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?