Teeming with creatures, both real and imagined, this encyclopedic study in cultural history illuminates the hidden web of connections between the Victorian fascination with fairies and their lore and the dominant preoccupations of Victorian culture at large. Carole Silver here draws on sources ranging from the anthropological, folkloric, and occult to the legal, historical, and medical. She is the first to anatomize a world peopled by strange beings who have infiltrated both the literary and visual masterpieces and the minor works of the writers and painters of that era.
Examining the period of 1798 to 1923, Strange and Secret Peoples focuses not only on such popular literary figures as Charles Dickens and William Butler Yeats, but on writers as diverse as Thomas Carlyle, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charlotte Mew; on artists as varied as mad Richard Dadd, Aubrey Beardsley, and Sir Joseph Noel Paton; and on artifacts ranging from fossil skulls to photographs and vases. Silver demonstrates how beautiful and monstrous creaturesfairies and swan maidens, goblins and dwarfs, cretins and changelings, elementals and pygmiessimultaneously peopled the Victorian imagination and inhabited nineteenth-century science and belief. Her book reveals the astonishing complexity and fertility of the Victorian consciousness: its modernity and antiquity, its desire to naturalize the supernatural, its pervasive eroticism fused with sexual anxiety, and its drive for racial and imperial dominion.
Silver's scholarly study is for students and teachers of folklore and fairy tales, rather than young readers of the works. She really gets into the nitty-gritty of the Victorian mind as she takes on topics such as the belief in changelings brought on by a combination of fears, including lower birth rates, abduction scares, misunderstood debilitating childhood diseases, and Darwinism. Yes, Darwinism and its counterpoint in Theosophy and occultism-not to mention the Brothers Grimm-were unknowing villains in hysterical outbursts throughout the 19th century. Silver documents these outbursts in loving, if dry, detail. The book will be fascinating for anyone who ever fell in love with fairies as a child.