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18 May 2009 @ 05:48 am
Victorian Fantasy  
The Victorian Age.
What does that term evoke in your mind?
Soft silken petticoats and stiff whale-boned corsets?
Soul numbing poverty and the pomp and splendor of Queen Victoria’s court?
Great coal guzzling engines belching steam and soot?
A rampant criminal underworld and rigid morality?
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

The Victorian Era was an age of great contradictions, often hypocritical in nature. The Victorians had an obsession with high moral standards even as large portions of the population were consigned to live in abject poverty and squalor. The Victorian world was filled with dark corners and grim alleys that hid the shadowed underbelly of their society, an aspect of their world that most of the citizenry chose to ignore, if they could. And let’s face it; all those dark, hidden corners are wonderful places for the human imagination to flourish.

Oddly enough, this same period experienced a “golden age” in both children's literature and fantasy. From Jules Verne, to Bram Stoker, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, Turn of the Screw, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And of course, the colorful fairy tale collections of Andrew Lang can’t be overlooked. He wrote the first of those books, The Blue Fairy Book, in 1889.The list goes on and on. Clearly the argument could be made that fantasy as we know it has its origins in Victorian literature.

So where did this explosion in fantasy come from? Especially considering that the Victorian Age doesn’t really have any myths of its own, like ancient Greece or Asia.

Well, there are a number of elements of the Victorian Era that make it ripe for fantasy. Many of the dark pockets of Victorian society lend themselves particularly well to hiding fantasy elements as well as poverty, disease, and crime. The underpinnings of Victorian fantasy can spring from any number of elements. And the reasons for setting a fantasy in Victorian times are as varied as there are authors.

Some Victorian fantasies were written as morality tales. The Victorians were obsessed with the need to teach children the difference between right and wrong, and the perils of sin. While some chose to do this with tracts and religious parables, others turned to the power of myth and make believe to achieve the same purpose. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies was written as a satire and critique against those who closed their minds to the new scientific discoveries of the times. The proliferation of fairy tales and make believe worlds signaled a desire to embrace or recapture an innocence the Victorians felt they were losing with the onslaught of the Industrial Age and rapid urbanization.

Additionally, Victorians were fascinated by spiritual matters and the occult. In response to the rapid technological and scientific advances of their time, they became fascinated by what they could NOT explain rather than what they could. (In fact, I often wonder if our current obsession with fantasy is a 21st parallel to this Victorian phenomenon.) As the Empire expanded, it was exposed to the beliefs and myths of a number of, to them, exotic cultures. The Victorians saw a boom in archaeology, the discovering of ancient civilizations and the beginning of unraveling their secrets. All manner of scientific and archaeological societies became a vehicle for their intellectual energies. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, secret societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Alpha and the Omega, began to spring up, dedicated to exploring the mysteries of ages past, Greek, Egyptian, Pagan…these societies sought to recreate the rites and beliefs of times long past and recapture the lost Wisdom of the Ancients. I played with this quite a bit in my own fantasy, Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos (Houghton Mifflin 2007) which while technically Edwardian, contained a lot of the elements of the Victorian Era.

Repression, whether sexual, intellectual, or political, creates incredible opportunities for a rich fantasy world. Whenever repression is rampant, it is only human nature to fill in those blanks with our own imagination. Whenever people are denied access to power, they find ways to try and balance the power scales in other way. Magical power can be a terrific vehicle for exploring other types of power; emotional, personal, sexual, or political, and lends itself particularly well to settings in which the scales of power are grossly unfair. In A Great and Terrible Beauty (Delacorte, 2005) by Libba Bray, a clique of frustrated school girls search out ways to claim their own power and discover a dark, otherworldly realm. The themes of boarding school, cliques, and dark secrets, all coupled with the intense repression of the time period make for a wonderful, lush, Victorian fantasy.

As author Marissa Doyle says, “I've stayed as close as possible to historical fact/sequences of events, but added magic to the mix. In Bewitching Season (Henry Holt, 2008), I used the fact that Princess Victoria for years had to withstand the bullying of her mother and her self-serving steward, Sir John Conroy, who tried to bully her into taking him as her Private Secretary, and added a twist: what if Sir John had decided to resort to magic to force the Princess? And Betraying Season (Henry Holt, May 2009) makes use of the rumors that fluttered around the new Queen Victoria's "wicked" uncle, the Duke of Cumberland (who became King of Hanover). Until she married and had children, he was her heir, and a lot of proto-conspiracy theorists were convinced that he was plotting to assassinate her so he could become King.”

The Victorians were also having a difficult time consigning their new science and technologies with their rather rigid morals and religious views. Indeed, it seems to me that whenever a society makes great strides in learning new technologies, there is a bit of a vacuum as we struggle to replace what we once believed with what we now know. Where does that leave our other assumptions about the world? All of a sudden everything we thought we knew is in play. The thorny mix of scientific advancements coupled with Victorian morals and ethics is at the heart of Justin Richards' The Death Collector (Bloomsbury, 2006) where the hero must deal with grave robbers, assassins, zombies, and secret societies.

In fact, the romanticizing of Victorian technology has given rise to an entire sub-genre of fantasy—steampunk, a genre that attempts to tap into the scientific romanticism of the Victorians. Says Cassandra Clare, author of the upcoming trilogy The Infernal Devices (Margaret McElderry 2010), "Setting my new series in Victorian London feels like going to the heart of the genre, since so many historians consider London in that period "the first modern city." Mixing that in with the already existing Victorian obsession with the occult and the fantastic, you get a really powerful setting for an urban fantasy."

Other titles in this popular genre include: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Larklight by Philip Reeve, the upcoming Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld,  and The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade (Wendy Lamb Books, September 2009). "There was a feeling of great potential and great curiosity in Victorian times. At the same time these leaps in knowledge and science led to massive coal powered steam engines, factories, and several wars,” Arthur Slade explains. “So I wanted to put my character in that world, yet twist it slightly to add just enough fantasy that readers aren't quite certain what is real and what is not."

Art brings up an excellent point; that desire to capture a certain believability in our work, a sense that somewhere just around the corner or merely a hundred years ago, this could really have happened. It is my firm belief that there are pockets of time where magic and reality meet more effectively than others. Because of all the reasons above, the Victorian age is just such a time.

So what about you? Do you have any favorite Victorian fantasies? Did you cut your reading teeth on some of the fantasies written in the actual Victorian Era? (I for one was crazy about E. Nesbit.) And what do you think about the idea that our own modern appetite for fantasy is fueled by a reaction to the extraordinary technological advance of our time, similar to the Victorians?
Deva: Medeva_fagan on May 18th, 2009 11:31 am (UTC)
Thank you for the excellent round up, Robin! There's several books you've mentioned I must now go add to my to-read list!

To answer the questions posed:

I have not read many (any?) of the fantasies actually written in the era, though I keep thinking I ought to try.

I personally think that the yearning for fantasy is not a reaction to the technology itself, but to the general instability and mystery of life that a big change can created. A technological surge can definitely engender massive widespread societal change and fear. I love how fantasy allows us to take scary unknown things and make them into something we can understand and deal with (either directly or symbolically) and turn them into an adventure rather than a threat. It's one of the reasons I am personally so drawn to fantasy (and science fiction).

Deva Fagan
rllafeversrllafevers on May 18th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
"I personally think that the yearning for fantasy is not a reaction to the technology itself, but to the general instability and mystery of life that a big change can created. A technological surge can definitely engender massive widespread societal change and fear."

I would totally agree with this, Deva!
R.J. Anderson: Author Portraitrj_anderson on May 18th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
Much love for E. Nesbit, yes, and there's also Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede, and sprineas's The Magic Thief has a quasi-Victorian influence.

George MacDonald is another overlooked Victorian fantasy author, and his settings are also partly or wholly Victorian: The Back of the North Wind in particular, but also the The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie which are two of my favorite books ever.
rllafeversrllafevers on May 18th, 2009 06:20 pm (UTC)
Yeay, another E. Nesbit fan! And I learned about The Princess and the Goblin while researching this article. Clearly I'll have to search that out.

Interesting that The Magic Thief had a quasi Victorian feel. I read that as a medieval based world, so I totally missed that correlation. I think it was the robes and the castle and the alchemical nature of their magic that made me think medieval rather than Victorian.
R.J. Anderson: Narnia - Dem Fine White Witchrj_anderson on May 18th, 2009 07:57 pm (UTC)
The Twilight part of Wellmet in particular was very Dickensian, I thought, and certainly Conn himself -- the streetwise urchin/thief -- is a classic Victorian trope. And then to have the city ruled by a Duchess who lives in a grand house... I don't think an actual castle shows up until the second book (The Magic Thief: Lost), does it?

(BTW, I thought Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief was medieval until she mentioned guns and pocket watches, and then I felt like somebody had taken my head off and put it on backwards. So I am certainly not blaming you for initially perceiving MT as medieval. :)
rllafeversrllafevers on May 18th, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
LOL. Good, because I'm feeling right foolish!
Jo Treggiarigio_t on May 18th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
Great blog topic. I love the new steampunk genre. The His Dark Materials (Pullman) and Bartimaeus (Stroud) trilogies both had a Victorian feel to me.
I love the contrast between the Industrial age, the Victorian sensibility and the occult. Just visually you can have such fun with it. The darkness, the poverty, the grime, the factories billowing smoke, gas lamps and lace and crinolines and silver tea services. And I grew up reading E. Nesbit and also George MacDonald so I second both of those recommendations.
ellen_ohellen_oh on May 18th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
Wow! Great post! I loved Nesbit and now want to check out the other titles. I am especially pumped about Scott Westerfield's new book.
gretchen_mcneil on May 18th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
I've always been a huge fan of Victorian fiction, from the dark halls of Thornfield Manor to the class warfare of Gaskell's industrialized north. I love the suppressed emotions, the rigid social norms, the struggle to be an individual...

So naturally, I've been drawn to books like THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE (which I adored, and was then so let down by the sequels). Also very excited about agent-mate Paul Crilley's upcoming THE INVISIBLE ORDER (Egmont).
rllafeversrllafevers on May 18th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
D'oh! How could I forget about the Bartimaeus Books! Thanks for the reminder.

Gretchen, I loved The Ruby in the Smoke and considered it for this article, but didn't think it had a fantasy element in it. Or at least, not that I could remember. It's been a long time since I read it though.

And Ellen, am way pumped about Westerfeld's new book. And Cassandra Clare's. And I'm jotting down The Invisible Order on my To Be Read list right now.
arthursladearthurslade on May 18th, 2009 05:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for quoting me and making it sound half smart. : )
I'd add The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray to the list of fantastical Victorian books. A very frightening read for YA's. And if you're into graphic novels, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore is excellent (though for an older audience).
arthursladearthurslade on May 18th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
Oh, and I meant to add that it's Victoria day today up here in Canada. So this was the perfect article to read today. Great job and excellent timing. : )
rllafeversrllafevers on May 18th, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
Hey Art! Thanks for letting me pick your brain for the article. While I've never read TLOEG, I will admit that the movie is a very guilty pleasure. I even own the DVD!

And I have The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray on my shelves, but have yet to read it. Clearly I need to get on that.
arthursladearthurslade on May 19th, 2009 02:54 am (UTC)
The graphic novels are sooo much deeper than the movie. I'll have to watch it again, though, it's been awhile. Can I borrow your DVD. : )

Someone else mentioned Pullman's Sally Lockhart books. They're excellent, too. And there's also a new series about young Sherlock Holmes by Shane Peacock that I love.
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on May 18th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)
Gosh what a great summary Robin! I'm always astounded by what I haven't read but I too, was one of those who grew up devouring every tale in Lang's Fairy Tale books and have always loved the mystique of the British world. One of my novels which is currently out on submission is set in Victorian London with other-worldly plot twists so I found your post particularly interesting. Just reading your post and these comments makes me want to dig in and start writing another story! :D
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anesbetanesbet on May 19th, 2009 06:19 am (UTC)
I LOVE China Miéville! Long, long ago -- back in my age of writerly innocence -- I once wandered into a conference panel on "Urban Fantasy" thinking that must mean the creepy/wonderful sort of stuff that China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer write. I was a bit taken aback when "Urban Fantasy" turned out to mean sexy werewolves and even sexier vampires instead of insect-headed artists and furious fungus people, all in (as you suggest here) slightly Victorian-ish-esque surroundings! :)
ext_158080 on May 19th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
I've loved fantasy since I was a child. But I think in addition to technology, bad economic times can fuel an appetite for escape as well.
ext_134736 on May 20th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
What a great write up. I am forwarding this to all the fantasy lovers in my life!
Such great comments too!
(Anonymous) on March 28th, 2010 09:22 am (UTC)
I just discovered your blog. Very nice. I love this post on Victorian Fantasy. I am obsessed with the Victorian Era and I am just beginning to explore the subgenre of Victorian Fantasy. Your post was very helpful.