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The Fairy-tales of Science: facts and fancy in Victorian children's literature

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In Victorian Britain forces could be fairies, dinosaurs could be dragons, and looking closely at a drop of water revealed a wonderland. An array of writers enticed their young readers and listeners to learn about the sciences by converting introductory explanations into quirky, charming, and imaginative fairy-tales. New discoveries and inventions, novel and ancient facts about the earth and the universe, were woven into fanciful narratives starring monstrous creatures, magical transformations, and fairy guides. In this seminar I shall argue that such stories were an important way in which authors and audiences enthused about, communicated, and criticised the sciences in the nineteenth century. I shall explore how new fairy-tales were presented and read as the best way to understand both contemporary science and the invisible recesses of nature, since they revealed the hidden wonders and true mysteries of everyday life. Science, they claimed, was superior story-telling.

Melanie Keene is a Junior Research Fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge, where she researches the history of science for children in the long nineteenth century. She completed her PhD, ‘Object Lessons: Sensory Science Education, 1830-1870’, in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. Topics of ongoing interest include the histories of everyday artefacts and activities, genre and analogy, board games and fairy-tales, puns and toys, and collecting science songs.

This talk is part of the Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Cambridge series.

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