Caroline Sumpter, The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale.
This welcome paperback edition of The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale (first published in 2008) follows Caroline Sumpter's well-deserved achievement of the Mythopoeic Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies in 2011. Focusing on the history of reading rather than on myths of folk origin and urbanised corruption, Sumpter directly challenges the traditional opposition of oral and print culture. In five fascinating chapters investigating periodical literature of the 1860s and 1890s, Sumpter traces the ways in which the fairy tale is embedded in and productive of modernity.
In her first chapter, 'Serialising Scheherazade: An Alternative History of the Fairy Tale', Sumpter demonstrates that it was not oral tale-telling but rather the competition of the chap book as a form of cheap print for mass reading audiences that nineteenth-century penny newspapers sought to quash. Refusing to take Romanticism on its own terms, in its privileging of orality over print, Sumpter shows how the periodical press disseminated the philologists' originary thesis about the common roots of fairy tales in an Indo-European tradition and their connection of the fairy tale to a racial and cultural infancy. The relationship between the new science of philology and the antiquarian work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm was cemented in numerous articles, including Edgar Taylor's periodical journalism. Taylor's translation of the Grimms' tales, German Popular Stories (1823), ultimately became constructed as 'the true unadulaterated fairy tale' text for middle-class audiences (p. 29). While this publication was out of economic reach for working-class readers, the penny press provided serialised alternatives. In the 1860s George Vickers, publisher of the Halfpenny Journal: A Weekly Magazine for All Who Can Read, brought out profusely illustrated fairy tales in weekly (1d) or monthly (6d) parts, under the title Grimms' Goblins. Sumpter's research resets the stage for Charles Dickens's famous 'Frauds on the Fairies' essay in Household Words, locating it within a widespread middle-class periodical debate about authenticity and authority that sought to preserve the Taylor version as canonical.
In Chapter Two, 'Myths of Origin: Folktale Scholarship and Fictional Invention in Magazines for Children' Sumpter shows how the findings of philology and anthropology were popularised in the juvenile periodicals that emerged in the 1860s. Arguing that '[t]hese periodicals' appropriations of comparative mythology have much to tell us about middleclass engagements with childhood, gender, class and race' (p. 35), Sumpter traces the influence of the recapitulation theory in the production and reception of fairy tales in the period. Positing that evidence of racial and cultural origins was discernible in the developmental stages of juvenile descendants, the recapitulation theory recast the child as living analogy to early humankind: thus the fairy tale, as an artistic vehicle for ancient oral societies, was formulated as apt reading material for the modern child. Like the child, the working poor and racialised others were likewise framed as developmentally primitive in various iterations of the recapitulation theory in juvenile magazines, an ideological framing that contributed to the formation of a national middle-class identity for the target audience.
In her third chapter, 'Science and Superstition, Realism and Romance: Fairy Tale and Fantasy in the Adult Shilling Monthly' Sumpter brings new insights to the fascination with fairy tales evident in Macmillan's Magazine and the Cornhill Magazine, two pioneering periodicals of the 1860s usually hailed for their domestic realism rather than their engagements with fantasy. As Sumpter shows, the discourse of fairy tales was ubiquitous: in the metaphors used to describe the romance of scientific discovery, in essays engaging the emerging science of comparative mythology and in serialised fiction and poetry. In Macmillan's Magazine, Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Landbaby infused an invented fantasy with social debates on the condition of England, Max Muller's comparative philology and Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, in the process racialising animals and animalising races. Sumpter insightfully situates Kingsley's fantasy within wider periodical debates about race, language and the origins of myth and folktale. In the writings of Anne Thackeray Ritchie for the Cornhill Magazine, the fairy tale became a tool for re-conceptualising social relations and gender roles. Tracking the re-deployment of the Sleeping Beauty tale in a variety of stories, essays and poems variously addressing 'the woman question' in both Cornhill and Macmillan's, Sumpter demonstrates the rich and complex readings made possible when works as diverse as Christina Rossetti's 'The Fairy Prince Who Arrived Too Late' and Anne Thackeray Ritchie's 'The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood' are read in the context of the periodical debates in which their first readers received them. Throughout her compelling study, Sumpter reiterates that the juxtaposition and adjacency of fairy tales with contemporary debates in the periodical press opened up their meanings to readers in ways beyond the control of authorial intention.
In her final two chapters, Sumpter focuses on the new forms and functions of the fairy tale in the 1890s periodical press. Chapter Four, '"I wonder were the Fairies Socialists ?" The Politics of the Fairy Tale in the 1890s Labour Press', examines the complex inter-connections of the utopian fairy tale, ethical socialism and evolutionary ideology. Here the Romantic construction of the child as natural philosopher joined with evolutionary eschatology to equate juvenile innocence with the simpler social relations of the pre-industrial society associated with fairy tales, celebrating empathy, communal fellowship and uncorrupted nature. Magazines such as the Labour Prophet and the Labour Leader deployed fairy tales in the service of political activism and recruitment of children to the cause. As Sumpter brilliantly shows, even traditional tales apparently supporting the status quo developed new political meanings in the context of the labour press's articles, illustrations, correspondence columns and supplements.
The fairy tale's capacity for endless reinvention is demonstrated in Sumpter's engaging chapter, '"All art is at once surface and symbol": Fairy Tales and fin-de-siecle Little Magazines'. Focusing on one of the most defining features of the 1890s, the emergence of little magazines such as the Dome, Venture, Butterfly, Pageant, Quest and Quarto, Sumpter shows how the fairy tale was reclaimed for both the avant-garde and folk culture and put to the service of both decadent and anti-decadent artistic discourse, as well as nationalist and countercultural identity formation. The latter Sumpter equates with coded male gay discourse; she is virtually silent aboutfin-de-siecle fairy tales and feminism. Tracing the influence of William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites on the little magazine, this chapter is particularly strong in its analysis of the wide-ranging significance of the visual to the fairy tale in print. In the 1890s the fairy tale becomes conceptualised as a lens of visionary perception; associated with the esoteric iconography of Symbolism; and virtually equated with image-making, both in the form of illustration and in the construction of coded identities. Concentrating on the work of Laurence Housman--poet, book-artist, illustrator, journalist, socialist, feminist and gay activist--Sumpter shows how the fairy tales he published in little magazines can be read intertextually within a wider periodical context engaged in challenging received assumptions about gender, sexuality, the body and human social relations.
Based in original archival research, lucidly written and compelling in its nuanced linking of popular science, contemporary politics, gender and nationalism, The Victorian Press and the Fairy Tale shows why (and how) the fairy tale became central to Victorian culture. Caroline Sumpter's award-winning book should be added to the bookshelf of every student interested in media history and the history of reading, Victorian literature and culture and that endlessly fascinating, ever-changing object of study, the fairy tale.
Lorraine Janzen Kooistra
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|Author:||Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen|
|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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