Book review: Science in Wonderland by Melanie Keene

A photograph of Frances 'Alice' Griffiths (1907-1986) taken by her cousin Elsie 'Iris' Wright. Picture: Getty
A photograph of Frances 'Alice' Griffiths (1907-1986) taken by her cousin Elsie 'Iris' Wright. Picture: Getty
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A LIGHT-FOOTED and intriguing study reveals why the Victorians’ scientific insights were framed by fantasy, writes Stuart Kelly

Science In Wonderland

Melanie Keene

Oxford University Press, £16.99

Well, fill me with phlogiston and send me into the aether: it turns out there are fairies at the bottom of my garden and dragons in the caves nearby. Melanie Keene’s light-footed and intriguing study of what Tennyson called “the fairy-tales of science” shows how the Victorian rhetoric surrounding scientific progress – so often seen as a calculating, mechanical demystification of the world – relied on the language of magic, enchantment and wonder. That is her argument, and it could have been made in a few pages, except for the glorious abundance of examples she brings to bear the point home.

There was a tension about this even before the heyday of Victorian magical science. When Sir Walter Scott was visiting Malta, Sir William Gell sketched for him the bones of a dragon embedded in a church; Scott was unimpressed. “More like the bones of some tremendous lizard,” he purportedly said. It was, of course, the bones of a dinosaur. But from palaeontology to lepidoptery, microscopes to telescopes to kaleidoscopes, from evolution to extinction, the Victorians framed their insights in terms of fantasy, especially when they were writing for children. The hippogriffs and catoblepases of their imaginations would be replaced by megalosauruses and the “monster soup” one could see in a teaspoonful of Thames water scrutinised through magnifying lenses. Electricity was an “amber spirit” – amber is electrum in Greek – more powerful than Puck.

These books took their nod from the fantastical literature of the age. Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley and L Frank Baum were all using and being used by this interweaving of the eerie and the actual. It is regrettable than Keene does not push forward towards Wells, Lovecraft and Chesterton (especially the last: his deployment of the childish supernatural versus the adult, etiolated ratiocination fits her argument with precision) to deepen and augment the book. But what she has is so strange and weird, so odd and so haunting that one can forgive the lack of breadth for the specific and uncanny depths.

Although schoolmasterly tones intone that a trilobite is more thrilling and chilling than a mere monster, the writers of such works seem to have a predisposition to magic carpets, time travel and dream fantasias than might be thought not wholly appropriate for a bewhiskered 19th century gentleman, especially one intent on dispelling the supernatural. Unearthing books such as The Fairyland Of Science, Down The Microscope And What Alice Found There and Extinct Monsters, Keene shows how the idioms of the archaic were deployed to describe the cutting edge of science. The book is prefaced with Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times fulminating on facts in education: Keene smartly shows that even in his bloviating speech, Gradgrind has to resort to images of empty vessels from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. As Sleary, the circus owner in the same novel, says: “People mutht be entertained.”

What Keene has assembled is beautifully odd. Atoms are reimagined as fairies, with water represented by a sylph with an O on her dress holding the hands of two pre-Raphaelite children with wings and H emblazoned on their sleeves, like Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter but without the indignity. The visit to Crystal Palace published in Household Worlds presents the experience as a jaunt out of this world, not an exploration of it: the policemen become gnomes and the designer of the Palace, Joseph Paxton, is a djinn. A theme not wholly explored is the difference between “indigenous” marvels – goblins, elfs and sprites – with Orientalised phantasmagoria in terms of how they are made into metaphors for scientific ideas: it is conspicuous that the atoms are rosy-cheeked English fairies, not swarthy Arabian genies.

A chapter on stage effects – the magic lantern, “Pepper’s Ghost” in the stage version of Bulwer-Lytton’s A Strange Story, created using plate glass at 45 degrees to the stage – shifts emphasis slightly and might have benefited from a wider range of source material: the zoetrope, the use of electricity in the career of James Graham, the “Emperor of Quacks”, whose “Celestial Bed” promised to ensure the conception of Homeric heroes, and even the faked photographs of fairies which took in Arthur Conan Doyle. More as well would have been welcome on how the depiction of fairies crystallised in the period: the “Tinkerbell” image of butterfly wings on a teenage girl supersedes all other images of the fairy in this period. (It would also be interesting to see when the fairy became as skinny as Holly Golightly or as chaotic as Jen, the bewinged barmaid in Nicola Barker’s The Yips). Linking it to the fad for butterfly collecting is clever, but the trope has mutated since. There are questions about gender here which would yield results.

The magical nature of science extends to this day. I remember Mr Haggart, my first year chemistry teacher, taking us through the experiment where 50 ml of water and 50 ml of ethanol are mixed – and result in 96 ml. Or as Arthur C Clarke put it: “Any sufficiently advanced civilisation is indistinguishable from magic.” But the scientific proof of magic, a far more devious proposition, persists as well. Newspapers will shamelessly publish “proof” of ghosts, the yeti, or UFOs, then run the demolition of the proof. We are not so very far from being Victorians ourselves.

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