I held onto this book for a good couple of months before reviewing it. Mainly, this was because I felt I could do it more justice if I spent more time reading it. But I also couldn't actually face reviewing it for some time, so boggled was my mind by the contents.
Fantastic Victoriana is an incredibly ambitious work. Any work that sets out to call itself an "encyclopedia" of anything is immediately setting itself up as authoritative and, by its nature, definitive. I'm not aware of another book dealing with the same subject matter, so Fantastic Victoriana automatically has something of a head start. I'm glad to say that Jess Nevins hasn't squandered his lead.
The first thing that strikes you about this book is the magnificent front cover by John Picacio. I'll admit that I regressed to a mental age of five and wanted the rest of the book to be similarly illustrated—but it isn't, and there's absolutely no reason why it should be apart from my nerdy joy at seeing a giant robot in a hat.
After the cover, the sheer weight of the book is the next thing you notice. In the thousand-odd pages between the covers, Nevins has opted for a variety of styles of entry. The most common of these are, as you'd expect, straightforward exposition of a particular text. The encyclopedia is primarily designed as a reference work to fiction, and so you won't find an entry for "Verne, Jules," but you will find entries for "Captain Nemo" and "Fogg, Phileas."
While we're at it, it's worth mentioning that those two examples give an indication of the problem with using this book as a casual reference work—the inconsistency of the referencing schema. Whilst Phileas Fogg is referenced under "F," Captain Nemo is not referenced under "N" but instead "C." Likewise, there are several other "Captains" filed in the "C" category rather than under the initial of their surname.
"The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" is, for want of a better phrase, another case in point. There's no entry corresponding to the novel itself, nor is there an entry for "Jekyll, Henry." Given what happened when you tried to look up "Nemo, Captain," you would be forgiven for thinking that "Doctor Jekyll" might be worth a stab—but to no avail. There is, however, an entry for "Hyde, Edmund." And oddly, there is an entry for "Quartz, Doctor" that says merely "See: 'Doctor Quartz'." Is there a handy pointer like that for Jekyll/Hyde/Nemo/anyone else? No, is the short answer.
The front of the book does have a "contents page" of sorts, in that each letter of the alphabet is listed along with each entry filed under a given letter. Rather more usefully (for me, at least) is the "Author Index" that the publishers make available on their website here, which makes navigating the encyclopedia awfully easier.
When you do get to the entry you're looking for, the usual format is a brief synopsis of the text followed by an analysis of the text in a wider context. It's this analysis that makes the book so compelling—never overly academic in tone, but giving an appreciation of the text in its contemporary and literary setting. These bitesize chunks of analysis are a fine way to satisfy immediate curiosity and provide a springboard for further research.
To continue with "Hyde, Edmund" as an example, Nevins gives an overview of the most prevalent interpretations of the text, which include Hyde as repressed id, Hyde as evolutionary throwback, and Hyde as repressed homosexual persona. Nevins isn't afraid to give his own perspective on the validity of these interpretations and does so without being dismissive of them—for the curious, he comes down on the side of evolutionary throwback but caveats this with the assertion that the text isn't really one that stands up to close allegorical scrutiny.
These entries are particularly useful in dealing with the wealth of lesser-known characters created in the period. Every such entry carries with it a summary of the stories featuring that character, and several of these summaries make compelling cases to seek out the source texts. In that, I agree wholeheartedly with Michael Moorcock's introduction, where he notes that "Jess Nevins has drawn us a map to the well. We could do a lot worse than follow it."
In addition to the entries examining fictional characters, there are essay-style thematic entries. These aren't necessarily essay-length, most covering no more than a couple of pages or so, but aim to establish a sense of context for the rest of the referenced works. Entries such as "Fin de Siecle," "Future War," and "The Yellow Peril" serve as touchstones or maps to other entries which dig deeper into works discussing the issue at hand. These act as descriptions of trends in the works of the time and establish social, political, and literary contexts in which the texts can be read. These entries also make for interesting reads in their own right.
Like Moorcock, I don't agree with all of Nevins's views. The viewpoints expressed in each entry, however, are sufficiently explained to let me understand why Nevins holds those opinions—and none of them are so contrary as to make me want to throw the book across the room.
This, I should mention, is a thing I do with reference books sometimes. I throw them in frustration. But this book didn't get thrown once (and not only because I can barely lift it, either). Huge amounts of painstaking research have clearly gone into this book (eight years, according to the acknowledgements page), and the clarity of the author's understanding shines through.
The only criticism I can level is about the bloody filing system. Nevins is a librarian, and I'm sure he knows far more about this stuff than me. I'm also sure, however, that there are others beside me that must have looked at something filed in a particular place in Fantastic Victoriana and thought "huh?"
If Fantastic Victoriana were an encyclopedia in the mould of, say, Britannica—that of a reference work to be consulted periodically for homework or the resolution to a bet in the pub—the referencing system would be a far more important issue. But it's not, and that's a deliberate choice on the author's part. In his foreword, Nevins makes it clear that this is a book for people interested in—but not currently possessed of vast quantities of knowledge about—the "Victorians." It's designed for dipping into. It's designed for researching curiosities. It's not designed to be the be-all and end-all guide to fiction from the period.
And if that doesn't convince you that, in the grand scheme of things, the referecing schema is a relatively minor issue, consider that John Clute says that "It is to be consulted. And it is to be read." And, do you know, he's absolutely right. There's a distinction to be made between the expectation created by the word "encyclopedia" (ie, that it is to be consulted) and the actual pleasure that can be derived from just reading through Fantastic Victoriana.
I've not heard of most of the stuff in here. There's the obvious, of course—your "Sherlock Holmes," the odd "Frankenstein, Victor," or "Dracula, Count." But there's also "The Man in the Black Cloak," or "Penniel's Painting," or "Nana Sahib," or "Rocambole" and "Captain Chlamyl." All of these are new to me, and I'm proud to say that I can now easily hold a dinner party conversation on how the last of them actually has nothing to do with chlamydia—a faux pas I might easily have made were it not for the intervention of Fantastic Victoriana.
Buy this book and read it. If it's outside of your price range, then at least convince your local library to buy it. Then go and read their copy.
Most of the source texts will be out of copyright by now, so by all means steal from it. Learn from it and enjoy it. But most of all, relish the constant surprises you'll get from finding something new and surprising—whether or not it was found where you'd expect.
Tim was born at a very early age, and plans to die shortly. He suspects that only people who know him will get the joke in the second half of that sentence. For anyone else wondering, the joke is that he's not very tall. In idle moments, Tim also wishes that he hadn't subcontracted the writing of his jokes to a cut-rate Tommy Cooper knockoff.