Laura Forsberg's article "Nature's Invisibilia: The Victorian Microscope and the Miniature Fairy" has been awarded Editor’s Choice of Victorian Studies vol. 57.4, and can now be read for free at JSTOR. Laura Forsberg introduces us to her research below:
What do a butterfly-winged fairy and a bizarrely-shaped microbe have in common? For contemporary readers, the answer is clear: not much. Fairies are imaginary creatures of childish fantasy, while microbes belong to the world of scientific fact. But in the Victorian period, the two creatures were intimately linked in the popular imagination by virtue of their size and their invisibility to the naked eye.
It’s a connection that is almost too strange to be believed.
In the nineteenth century, historical developments in the idea of the fairy and the operation of the microscope meant that the Victorians were imagining two invisible worlds at the same time. As a result, many Victorians looked through the microscope and saw fairies, and imagined fairyland in terms of microscopic discoveries.
In the 21st century, most of us suppose that fairies have always been imagined as miniature creatures bearing the wings of a butterfly. But this image is actually a relatively new one. Traditional fairies were about the size of a small child and dwelt on the edges of civilization. The miniature fairy first appeared in literature in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Fairies gained butterfly wings only much later. In 1797, Thomas Stothard illustrated Alexander Pope’s sylphs in The Rape of the Lock with butterfly wings for the first time.
Stothard’s image captured the public imagination. Illustrations and paintings of butterfly-winged fairies proliferated by the mid-century and gained further prominence as the century advanced. Illustrated children’s books appeared with charming names like The Midsummer Fairies: Or the Adventures of Tiny, Tinier and Tiniest (1883) and Fly-Away Fairies and Baby Blossoms (1882). Richard Doyle’s illustrations for the poem In Fairyland (1870) captured the playfulness of fairy illustrations of the period; his fairies frolic with red-hatted elves amidst flower blossoms and mushroom caps, or march in long processions (as shown in the image).
Not all fairy representations were so lighthearted in tone. For some Victorian painters and authors, the idea of an invisible world of fairy life carried fearful possibilities. John Anster “Fairy” Fitzgerald painted fairies in nature tormenting robins, bats and mice. In The Captive Robin, fairies sit at a table with elaborate headwear, while a robin sits nearby, restrained by a flower garland, and a bizarre demon-like winged creature sits next to the table.
Joel Noel Patton painted fairies in vast hordes; Lewis Carroll famously counted 165 fairies in a single image of The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania. In literary tales for the fairy by Rudyard Kipling, Jean Ingelow, and H.G. Wells, among others, the cultural loss of belief in the fairy represented how the Victorians had lost touch with their past. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the great masterpieces of Victorian fairy art, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, was produced by Richard Dadd from an insane asylum.
To be clear, very few Victorian adults actually believed in fairies. In this, the Victorians differed from the Edwardians. In 1917, the Cottingley fairy photographs were published, showing two little girls posing with butterfly-winged fairies. A controversy erupted. Prominent Edwardians, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, defended the photographs (which are obviously fraudulent to the eyes of contemporary viewers) as mechanical proof of the existence of fairies. This represented a departure from the previous century. The Victorians embraced the fairy as a figure not of fact but of “what if?” possibility. What if fairies were real? What if the world were enchanted?
What if? At the same time that middle and upper-class Victorians were imagining miniature fairies, they were also seeing microbes for the first time. Historians of science often call 1830 the beginning of the era of modern microscopy. This meant that the scientific innovations made the microscope more reliable than ever before. It also meant that, by the 1850s and 60s, microscopes had become relatively inexpensive and popular to purchase.
The microscope was still, in the Victorian period, a finicky instrument. Users might easily make technical errors that would result in false images. To guard against this, scientists composed hefty, five-hundred plus page tomes on how to use the microscope. At the same time, naturalists wrote breezy, brief guides to microscopic use. These works aimed, not to guard against error, but rather to stimulate the imagination of the user. Through the lens of the microscope, a drop of Thames water became, as shown in the illustration above, “Monster Soup.” The shock of this realization is underlined, in the illustration above, by the tea cup falling to the ground.
Naturalists’ guides to the microscope emphasized that there was no precedent for the experience of gazing through the microscope’s lens. A user might stare at a sample on a slide and see nothing. Put the same sample under the lens and – voila! – the user saw an world of life and activity. The microscope transformed nature into a real-world fairyland. “In the tiniest piece of mould on a decayed fruit, the tiniest animalcule from the stagnant pool,” Charles Kingsley told his listeners in an 1846 speech, “will imagination find inexhaustible wonders, and fancy a fairy-land.”
The microscope provided a fantasy of other worlds, invisible to the naked eye. To capitalize upon this idea, John Benjamin Dancer began in the 1850s to produce microphotographs. These slides showed famous images, like the Last Judgment by Michelangelo, on microscopic slides. To see the image, the user must place the slide under the microscope’s lens. Microphotographs briefly caught on as a popular fad and were sold in catalogues next to slides of samples taken from the nature world.
The microscope and the fairy offered parallel opportunities for the Victorians to imagine invisible worlds of minute life. But the microscope and the fairy were also imagined together. In this article, you will read about fairies who were espied through the microscope’s lens and about science books that employed fairies as teachers. Far from being mere cultural oddities, I argue, these examples of fairy science reveal a form of scientific enchantment in the Victorian world.
Read more in Laura Forsberg's article "Nature's Invisibilia: The Victorian Microscope and the Miniature Fairy," from Victorian Studies vol. 57.4.