Victorian Influences on Modern Speculative Fiction: Steampunk and Fairy Tales


In a previous series of articles on this site, I have explored the influence of Victorian literature, artwork, and culture on the present-day steampunk literary genre and artwork. (For a partial list—please see the articles listed at the end of this posting.) In this series, I plan to discuss the Victorian influence on modern-day fairy tales, although there will be quite a bit of connection to steampunk and other speculative writing genres along the way.

For those unfamiliar with Victorian literature, it may seem surprising that the culture could produce a body of artwork and literature filled with time machines, steam-powered devices, gothic horror, and fairy tales. Yet the prevalence of speculative fiction in this era is explained by looking at the culture that produced it. The Victorian Era was a society in the grip of a great upheaval due to rapid industrialization as Britain moved from the rhythms of the rural past to the mechanized future. (To learn more about this, see my series of articles on Victorian influences on modern-day steampunk linked below.)

Something Mythic is Happening Here

In part this desire to include images of fairies, angels, demons, and other mythical creatures in artwork and literature was a reaction to all of the new technology, including the steam-powered trains that reduced the rate of travel across the Empire and the increasing sophistication of machines in factories that made the employment of many craftsmen and craftswomen obsolete. “For every locomotive they build,” vowed Edward Burne-Jones, an artist who embodied in his paintings the chivalry, virtue, and Arcadian delight of an early time, “I shall paint another angel.”

heart-of-the-rose-1889 Edward Burne Jones
For every technological wonder that filled the lives of the upper class, and in some cases the new rising middle class, there were equal amounts of beggars, cripples, prostitutes (including children), and homeless men, women, and children displaced by the new economy. Many faced this urban blight where factories and slums were transforming large tracks of English countryside by looking toward the rural lifestyle with nostalgia. One artistic manifestation of this nostalgia for a vanishing way of life could be found in fairy paintings and stories.

The Sherlock Holmes Connection

"Sherlock Holmes Portrait Paget" by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) - de.WP. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Sherlock Holmes Portrait Paget” by Sidney Paget (1860-1908) – de.WP. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Near the end of the 18th century fairy tales began to cast their spell of nostalgia through the works of the English Romantic and artists like Henry Fuseli and the poet/painter William Blake. This continued on into the early 19th Century as faeries flittered across London stages and nestled in bucolic scenes on gallery walls. This artwork and literature were part of the mainstream society and found in prestigious galleries and at the Royal Academy exhibitions.

Shakespeare’s faeries were re-imagined with the aid of folklore texts, inspiring paintings crowded with sprites in detailed natural settings. Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Charles Doyle (father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) Francess Danby, and John Anster Fitzgerald were just a few of the numerous artists who created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art.

It’s All About the Fairy Tale . . .

From the middle of the 19th Century onward, some of the best writers of 19th Century England turned their hand to fairy tales. I have included a partial list here:

John Ruskin The King of the Golden River (1841)
Charlotte Yonge The History of Tom Thumb (1855)
Christina Rossetti The Goblin Market (1862)
Charles Kingsley The Water Babies (1863)
Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Oscar Wilde The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888)
Rudyard Kipling Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906)
J.M. Barrie Peter Pan (1906)
Kenneth Grahame The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Why Here, Why Now?

When one compares the many social issues common to both the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century and the technological revolution of our own (a changing economy, disappearing countryside, conflicting ideas about gender and class structure) it is no surprise that faeries and fantasy have made a comeback. I think that exploring these connections and influences will be interesting, and I hope that my readers will feel the same.
Please leave your comments below. I am interested in what you think about this topic.



For More Articles about Victorian Influences and The Steampunk Genre by me, please see:

Toward an Understanding of the Steampunk Aesthetic
The Hybrid Temporality of Steampunk, Part One
The Hybrid Temporality of Steampunk, Part Two
Victorian Influences and Modern Day Steampunk Part 1
Victorian Influences and Modern Day Steampunk Part 2
Why Charles Dickens Isn’t The Father of Steampunk

Want even more Victorian inspired speculative fiction? Check out the following:

On Sale Now

A princess with hair as golden as a sunflower and eyes as green as apples was blessed from birth to have beauty and power and to marry a prince on her eighteenth birthday. Unfortunately for all concerned, there is only one eligible prince in all of the kingdoms, and before he agrees to marry the princess, he wants a magical guarantee that she will look a certain way, talk a certain way, and even think only what he wants. What is a fairy godmother to do?

Sometimes a fairy godmother needs more than magic.

Available on March 30th

On the eve of her eighteenth birthday Coretta faces a terrible choice. She can have a good life safe from harm—or be cast on a burning pyre and consumed by flames. On the surface the choice is simple, but the price for safety is not one she is willing to pay.
To have a safe home, a family, and friends, would you yield up every sin, every secret, and every mental scar to another? Would you surrender your soul?

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