Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain

Synopsis

In Victorian Britain an array of writers captured the excitement of new scientific discoveries, and enticed young readers and listeners into learning their secrets, by converting introductory explanations into quirky, charming, and imaginative fairy-tales; forces could be fairies, dinosaurs could be dragons, and looking closely at a drop of water revealed a soup of monsters. Science in Wonderland explores how these stories were presented and read. Melanie Keene introduces and analyses a range of Victorian scientific fairy-tales, from nursery classics such as The Water-Babies to the little-known Wonderland of Evolution, or the story of insect lecturer Fairy Know-a-Bit. In exploring the ways in which authors and translators - from Hans Christian Andersen and Edith Nesbit to the pseudonymous "A.L.O.E." and "Acheta Domestica" - reconciled the differing demands of factual accuracy and fantastical narratives, Keene asks why the fairies and their tales were chosen as an appropriate new form for capturing and presenting scientific and technological knowledge to young audiences. Such stories, she argues, were an important way in which authors and audiences criticised, communicated, and celebrated contemporary scientific ideas, practices, and objects.

Excerpt

We have believed Mr Gradgrind for far too long. When he appeared in 1854, at the beginning of Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind embodied everything that was dry and dull in Victorian scientific education. Facts alone, he declared, were all that was wanted in life. Children should be able to recall at will the most recondite information about horses’ hooves. They should be discouraged from surrounding themselves with anything that was not mathematically exact and accurately representative, even to the very wallpaper of their classroom. Like the jars in Ali Baba’s tale, students were vessels to be filled to the brim with useful knowledge. But lying alongside an emphasis on ‘facts alone’ was a whole range of more fantastical allusions, as Dickens’s choice of simile showed: cramming children with information would not ‘kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within’. This . . .

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