular Stories (1823) may have promoted the fresh interest and longing for an alternative world as a link to a world that was about to vanish with each step. Modern science closed door after door to a romantic composition of life. So in the mid-19th century the fairy tale in many variations became the staple of children’s books publishing. While the countless new tales now combined folklore and fairy tales with educational and moral lessons and a most interesting hybrid was created; one that connected the fairy tale with its (as some said) antagonist, namely the sciences, argues Melanie Keene.

“The fairy tales of science had an important role to play in conceiving of new scientific disciplines; in celebrating new discoveries; in criticizing lofty ambitions; in inculcating habits of mind and body; in inspiring wonder; in positing future directions; and in consideration of what the sciences were, and should be. … They demonstrate how, for many, the sciences came to replace the lore of old as the most significant source of marvel and wonder, and of fairy tales themselves.”
What further promoted the interest in fairy tales were the excavations of dinosaur bones and new discoveries particularity from the field of geology in the 1830s and 1840s. So the newly revealed proof of “real” dragons and monsters emphasized the potential of the new sciences, and the history of the earth and biology became a popular topic of many children’s books.

The fairies and dragons were not altogether sacrificed for the sake of a more scientific approach to the past, but the whole genre of myths and fairy tales received rather an “update” with scientific findings. While, simultaneously, the latest conclusions science provided with the aid of machines and microscopes, rendered the recent data even closer to the fairy tales, for the issues were either too small or too big to be recognized by the eye. And the authors of children’s books employing this recent combination argued that their novel approach to science was superior to the old fairy tales because of the stories’ truthfulness.

Melanie Keene has specified a significant niche of didactic Victorian writing that certainly had an influence on modern literature, even though the topic itself has received much attention by scholars before. Simultaneously, her book illustrates the important educational debates that took place in the mid-nineteenth-century England around what kind of information, knowledge and manners were considered crucial for the young reader and “how” it should be taught to children.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2016

Melanie Keene. Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain. Oxford University Press, 2015, 232p.