Science in Wonderland challenges the commonly held belief that in the nineteenth century, science and a grim, grey adherence to facts swept fairy tales aside. Melanie Keene argues that, while some did take these views, for most, the relationship was more complicated with some fairy tale writers incorporating scientific ideas into their tales while many science writers borrowed heavily from fairy tales to present their subject. On occasion, scientific discoveries were touted as yet more wonderful than fairy tales, but even this argument used fairy tales as a stepping off point and favored the marvelous over the idea of dreary fact.
Keene makes a strong argument, drawing from multiple educational documents, essays, and fairy tales in support of her claim. Often, she stops to examine a book or writing, summarizing the contents and showing how the author combined scientific and fairy tale ideas to teach. Lucy Rider Meyer, for example, used illustrations of fairies holding hands to demonstrate chemical bonds and Bugden included fairy-tale style illustrations in her Episodes of Insect Life and used fairy tale styles in some of her factual tales while also arguing that that, unlike a fairy tale, the study of the world never ended and was a continual source of wonder. Further works demonstrate the blending of the scientific and fairy tale genres. Her notes contain an impressive array of sources, many of which will be useful to those wanting to go further in their studies.
Keene includes a number of illustrations from various books, showing the elegant tea-drinking insects in their full, fairy-like skirts in Episodes of Insect Life or the wonderful Electric Boots which replace seven league boots in Forbes E. Winslow’s Fairy Geography. In addition to being enjoyable in themselves, the illustrations clearly show the combination of forms the educational authors used. They were quite willing to draw from fairytale examples or use fairy narrators to educate children in the wonders of science.
Science in Wonderland is a scholarly book aimed more at people who are already interested in fairy tales, history, and/or the history of science than at the casual reader. Those who are interested in studying these subjects will find the book rewarding.
Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain is available now from Oxford University Press. To order from Amazon, click the link in the title.
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A note about “pairs well with”: These are books that I or fellow FangirlNation reviewers have read and find share common threads.