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  • Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth Century British Fiction
  • Martha Hixon (bio)
Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth Century British Fiction. By Jason Marc Harris. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

The subject of Jason Harris's Folklore and the Fantastic in NineteenthCentury British Fiction is, the author claims, the intersection of folklore and Victorian fantasy fiction, or "how nineteenth-century writers imitate, revise, and transform preternatural folkloric material into narratives of the literary fantastic" (1). The actual scope of the work is rather less ambitious, in that Harris examines only a representative selection of authors and texts: George MacDonald, who has about a chapter and a half devoted to his work; Robert Louis Stevenson, Sheridan Le Fanu, and James Hogg, who merit a chapter apiece; J. M. Barrie, who shares a chapter with MacDonald; and William Carleton and William Sharp, who also share a chapter. The other chapters that round out the book provide a general introduction to folklore and to the fantasy genre as it developed in nineteenth-century Britain.

With such a broad subject as the title proclaims, one might suspect that this text is trying to do too much, and such a suspicion would not be unfounded. Harris quickly moves from defining his terms—folklore, folk legend, and fairy tale, then "fantasy" versus "the fantastic"—to briefly demonstrating how Victorians as a social group were conflicted about rationalism and supernaturalism, to a general discussion of the development of fantasy literature in the nineteenth century (all this in two chapters), to the chapters devoted to the specific authors noted above. The result is a scattershot approach to several major topics and an uneven and at times unconvincing argument regarding how this select group of authors drew from the genres of fairy tale and folk legend to produce fantasy narratives that interrogated the social paradigms of Victorian society.

The book does have some strengths. Harris provides informative descriptions of the folklore that his selected writers drew from—which is not surprising, given his background in folklore studies as well as English—though these discussions are minimal and diffused. The section on how Victorians were conflicted over the parameters of rationalism and supernaturalism is also interesting, though too brief to be satisfyingly convincing. Additionally, the chapters devoted to Le Fanu's use of the ghost story, James Hogg's use of folk legend, and Robert Louis Stevenson's use of folk superstitions all present intriguing, if a bit uneven, ways of reading the work of these authors in terms of questioning cultural authority structures. It is in the focused discussions of the integration of folklore into the art of fantasy itself that Harris falls short, particularly [End Page 73] where the discussion touches on the literary fairy tale and its use by MacDonald and Barrie. In addition, his emphasis on "folk metaphysics," a term that Harris claims to be coining to refer to "folkloric assumptions about how the supernatural engages the material world" (viii), falls short in developing a new theoretical approach to fantasy literature.

One suspects that the weaknesses of this text are at least somewhat the consequence of poor editing. Harris's book is based on his Ph.D. dissertation, a fact far too obvious in that the book has retained the markers of a dissertation, such as an abundance of footnotes and in-text quotes that serve to demonstrate the fundamental knowledge of the critical literature required of Ph.D. students but that are unnecessary in a critical work meant to stand on its own merits. There is a pervasive lack of sustained, original, close analysis uninterrupted by plot summary and references to and summations of the commentary of previous scholars—in general, the discussions stay too much on the surface rather than delving deep into the topic at hand. Even more irritating are the typos and stylistic errors that mar the book throughout; there are two on the first page alone, always a bad sign in an academic work. Poor copy editing is, unfortunately, all too common in the publishing industry today, but numerous occurrences in an academic text undermine the credibility of both the author and the publishing house.

There are weaknesses in...


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pp. 73-75
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