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The Multiple Strokes of Victorian Fantasy

I’ve chosen Richard Dadd’s painting ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’ (1855-1864) as a theme for this blog because it suggests some of the multi-faceted nature of Victorian fantasy.  Since it is the work of a man who was at once a murderer, a madman and an artist, Dadd’s picture evokes genius, madness, imagination, fairy tale – as did the word ‘fantasy’ itself in the nineteenth century. As Stephen Prickett details in his monograph Victorian Fantasy, the word ‘fantasy’ has been traditionally linked with meanings like ‘imagination’ and ‘fancy’ˑ, often with a disquieting patina of madness. Thus far, thus Dadd. But thanks to the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Brothers Grimm, John Ruskin, Christina Georgina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and his daughter Anne Thackeray Ritchie,  Lewis Carroll,  and E. Nesbit (just to name a few), new interpretations of ‘imagination’ and ‘fantasy’ began emerge.  Imagination also became a source of creative powerˑ fantasy became the realm of dreams, or even ‘the realm of the Godlike’, to borrow Thomas Carlyle’s phrase. [1] In this blog, ɪ intend to explore the boundaries of interpreting ‘Victorian fantasy’ – fantasy as social myth can rebound in many different contexts.
Dadd’s painting also speaks to the continuing legacy of Victorian fantasy. Though created in the Victorian period, it has a modern afterlife – for example, Terry Pratchett uses it as a troubling image of fairyland in his 2003 book Wee Free Men; the band Queen produced a 1974 song called ‘The Feller’s Master Stroke’ in homage to Dadd’s work.  Similarly, fantasy texts written in the Victorian period continue to be influential today. The great Victorian fantasist George MacDonald influenced the twentieth-century fantasy writings of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Victorian period saw a reawakening of the English literary fairy-tale, and twentieth and twenty-first century writers like Angela Carter and Philip Pullman continued and still continue the reinvention of fairy tale tradition. Consequently, my explorations will also take in this modern afterlife: how does the twenty-first century engage with Victorian fantasyʔ I hope to post reflections on various aspects of this question once a month, possibly more frequently.

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