Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, Fairy Tales, Natural History and Victorian Culture
Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, Fairy Tales, Natural History and Victorian Culture. Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 217 p. ISBN: 9781137342393.
1In Fairy Tales, Natural History and Victorian Culture, Laurence Talairach-Vielmas deals with the way in which natural history connected to the world of fairies, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Considering Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, as a cultural turning point, Talairach-Vielmas embarks on a careful analysis of the impact evolutionary biology had on the Victorian imagination, and, more specifically, of the way these changes were incorporated and transmitted to the youngest public in the form of fairy tales, by Charles Kingsley, or popular science works, by Arabella Buckley. Drawing on a methodology borrowed from Gillian Beer, Jack Zipes and John Pickstones, the author shows how the intersection of science and literature brings to light intellectual engagements which have become obscured with time, such as the Victorians’ passion for collecting bugs, seaweed or shells. From this interest in the smaller forms of life, Talairach-Vielmas traces the Victorians’ predilection for the fairy tale as a literary genre, and for fairies as ‘extinct creatures’ (6).
2Fairy Tales, Natural History and Victorian Culture is organized in seven chapters, which progress in their focus from popular science books to fairy tales, showing an increasing interpenetration of the two genres.
3Chapter one, ‘From the Wonders of Nature to the Wonders of Evolution: Charles Kingsley’s nursery fairies’, shows how the wonderful was incipient in natural history books with titles such as Wonders of the Sea Shore (1847), The Romance of Natural History (1860), or Marvels of Pond Life (1861): the Romantic tradition invited female and child readers to open their eyes, take out their microscopes, and enjoy wonders near at hand, rejoicing in the variety and complexity of the often neglected humblest forms of life. To correctly ‘read’ nature, Kingsley invited the imaginative cooperation of his readers to follow the developments planned by a God-like omniscient narrator. Reverend Charles Kingsley emphasized the genius of the Creator through natural history narratives which show perfection on a variety of scales, from the gigantic to the minuscule, as well as in the process of evolution, implemented by a superior mastermind for transformation and survival. This point is further supported by an interesting reference to rhetorical images, for ‘nineteenth-century scientific discourse being frequently interwoven with figurative language’, created ‘narratives increasingly poised between science and literature, between the real and the fantastic’ (27). Because explanation was sometimes impossible, faith in mystery had to be called in to convert the reader. Literary suspension of disbelief was already part of the experience in reading the Bible or fairy tales, after all—the stories of self-generating organisms barely seemed more fanciful than those of Genesis or Cinderella. Therefore we can only agree with the author when she states that ‘images of nature’s flux and fluidity, of transformation and metamorphoses were as much part of mid-Victorian scientific discourse as they were of narratives using fairies and magic’ (35), with literature not only mirroring contemporary scientific discoveries, as is the case in Kingsley's Darwinian Water-Babies (1863) for instance, but voicing the new science in a suitable, understandable language.
4Chapter two pursues the same argument, suggesting that the pastoral setting of Arabella Buckley’s popular science works for children drew on the fairy tale tradition and ‘expressed anxieties related to a changing world and changing conceptions of the natural world’ (9). As allegories, fairy tales and folk-lore literature seemed to intuitively narrate nature-myths that modern science was in the process of explaining. To help children picture the natural laws that scientists were exposing, she used such allegorical figures as giants, fairies and princesses, well known for their transformative capacities, as well as entire fairy-tales. Ice for example was a watery Sleeping Beauty trapped by cold but predictably able to live and run again once kissed by the sun.
5The following three chapters conversely concentrate on the ways in which fairies were connected to the city and came to embody forces of technological progress. Chapter three deals with Mary de Morgan’s ‘A Toy Princess’, to show how breaking her into pieces makes it possible for her to be examined, and for her parts to be reassembled, according to a rational, man-made plan, thus turning her into an automaton evocative of the modern medical practices. The magic of her godmother, however, brings her back in touch with the natural environment. Because fairies—though sexless—were imagined as feminine creatures, they also represent the tensions between several models of femininity in Victorian Britain, often construing women as nature, or as prodigies of technology in the form of automata.
6This tension is particularly important in chapter four which underlines the multifarious uses of glass in technology as well as fairy tales. From the Crystal palace to urban greenhouses, to Snow-White’s coffin, the translucent wall encapsulating the laboratory specimens served to commodify nature, to ‘enculture’ it. The botanically-inclined fairy godmother can ‘force’ pumpkins in a greenhouse and literally make magic come true: the scientist poses as the modern wizard. Either because they are ahead or back of their time, fairies live in a somewhat different dimension, mirroring the future or the past of humanity. As remnants of a distant age in the history of humanity—and through analogy, in personal history—, fairies are equated with the purer, more primitive, candid babies the reader once was, and therefore deliver their moral messages to a universal audience.
7Chapter five, entitled ‘Nature Exposed: Charting the Wild Body in “Little Red Riding Hood”’ is a somewhat more classical and yet indispensable gender-based demonstration of how fairy tales delivered coded messages to young ladies, encouraging them to think and act for themselves while superficially adhering to Victorian conduct principles.
8Chapter six suggests that the typical fairy godmother conflates femininity and the natural world. The final chapter introduces the idea of fairies as endangered or extinct species delivering a more modern environment-friendly plea to protect the ecosystem.
9In her study of Mary Louisa Molesworth’s Christmas-Tree Land (1884), Talairach-Vielmas makes the interesting remarks that ‘fantasies borrow from contemporary knowledge structures’ and that ‘scientific thought shapes literary culture and . . . literary culture in turn reflects upon its society’s definition of nature’ (140), ideas that the author had already supported in her Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels (2009). In her rewarding studies of the mutual influence different types and genres of literature had on another, the specific skill of Laurence Talairach-Vielmas is to abandon a ‘horizontal’ approach to literature, which compares texts belonging to the same author, genre or type, and to practice instead a ‘cross-sectional’ approach which looks thematically at the ways in which a discovery was endorsed and interpreted in scientific or fictional literature, addressing various readerships. What the adult reader discovers is a fascinating nexus where science, literature and culture cross and support one another, forming a typically Victorian complex.
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Béatrice Laurent, « Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, Fairy Tales, Natural History and Victorian Culture », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 avril 2016, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/2384Haut de page
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