Laura Forsberg, Worlds Beyond: Miniatures and Victorian Fiction

Laura Forsberg, Worlds Beyond: Miniatures and Victorian Fiction (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2021) 284 pp. $40.00 ISBN: 9780300233810

As part and parcel of Victorian material culture, miniatures proliferated in the nineteenth century, appearing in diverse forms. Miniatures portraits, fairy-like microscopic organisms, mass-produced dollhouses or miniature books all suggested an interest in smaller scales. Worlds Beyond: Miniatures and Victorian Fiction captures the Victorians’ fascination with the miniature. Forsberg’s book, however, does not analyse that much the relationship between miniatures and Victorian fiction, as readers may first have been inclined to believe, but focuses rather on miniatures in British culture, including fiction, in the period from 1830 to the end of the century. The study draws upon expected secondary criticism, such as Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1957), Susan Stewart’s On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984) and John Mack’s The Art of Small Things (2007), and the book is divided into four unequal parts and seven chapters. The first part looks at the association between miniatures and art; the second focuses on science; the third on childhood and the fourth on miniature books and the history of the book. The originality of the book, it is claimed, stems from its bringing together multiple forms of Victorian miniaturisation, here studied across disciplinary divides.

In Chapter 1, Forsberg examines Victorian portrait miniatures. She follows the uses and evolution of miniatures from the middle of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Despite the rise of photography, portrait miniatures endured, featuring even in photographs. The close connections between the two modes of representation Forsberg outlines are interesting: portrait miniatures continued to be used and were sometimes modelled after photographs, while the latter were at times coloured, as if by painters. Chapter 2 explores more specifically the fictional uses of such miniatures, in particular the way in which they enabled writers (not all of them Victorian) to connect the past and the future. Looking at miniatures in fiction, from Jane Austen to George Eliot, Forsberg points out the associations of miniature portraits with romantic attachments and secrets of the past. The number of works mentioned – 47 – is impressive, making the chapter even more relevant as it seems to match the agenda of the book’s subtitle.

Part 2 then turns towards science and microscopic observation, recalling how the microscope changed the Victorians’ visual perception of the world. As microscopes became increasingly affordable, they opened up the illusory, fairy-like realm of microscopic organisms, shaping marvellous worlds which blurred the boundaries between science and the imagination, ‘reveal[ing] in nature a repository of enchantment that far exceeded the enchanting fancies of fiction’ (86). As Forsberg tells us, moreover, the microscope ‘provided the dominant lens through which to think about alternative scales’ (86) in the Victorian period. However, rather than foregrounding its power to disclose what was invisible to the naked eye, such technology often hinted as well at what remained unknown and mysterious. Forsberg then looks at several Victorian popular science books on microscopy, from Agnes Catlow’s to P. H. Gosse’s works, in Chapter 3, showing how microscopic observation and research were aligned with forms of fairy enchantment. As argued in Chapter 4, indeed, Victorian fairies were often seen as minute creatures disclosed by powerful lenses. In Victorian fairy painting, fiction and popular science alike, Forsberg contends, the analogy between fairies and microorganism was often sustained, as when Kipling’s fairies ‘function like germs, bringing disease to the human inhabitants of the region’ (122), or in Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies; A Fairy-Tale for a Land Baby (1863). Mechanistic explanations of fairy people were legion, Forsberg writes, at times appearing unaware of previous and extensive studies of Victorian fairies, mentioning only very briefly once Carole Silver’s Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness (1999) and Nicola Bown’s Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature (2001), and surprisingly not referring at all to more recent studies of Victorian fairies and/in popular science, such as Melanie Keene’s Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain (2015), among others.

Part 3 contains two chapters, respectively on toys and childhood. Chapter 5 looks at dollhouse miniatures, originally constructed for adult women before the nineteenth century but which ‘became a rhetorical trope associated with female confinement in the home’ (136). Mass-produced from the middle of the nineteenth century, dollhouses rose in popularity in the course of the Victorian period, especially among the middle classes who could spend money on toys. Forsberg cautiously uses fiction to grasp the significance of dollhouses in Victorian play, connecting fictional references and pedagogical theories encouraging children’s physical and imaginative engagement with toys, mentioning as well several authors’ personal reflections on and use of dolls, such as Edith Nesbit’s or Jane Welsh Carlyle’s. As she argues, doll narratives echoed eighteenth-century ‘it-narratives’, as in Mary Mister’s The Adventures of a Doll (1816) and Julia Charlotte Maitland’s The Doll and Her Friends, or Memoirs of the Lady Seraphina (1852), and their authors’ didactic agenda were often aimed at training children’s sympathy for an object believed to be endowed with sentience. In the following chapter, Forsberg examines Victorian ‘speculative fictions of scale’ (168), as illustrated by the Brontë’s Glass Town, Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books, Clara Bradford’s Ethel’s Adventures in Doll Country (1880) and George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (1868). As she contends, the child’s ‘impulse both to rule over her toys and to identify with them produced struggles between godlike power and childlike vulnerability’ (168); plays with scale arguably enabled Victorian children, therefore, ‘to explore at the limits of size and scale … to question the nature of reality and potentially to grapple with enduring questions about the nature of the child’s world’ (168). The Brontë’s childhood games serves here as principal example to buttress the argument, while Carroll’s, Bradford’s and MacDonald’s fantasies are summarized, the author never really engaging with children’s literature scholarship to justify her point more thoroughly.

The last part of the book only contains one chapter, on miniature books, seen as ‘objects of pure enchantment’ (193). Forsberg recalls that miniature books for children existed prior to the Victorian period (as illustrated by Thomas Boreman’s Gigantic Histories (1740) or John Harris’s Cabinet of Lilliput, stored with Instruction and Delight (1802)), and traces the development of ‘thumb Bibles’ from mid-century, often simplified and abridged. She also highlights how some technological innovations changed the nature of miniature books in the last decades of the century, especially the use of ultra-thin India paper introduced by Oxford University Press in 1875, on the one hand, and photolithography, on the other.

Forsberg’s book is a rich study of the variety of Victorian miniatures, here brought together under one roof. Because miniatures are examined through different lenses and in different contexts, the scope of the book hardly enables the author to develop many of her arguments at full length, nor really to probe the relationship between miniatures (in all of their forms) and Victorian fiction, as suggested by the book’s subtitle. Still, this kaleidoscopic presentation of miniatures remains very valuable and the many references which appear throughout the study will undoubtedly provide engaging reading for literature-and-science scholars who are already aware of recent and less recent scholarship on Victorian visuality, fairies and Victorian popular science or parasitology.

Laurence Talairach, Alexandre-Koyré Center/University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès