Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness

Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness

Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness

Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness

Synopsis

Teeming with creatures, both real and imagined, this encyclopedic study in cultural history illuminates the hidden web of connections between the Victorian fascination with fairies and their lore and the dominant preoccupations of Victorian culture at large. Carole Silver here draws on sources ranging from the anthropological, folkloric, and occult to the legal, historical, and medical. She is the first to anatomize a world peopled by strange beings who have infiltrated both the literary and visual masterpieces and the minor works of the writers and painters of that era. Examining the period of 1798 to 1923, Strange and Secret Peoples focuses not only on such popular literary figures as Charles Dickens and William Butler Yeats, but on writers as diverse as Thomas Carlyle, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charlotte Mew; on artists as varied as mad Richard Dadd, Aubrey Beardsley, and Sir Joseph Noel Paton; and on artifacts ranging from fossil skulls to photographs and vases. Silver demonstrates how beautiful and monstrous creatures--fairies and swan maidens, goblins and dwarfs, cretins and changelings, elementals and pygmies--simultaneously peopled the Victorian imagination and inhabited nineteenth-century science and belief. Her book reveals the astonishing complexity and fertility of the Victorian consciousness: its modernity and antiquity, its desire to naturalize the supernatural, its pervasive eroticism fused with sexual anxiety, and its drive for racial and imperial dominion.

Excerpt

In a letter, quoted by Jonathan Cott in Beyond the Looking Glass, his friend, David Dalton remarked on "how elemental the Victorians were, how intact that cord was that tied them to savage Celtic tradition, almost like an underground railway transporting treasures from the incredible depths of the past to the very door of the crystal palace" (Acknowledgements).

This book is about that cord or, more accurately, the web that connected the Victorians to a vast network of traditions —Celtic, Norse, and native—and enabled what Dalton perhaps hyperbolically considers "the most repressed society ever" to ventilate its obsessions and anxieties. At its center are the elfin peoples, for the cultural preoccupation with the secret kingdom of the fairies is a hallmark of the era.

That the Victorians were utterly fascinated by the fairies is demonstrated by the art, drama, and literature they created and admired. Their abiding interest shows in the numerous, uniquely British fairy paintings that flourished between the I830s and the I870s—pictures in part inspired by nationalism and Shakespeare, in part as protest against the strictly useful and material, but in either case, as attempts to reconnect the actual and the occult. (When fairy painting lost its glamour, the impulse that had . . .

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