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Melanie Keene

Melanie Keene is the Director of Studies for History and Philosophy of Science at Homerton College, Cambridge.  Her research focuses primarily on the history of science for children in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in Britain.  In 2015 her first book was published, ‘Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairytales of Victorian Britain’.

That really sprouted this whole interest in how children began to be interested in science in the past.

On becoming interested in science

Well, I was always really interested in a whole eclectic range of subjects at school and I was looking round for a degree course that I thought could combine my interests in history, in literature, in science, and I found out that one of the specialisms you could do at Cambridge’s natural science course was history and philosophy of science.  And from there…when I came here to Cambridge, I did my degree and in the final year we got the opportunity to a research project, a dissertation, and for that I worked on a Victorian children’s book about geology and from there I think that really sprouted this whole interest in how children began to be interested in science in the past, and various different objects and books and stories that were written to try and encourage that interest.

On becoming interested in science in literature

I do remember when I was at school and I was probably, I think, year 7, year 8, and we had to write a poem about the elements and I wrote a poem about beryllium,  and I think that was probably the first opportunity I had to really think about science and literature together in that way.   I also remember writing a story for my A level biology about a penguin called Penelope, and it was meant to be an essay on water but I had a very forgiving teacher who let me do it from the first person perspective of a penguin, so I guess the signs were there quite early on!

On science in Victorian era schools

So there’s not really that many schools and there’s really not that much science in schools apart from the odd visiting lecturer, or in the very odd particular institution where there might be a collection there, so some of these books really make the most of that, and they're set in the school holidays so authors write prefaces and things that say…one of my favourite books, the book that I wrote my dissertation on, it’s called The Fossil Spirit: A Boy’s Dream of Geology, it’s from 1854 and in the preface, the author John Mills wrote, ‘I met a boy on a train who didn't know what geology was’ and I think that in the mid-1850s, that’s terrible, and I’m writing this book now to try and teach children.   So partly these authors are trying to fill a gap in school science education, because there really isn't any, and they also tried to make a ploy to get this kind of teaching into schools.

On science in children’s literature

So I think there’s been a real emphasis on this facticity of education, that these books were educational crammers, that part of this movement to bring knowledge to wider audiences, this very sort of middle class diffusion of useful knowledge movement, has really been seen as quite a patronising attempt to stuff facts down the throats of people who don’t really want them.  There is definitely an element of that, but I think quite a lot of science books have been categorised as part of that dry,  technical text book part of things and actually with some of the things I’ve been looking at in this book, what I really want to show children’s literature scholars, people interested in science more generally, people interested in writing and Victorian folklore, all kinds of different things, that this was a way that children were brought into science with a whole different series of approaches, so you don’t just have your list of facts book, you also have conversational books, you also have letters, you also have yearbooks, you also have adventure stories, so there’s lots of different types of writing and from that I thought that the fairy tale type of writing was one of the most interesting ways to bring those different audiences, different genres, together and really show people that it’s not just boring fact books.  

Now I think it’s really important to say that the authors of these books, they're big fact fans too, they don't just think that children should learn any old thing, they're often people who have a very close connection to science education themselves or to science writing, journalism etc.  They’re really, really invested in communicating the latest science so facts are really important to them, and they say a lot in the books about how these are true facts, the reviewers pick them up on this if they think they're saying things that are slightly not quite how the consensus sees it at the time, so it’s really important that they're accurate facts because it’s part of this big educational push, this is new, exciting accurate science that they're trying to push, but that means they say that they can have the best stories, it doesn't take away from the story-like nature of these books. 

On the balance of fact and fiction

So authors use different strategies to balance these things together, so one of my favourite authors, Arabella Buckley, who I cover a lot in the book, she writes in The Fairyland of Science in a very imaginative and engaging way, but everything that she does are experiments, particularly in The Fairyland of Science, which you can do with things around the house, or at least that she could do with objects in front of an audience.  So there’s lots of references there to actual experiments, to things that you can do, things you can observe, and then fairies and fairyland are the ways in and out of chapters, so she’s talking about doing science itself as part of the fairyland of science but also it’s a way of making analogies: to say a seed is like Sleeping Beauty or gravity is like a great big giant, forces are fairies, crystallisation, cohesion etc.

So I think quite a lot of the authors bring fairytale references together with actual hands-on demonstrations and that’s one way of both saying that this is something that’s grounded in the real world but also that that real world is full of wonder, and that’s something that they’re really trying to communicate to these children, hence wonderland, that science is a way of experiencing the real wonders of nature.

On challenging the era’s view of science

So I’ve been looking at this, and I thought when I first started this project that there would just be a few of these kinds of books, they'd be fairly concentrated, and I found quite a lot from the late 1850s to the late 1870s but actually there seems to be a fairly long tradition. I keep finding examples well into the early 20th century and actually quite a diverse body of works, some of which sell very well, very well reviewed, others I think are a bit less successful, quite criticised.  There’s a book called The Wonderland of Evolution by the Gresswell brothers which…it’s a really strange work if you read it, it’s all about the evolving nature of an organism aided by a fairy called Chance and a fairy called Evolution and it’s only towards the very end of the book in its conclusion, when the fairies break character and speak directly to you, that you realise that it’s meant to be an attempt to criticise evolution, that it hasn't been just something that’s been trying to use an imaginative framework to chronicle an evolutionary series of creatures. And the reviewers are equally a bit bemused by this, and they think this is a slightly odd thing to do and it’s trying to capitalise on the success of Alice in Wonderland by calling itself The Wonderland of Evolution and having these talking creatures and things, but for them, they say it doesn't succeed either as story or as science, so for these books to succeed they really have to tick both those boxes and the ones that are the best, I think, are the ones that really do bring out something more interesting, more special, about both sides. 

There’s a really interesting thing that happens, I think, with the generational issue in some of these books. As satires at the time, say, the rising generation is living in a whole new world with all kinds of new technologies that they need to be familiar with; one of the favourite images of this is from Punch, a satirical magazine, which I’ve reproduced in the book and it’s old and new toys, and it’s got old toys like a rocking horse and the new toy is a megatherium rocking horse, so one of these new prehistoric creatures.  Or the old toy is a little trumpet and a sword and the new toy is a blowpipe and an electrical machine, so I think there’s a real sense that new types of knowledge are being produced all the time, that children need to be familiar with these kinds of things in a way that perhaps their parents hadn't had the educational opportunities.  And often, as with many children’s books, we see prefaces directed to the parents telling them how to read the book, to do some experiments along with the children, for instance.  So I think quite a lot of the texts not only portray a family learning about science together, quite often an uncle or someone teaching some children, both boys and girls, but also they're very much to be used by families themselves in the home.

On the effect on children

This is the holy grail of some of my research, and I’ve got a few examples but I’d really like to have more of what the actual children doing science were doing, thought about it, what went on.  I’ve got one example in the book, The Adventures of Madalene and Louisa, which is about a pair of sisters, they're really big beetle fans - a century too early really - but their beetle mania was collecting and describing insects from their surrounding homes, and this is a fantastic surviving album in the family which has been produced as a children’s book in the 1980s, so you can get hold of that if you're interested.  And we do know that here were children who were actually doing science and who had…at least one of them went on to produce what she called more “proper” science books.  But, as ever, it would be fantastic to have more of that, this is by necessity a bit more of a literary study and really just an introduction to the works themselves, [to] get people thinking a bit differently about both what children’s books were and also what science for children was like in the 19th century.

Check out the Science Book Club section for more on Melanie Keene’s “Science in Wonderland: The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain” available now.

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