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Reviewed by:
  • The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale
  • Laurence Talairach-Vielmas (bio)
The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale. By Caroline Sumpter. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 254 pp.

Caroline Sumpter's The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale is an amazing study of the role the press played to keep fairy tales in continual circulation in the Victorian period and to reinvent them. Though we may at first believe that the press-epitomizing industrial culture, modernity, and progress-chased fairies away from England, Sumpter shows that it was in fact quite the reverse. Fairy tales were indeed very much part of Victorian culture, even more so because the Victorian press constantly rewrote fairy tales to tackle a wide range of controversies, whether to deal with industrialism, socialism, or race and [End Page 425] gender issues. The fairy tale mostly became an experimental terrain in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the Victorian press not only helped to create a canon of "classic" fairy tales but also "found new aesthetic and political possibilities for the genre" (5).

In her first chapter, Sumpter underlines the traffic of fairy tale with novel and romance. She explains how the chapbook participated in the British folktale revival. As a telltale sign of authentic folk culture, the chapbook claimed to convey the voice of the folk, and Sumpter examines how several periodicals-among them the Dublin and London Magazine, the New Monthly Magazine, Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, and the Irish Penny Magazine-published ballads, fairy tales, and fairy poems, as well as articles about international folklore, foregrounding contemporary debates between mythologists and anthropologists. In her second chapter, Sumpter looks at three middle-class monthlies, Aunt Judy's Magazine, Good Words for the Young, and the Monthly Packet, all fascinated with folklore. In this chapter, she underscores how the findings of philology and anthropology were tackled in such children's magazines. With the advent of Darwinism, children were increasingly looked at through an evolutionary lens and aligned with earlier stages of evolution: physical evolution and cultural evolution were in particular merged in children's magazines, especially as the stories conflated folklore and fantasy. Fairy tales were regarded as "savage survivals," reflections of man's earliest relationship with nature and primitive mind. Sumpter's analysis of these monthlies' engagement with folktale scholarship is enlightening, especially as the magazines brought to light underlying debates about cultural development and civilization. In the following chapter, Sumpter moves away from children's literature to deal with magazines for adults. She looks at the role of the fairy tale in the first shilling monthlies of the 1860s (notably the Cornhill Magazine and Macmillan's) and the use of fairy-tale motifs and metaphors to trope the wonders of science and technology. As a matter of fact, fairies and fairy tales became an apt means to popularize science and Western inventions. Fairy tales also appeared as a lens through which to look at evolutionary theory and its potential application for social reform. In addition, the fairy tale could also be used to expose social injustice-for instance, Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties stepped onto the stage to denounce attitudes regarding women and female education.

Sumpter's last two chapters tackle the links between the fairy tale and late-Victorian and fin-de-siècle issues. In the 1890s the fairy tale mingled with political debates and was particularly claimed for socialism, as Sumpter develops in her fourth chapter. Exploring left-wing periodicals of the 1890s, Sumpter makes explicit how papers such as the Labour Prophet or the Labour Leader, or even monthly children's papers, such as the Cinderella Supplement, made constant [End Page 426] use of fairy-tale motifs and plot patterns to address their child and adult readers. Fairy tales were indeed seen as emblematic of past social relations-"uncorrupted by the sophistication of culture" (107)-and they hinted back at a relation with nature yet unsoiled by industrialization. This is why Cinderella's rags-to-riches evolution could serve to educate working-class children, offering them utopian dreams of better lives. In the avant-garde debates of the 1890s, moreover, the fairy tale played a significant role, too, as...


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pp. 425-428
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