Melanie Keene, Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairytales of Victorian Britain

Melanie Keene, Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairytales of Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 256pp. Hb. £16.99 ISBN: 978-0-19-966265-4

Melanie Keene’s Science in Wonderland offers an engaging introduction to the Victorian use of wonder and fantastical elements in scientific writing and communication, particularly in works for children.  Keene draws on a wide range of sources to demonstrate the prevalence of fairytales and magic in discussing scientific subjects, and in scientific education, and emphasises the importance of the new ploliferation of printed media.

In her introduction, Keene uses the familiar trope of Gradgrindian ideas of education to delineate what historians of the nineteenth century will see as the all-too-familiar idea of the dry provision of facts that was considered education in the century.  However, as she points out, even in this example, Dickens inserts a fantastical reference, in the form of a nod to Arabian Nights, and these elements were to be found in abundance in the potentially dry landscape of scientific facts.  She notes the insistent recurrence of fancy, one that, as is later demonstrated, was well and truly alive in many forms, not least in scientific education for children.  This is where most of the texts discussed are to be found, and there are indeed a plethora of texts explored here.  Her introduction serves to place her argument firmly in the landscape of scientific education and communication, an area of considerable discussion in the nineteenth century, also taking in the growing market for scientific amusements.

The conception of fairy tales and scientific texts as polar opposites is an idea that has endured for at least two centuries. The widespread idea that rationality banished magic and wonder, Keene argues, is not only a construct of commentators but was also argued by some Victorian authors, who complained that it destroyed magic and wonder to replace it with the Gradgrindian ”facts”.  Far from this being the case, however, science writing was imbued with wonder and used fairytales in a combination of literary traditions that served to educate and communicate, providing a balance of information and entertainment.

Fairytales and elements of them were used as narrative devices and vessels, to discuss and promote scientific ideas.  However the sciences themselves were the source of the wonder, magical ideas simply provided one of the the best means of communicating these ideas to young audiences.  Keene's thematically grouped chapters move from dinosaurs, etymology and microscopy through evolution, to magic lanterns and other visual spectaculars to end on the use of technological marvels in stage productions.  Throughout Keene demonstrates the common thread running through the communication of these ideas to audiences, particularly younger ones, that science itself was a source of the wondrous, an attitude which emphasised factual accuracy in the source of wonder, and celebrated nature through the lens of fantasy.  There was a conscious effort on the part of scientists to exploit this sense of wonder in communicating science, something indicated clearly throughout the texts explored in Science in Wonderland.

The first chapter, ‘Once Upon A Time’, focuses on the recreation of dinosaurs and the relation in which the Victorians stood to the expanding prehistoric time scale.  Significantly, with reference to dinosaurs she notes a range of parallels in presentations that were also shared with higher intellectual levels of discussion, including the use of hybridity in describing the dinosaurs by popular authors (a method that was inscribed into the very reconstruction of these creatures by means of comparative anatomy), and the use of time travel narratives.  This methodology was also in use in popular lectures such as those given by Gideon Mantell and subsequently published in his Wonders of Geology.  In this chapter Keene provides an engaging and enlightening discussion of the presentation of prehistoric time using a range of sources.  Moreover, by opening on this topic she sets the scene and reiterates firmly the key threads running through the text; demonstrating clearly the wonder inherent in the scientific facts, as the reference to ‘such vanished beings as the true monsters of legend’ shows (p.31). The fantastical elements consist of dragons, the allusions to fairytales in terms of language, and physical representations of these creatures, such as the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

Keene notes that fairytales themselves altered over the course of the nineteenth century, and fairies developed, ‘from the malevolent human-like sprites of the Renaissance to sources of Romantic inspiration and genius to the (usually) child-friendly, insect-like creatures we are familiar with’ (p.14).  The telling phrase she uses, ‘insect-like’, is no accident, as chapter 2, 'Fairy Folk', reveals.  Here she examines, amongst other elements, the way in which fantasy and truth blur, in the use of fairies and insects together and side by side.  Chapter 3, ‘Familiar Fairylands’ focusing on microscopy and things found in water, illustrating how children’s scientific texts could even provide comment on contemporary social issues surrounding health and the structure of cities.  Keene demonstrates throughout that even children’s texts could refer to contemporary scientific debates and arguments, proving that these educational resources were for the children of an ‘ever progressive age’ (p.2).

Significantly, in Victorian texts, fairies often stand between the natural world and divine power.  This is illustrated in the discussion on the Gresswell brothers' Wonderland of Evolution in chapter 4, ‘Wonderlands of Evolution’, in which patterns of evolutionary thought were underwritten by a divine creator and fairies communicated and formed the shape of things, though often with varying degrees of success.  Throughout the text Keene emphasises the juxtaposition of science and magic by contemporary authors.  Chapters 5 and 6, ‘Through Magic Glasses’ and ‘Modern Marvels’ celebrate technological marvels including microscopes and telescopes and the use of these in stage shows and for visual entertainment.

Keene’s work provides a coherent and persuasively argued case for the use of wonder in nineteenth-century science as a form of entertainment.  While some argued against science as entertainment, mainly on account of its dry content, here it is demonstrated that science was in itself a source of wonder, and that it used the tropes of magic and fairytales to communicate ideas to a wider audience.  Science in Wonderland offers a well-rounded overview and by using a wide range of sources Keene elegantly intertwines and effortlessly substantiates her argument, demonstrating the prevalence of wonder in science, particularly in sources for children.  The book closes by indicating the role of imagination in understanding sciences in the twentieth century, a role that was evidently well underway in the nineteenth-century.  These authors argued that greater understanding equalled greater wonder, and that these tellings moreover improved on original fairytales by the application of wonder from "true facts".  The connections between science and wonder proved ‘closeness rather than difference’, (p.188) enabling a wider picture of science.  The wonder in science is still well and truly alive, but these authors emphatically made use of of fairytales and fancy in highlighting just how significant this closeness appeared.  As Keene concludes: ’We do not truly know any fact.  As Alice's trip to Wonderland had revealed, logic could indeed now be stranger than imagination, truth stranger than fiction' (p.195).

Katherine Ford, University of Reading