The Fantastic in Victorian Fairy Tale Illustrations

Derry E. Voysey MA '97, University of Virginia

[Linley Sambourne, illus. from Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies (New York: Burt, 1880)]

Although one encounters fantastic beings even in the more prosaic subjects of Victorian fairy tale illustration, fantastic beings appear as protagonists and fantastic settings. These images are almost entirely escapist, and depend almost solely on the interaction of the author's and artist's imaginations. As Robert Patten points out in George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art (Rutgers U Press, 1992), illustrators of fairy tales did not research costumes or architecture before making their sketches. Instead, artists like Cruikshank, who illustrated the English and some of the German editions of Grimm's Fairy Tales, relied on "theatrical and pictorial precedents" (248). Patten goes on to helpfully observe: "Yet there is a rightness to the costumes that has nothing to do with period or nationality. Somehow they invoke a strange familiarity, identifying each character's occupation, status, moral quality, age, temperament, and fate. The coherence Cruikshank forges out of such disparate elements derives its logic from the imagination, not history" (248). Consider Patten's observations while looking at Cinderella from Mother Goose's Fairy Tales and "Fairyfoot"from Frances Hodgsdon Burnett's tale "The Story of Prince Fairy Foot", illustrated by Reginald Birch (c.1890).

Note how an illustration from Mother Goose that depicts a scene from the "Far East", the artist captures the motion of her dance with waves in her dress and the curve of her wrist. Also, note the knife in her right hand.

The fantastic illustrations often indicate the threat of violence at the climax of the tales, such as we find in an illustration to Lablache's tale, "Petronel and Petronilla." As the protagonists sail away, evil spirits lurking in the forest threaten them. Sometimes scenes of gratuitous violence as Barbarico, the hero of a Mother Goose fairy tale, stabs his opponent in the throat whie two peasants watch wide-eyed from the valley below. The image of the sword piercing a neck is violent in itself, but it does not include blood, or any other obvious signs of the damage incurred. Similarly, the image of a boy chopping himself to pieces in an illustration from "The Ten Little Niggers", a poem in Mother Goose's Fairy Tales, which is disturbingly void of any indication of the actual pain of such an act. The poem and its racist illustrations both treat the black children as if they were a matched set of playthings. I've included this illustration under category of the fantastic because of this violent scene devoid of all life-like signifiers.

Charles Kingsley's fantastic tale, The Water-Babies (New York: Burt, 1880) is illustrated by Linley Sambourne, a Punch cartoonist. All of the chapters begin with illustrated letters. There are few full-page illustrations in The Water-Babies, but rather small drawings are scattered throughout the text. Look at these facing pages depicting on the left an elderly man and on the right a nude, puti-like schoolboy. Young, virile bodies abound in The Water-Babies, such as the one in the illustration that heads this project. I'm struck by the extrememly close interaction of the figures with the natural forms swirling around them. See, for another example, the first illustration from The Water-Babies which depicts Tom, the chimney sweep, surrounded by smoke.

The fantastic also includes dream sequences, such as that from Burnett's story "Behind the White Brick", illustrated by Reginald Birch (c.1890). Note how Birch indicates the girl is dreaming by foregrounding her and further separating her from the action with shadow lines. This technique is considered conventional in the 20th century, but was relatively new when Birch utilized it.

Fairy tales also include traditional fantastic beasts, such as the dragon in E. Sharp's "The Spell of the Magician's Daughter" illustrated by Alice B. Woodward (1902).

This is a good point at which to point out the stylistic differences of various illustrators. Note the difference between the broad, free line of Woodward and the careful hatchmarks of, say, Birch in this frontispiece illustration of Burnett's Little St. Elizabeth and Other Stories (c.1890). This comparison is slightly unfair considering that Woodward's medium is pen-and-ink and Birch's is wood etching; but, it should serve its purpose in demonstrating the variety of Victorian illustrations even while limited to black-and-white tones.

Consider now this fantastic illustration of Mother Goose's "The Giant Hands". Interestingly, the hands appear as a pair in all the illustrations from the tale, including those scenes, such as this one, in which only one hand is necessary to perform the action depicted. This may be an important visual image in the trope of the "hidden hands" representing God's unseen action in the world. Here, something as common as human hands is made fantastic by manipulating their scale.

To conclude this summary of the fantastic, here is an illustration of tales by Christina Rossetti by Arthur Hughes in 1874. Hughes's gently curving lines and creativity make him one of my favorite Victorian illustrators. In Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers (U of Chicago: 1992), Nina Auerback and U.C. Knoepflmacher describe Hughes's talent for capturing the often overwhelmingly strange images of Rossetti's fiction: "Savage, violent, at times almost surreal, Hughes' illustrations provide a startling tribute not only to Christina Rossetti's bizarre imagination, but to the Victorian child imagined by adults: a creature always presumed innocent, but in these illustrations at least, far more resilient, even monstrous, than sentimentalists, in the nineteenth century and now, dare imagine" (10).

Look, for example, a haunting twist on Little Red Ridinghood in this image from the same tale. Fantastic illustrations reflect a Victorian imagination of as wide a scope as the authors and artists that describe them. There are fantastic beings, violence, good and bad dreams, threatening situations, dragons, and many more things than I've included here. One might consider the possible didactic uses of such images, not only for the immediate purposes of communicating the tale, but also for encouraging children to use their own imaginations. By viewing the illustrations, the Victorians were given a visual guide to the infinitely multiple universe of worlds inside themselves.


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Last modified 17 November 2004

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