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Science Book Club – Episode 20

So the Victorian period is notable for this real flourishing of interest in folklore and fairies

So some of this came out of my post graduate work, my PhD, which was on how 19th century children learned about science using everyday objects, so some of the early kitchen chemistry, using every day objects like candles and the famous Michael Faraday lectures, pieces of chalk and cups of tea, and I had a whole subsection of those books and stories which used fairy tales about every day objects.  That just seemed to be such a rich vein of source material to be tapped so I’ve continued doing some research in my fellowship here at Homerton, which I got after I finished my PhD, and I thought this would make a really fun trade book for a slightly wider audience.  That’s where that comes from, really, but convening to broaden my interest in science and literature. 


So there’s this real flourishing of interest in the sciences in the 19th century attached to new types of print, new types of audience, new discoveries, new disciplines; a fantastic moment for the sciences and it’s really an also equally important moment in the history of education, it’s when we don’t really, in the middle part of this period, have a national series of educational provision, they didn't really have what we would think of today as your science book for children.  So there’s a real opportunity to capitalise on these discoveries and also try and grab that new market of children interested in science and to make a claim really that this is the kind of subject that children should be learning about, that Victorian Britain needed to have children who were educated in latest technology, latest discoveries, who can continue to be part of the modern world.


So the Victorian period is notable for this real flourishing of interest in folklore and fairies: you have lots of new stories being written or translated, Hans Christian Andersen and new translations of things like…you have a real interest in folklore and people following the Brothers Grimm, going round doing their own local studies of English, Welsh, Scottish folklore etc.  So part of this is a real interest that people are capitalising on in writing these science books but there’s also, I think, something deeper which is about the relationship with nature and some of these are very natural connections to make, particularly something like natural history. If you think of the many Flower Fairy books that you can still get, insect books as well, I particularly looked at insects for some of my favourite examples from the book, one of which, for instance, is called Fairy Knowabit, and this is by a children’s author and it’s a little fairy lecturer who teaches a pair of children all about the home in which they live.  So on the one hand it’s a very similar set up to lots of those canonical traditional children’s books: you have a rich boy and a poor boy and they're learning moral lessons, but you also have someone who’s really using this identification between a fairy and a butterfly and an insect and…there’s great pictures in the book, there’s a little fairy dressed in a lecturer’s gown and cap, and he’s Fairy Knowabit and he’s teaching the children.  


So in some ways there’s quite a natural connection to things like natural history, but on the other hand I really want to show that it goes much broader than that, it’s not just fairy tales and natural history, so there’s everything from electricity to astronomy to geology that’s really brought into this way of looking at things as well.


Some of my favourite examples from the book include The Fairyland of Chemistry which is a book by an American author, Lucy Rider Meyer. First of all it has the most fantastic illustrations, I think it’s really important to think of all of these as not just words and stories but actual physical objects, so there’s as much wonder…in fact, in some cases such as John Cargill Brough’s The Fairytales of Science, another one of my favourites, the pictures by Charles Bennett are fantastic, some of the prose is just a bit like an introductory lecture but I think something like The Fairyland of Chemistry really brings it together in really surprising ways, so some fantastic pictures but really nice conceits. He uses this idea of fairyland in a really nice way, so fairies are families and that makes the different groups of chemical elements and the fairies themselves, their physical properties map onto the chemical elements, so in terms of how quickly they're moving, if they've got wings and they're flying around that’s obviously a gas, if they’re holding hands that’s used to talk about various kinds of chemical bonding, so I think that’s my favourite example, and she's a really interesting character as well, very much trying to bring religion and science together in how she's using fairyland, this quasi-supernatural world; I think in many of these books there’s a religious connotation there, for Buckley as well, she’s very interested in spiritualism.


Melanie Keene’s “Science in Wonderland: The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain” is available now.