What do we write about when we write about the Victorians? Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow address this question in their own words in their Preface and Windling's longer Introduction to their original short story anthology. Windling and Datlow open accordingly by discussing this term, defining gaslamp fantasy as "stories set in a magical version of nineteenth-century England." "Gaslamp tales," the Preface states, "can take place at any time during the 1800s, from the Regency years early in the century to Queen Victoria's long reign (1837-1901)" (p. 13). Like its title, however, the book focuses on the latter: fantasy stories set during the time period frequently referred to in the West as the Victorian Era. There are broad and understandable reasons for this. What we now understand as the "Regency" years, a term often encompassing both the actual English Regency and the Napoleonic Wars predating them, were culturally influential but relatively short, terminating around 1821 by most definitions; in the public imagination of the nineteenth-century West, Victoria dominates. It takes little more than a glance at the broad and growing steampunk subculture to tell that Victoria's England has captured the minds and hearts of retrofuturism. Steampunk is both a personal aesthetic and a lucrative commercial industry, with tendrils curling into fashion and music and video gaming as well.
Because of this, Windling and Datlow take care to distinguish Queen Victoria's Book of Spells from the steampunk mainstream, noting that while steampunk is a variant of Victorian-inspired SFF, it's not the only one. As a result, the anthology focuses on overtly fantastical, as opposed to science fictional, tales. The collected stories may owe more to Austen and Thackeray than to Tolkien, as the editors point out, but they also owe a great deal more to Dunsany and the Rossettis and Andrew Lang than to Jules Verne. The fantasies in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells are, fundamentally, backwards-looking. Windling's thoughtful and thorough Introduction examines this: what makes the nineteenth century rife with so much potential for fantasy fiction, she observes, is that Victorian England (and America) was itself utterly consumed with the fantastic. The anthology's eighteen stories in this way share a metafictional theme: they draw their inspiration from fairy tales, Arthurian legend, spiritualism, not just the nineteenth century but the fantasies of the nineteenth century. If the Victorians were obsessed with myth, then twenty-first century speculative fiction's obsession with the Victorians takes on a curious, recursive turn; what is it about this period, asks Windling, that we keep going back to?
One answer to this question is a grim and unflattering one. The Victorian era produced many progressive, avant-garde works, but much of its fairy fiction existed to soothe its readers, not challenge it: much fantasy was distinctly escapist in nature, fearful and conservative in subtext, not far from J.R.R. Tolkien's own twentieth-century parochial nostalgia. In some ways, the twenty-first century preoccupation in SFF with the nineteenth century is not dissimilar to nineteenth-century preoccupation with unreality. Victorian artists and writers romanticized a mythical yesteryear, a world of innocent magic that did not reflect their turbulent and changing times—or the bloody sprawl of their Empire. The reality of the nineteenth century West, as Windling notes, was very different; so is the reality of the twenty-first century. From blogs such as Beyond Victoriana to Ann VanderMeer's Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution anthology (2012), writers and editors have been challenging the ways in which the steampunk subgenre uncritically glorifies the past and repurposing it to subversive use. Windling and Datlow have attempted to do the same with gaslamp fantasy—the resulting anthology of stories is engrossing, imaginative, and dark. Queen Victoria's Book of Spells does not always succeed at subversion, but it's incredibly readable. Windling and Datlow's Victorian Age is worth spending a few hours in, and perhaps a few more hours thinking about.
Spanning eighteen stories, Queen Victoria's Book of Spells runs the thematic gamut, but one common thread can be picked out with a glance at the table of contents. Fourteen of its nineteen authors, and both editors, are women. If anything this only strengthens the anthology and suits its subject matter. Gaslamp fantasy and the fairy tales and comedies of manners that inspire it are often regarded as feminine. Jane Austen is sometimes pigeonholed as a pioneer of "women's fiction," rather than of fiction, and her "Janeite" fans often dismissed as a feminine (and by implication, silly) subculture; nineteenth-century fairies, diluted to twee palatability, were feminized and infantilized (often the same thing in patriarchal views) and so are their commercialized Disney-franchise heirs. The meditations of these authors upon the situations of women, however, are anything but twee. The anthology's feminism is perhaps its most powerful and resonant theme: from the privileged (Delia Sherman's titular "Queen Victoria's Book of Spells") to the working-class (Veronica Schanoes's "Phosphorus"), victims of gendered violence (Elizabeth Bear's "The Governess"), and psychiatric institutionalization (Kaaron Warren's "The Unwanted Women of Surrey"), the women of Queen Victoria's Book of Spells all in one way or another grapple with what it means to be a woman in Victorian England and America.
The stories are not limited to those of women, though gender tends to play a part regardless; Kathe Koja's very solid "La Reine d'Enfer" tells the story of a young male prostitute caught up playing a woman in a theatrical production with supernatural consequences. Jeffrey Ford's "The Fairy Enterprise" follows an amoral industrialist as he tries to make a lucrative business out of fairies: a clear metafictional commentary, though not ultimately one that probes too deeply. One of the strongest stories in the anthology is Leanna Ree Hieber's "Charged," told from the perspective of a young man born with a very unusual gift with respect to electricity.
The prose in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells is strong, and in fact another of its stronger points. Almost without exception, each of these stories is well and believably written. Particular highlights of atmosphere and character voice include Hieber's "Charged," Koja's "La Reine d'Enfer," and particularly Catherynne M. Valente's wonderful and surreal "We Without Us Were Shadows," a journey into the early imagination of the Bronte siblings. A few of the stories are shakier on these grounds: Dale Bailey's "Mr. Splitfoot" presents a Margaret Fox whose voice rings a little bit hollow, and Tanith Lee's "Their Monstrous Minds" is loosely sketched emotionally, though delightful and inventive as a piece of alternate steampunk-influenced history. Altogether the quality of the writing is high and readability on a sentence level is not among the anthology's flaws. The imagery in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells is reflective of a wide range of powerful imaginations. Magic takes on not just one shape or character in these stories, but many, from the largely metaphorical in Elizabeth Wein's subdued "For the Briar Rose" to the wonderfully fantastical in "We Without Us Were Shadows" and "Their Monstrous Minds." As literature of the fantastic, Queen Victoria's Book of Spells is a delight.
Where the anthology tries to explore imperialism, however, it stumbles. As Windling mentions, the Victorian Age was a time of British global domination, and indeed Queen Victoria's Book of Spells does not shy away from this. However, it explores this only from the vantage point of Britain and America themselves. Without exception, the editors and writers of Queen Victoria's Book of Spells are white. They are largely British and American; several publicly self-identify as queer, but none as people of color. Maybe it's not surprising, then, that the anthology's most flawed social commentaries center on Queen Victoria herself. Jane Yolen's "The Jewel in the Toad Queen's Crown" is the most troubling offender here. The story focuses on the relationship between Victoria herself and her Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, told from both of their perspectives. The story has a whimsical, magic-realist overtone to it, and is overall charmingly written, but although Victoria's anti-Semitism towards the Jewish-born Disraeli is addressed, they finally bond: over the acquisition of India. The country of India is the titular jewel in the Queen's crown with which Disraeli courts her, an offscreen ambition, a prize. This is not unrealistic to how Victoria and Disraeli might have regarded the Indian peninsula, but it is one of the book's only mentions of the country at all. Genevieve Valentine's lengthily titled "From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvellous, Scheduled for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire)" collects a group of imperial "prizes" for the Exhibition which are exoticized as monsters: this is on purpose, to point out the disturbing imperialist nature of the Exhibition, but it hardly provides its Egyptian "deaf-mute" (p. 71) or Ottoman "Salome" (p. 72) with voices of their own.
One of the most interesting and complicatedly flawed stories in the anthology is its titular story, Delia Sherman's "Queen Victoria's Book of Spells." The story headlines the anthology, and for understandable reasons: it's a vivid, personal, well-drawn tale with one of the most directly metafictional themes, a modern female scholar's investigation of the diary and ventures into magic of a young Victoria. The story is not without nuance; one of its most poignant moments comes when the scholar fends off an attempt by her supervisor to sexually assault her with the use of magic. Her reaction is sad, understandable, and all too realistic: "Of course I thought about turning him in, but what would that have gotten me? Humiliated, unemployed, with a cloud over my head that would make employment at a first-class institution all but impossible" (p. 38) Astutely, this isn't the focus of the story—it's a depressing footnote in the protagonist's life, something she has to recover from and brush past in order to continue her work. This is a depressing and on-point indictment of institutional misogyny.
It's therefore a bit surprising that in its climax, the story seems to dismiss or apologize for sexual assault and nonconsent to some degree. Late in the story, the scholar unearths a disturbing confession that reflects very badly on the young Victoria. Her most pressing concern is not for the consequences of this revelation, but for Victoria's privacy before the public. In fact, the entire story is colored uncomfortably by a personal fondness for the young Victoria. This is partly understandable: Victoria may have risen to fame as an imperial monarch, but she also grew up in an abusive and controlling environment, which the story reflects without dismissing her as a strong-willed young woman. She was a human as well as a queen. However, the story presents the view that criticism of the monarch's more abominable acts should be affectionate: "Because you'll realise that sooner or later, somebody's going to publish them. And it should be someone who really loves and understands [Victoria]" (p. 48).
Love and understanding are not synonymous, particularly in scholarship, and the sentimental valuation of both together is a bit too telling of the story's weaknesses. Queen Victoria provided the people of the world with many reasons not to love her, historians included; in fact, nostalgia and fondness don't support historiography, they hamstring it. On some level, this holds a mirror to the anthology as a whole, fascinating and finely written and edited as it is. Queen Victoria's Book of Spells speaks with voices that love the nineteenth century, and love it with nuance and complexity, but perhaps a bit too well.
Gabriel Murray (email@example.com) lives and works in Queens, NY. He writes speculative and historical fiction and blogs at Orestes Drunk and Pylades Fasting about interactive fiction and miscellanea.
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