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Cinderella science

Imagine a plant that grew into a plum pudding, a cricket bat, or even a pair of trousers. Rather than being a magical transformation straight out of Cinderella, these ‘wonderful plants’ were instead to be found in Victorian Britain. Just one of the Fairy-Tales of Science introduced by chemist and journalist John Cargill Brough in his ‘book for youth’ of 1859. These real-world connections and metamorphoses that traced the origins of everyday objects were arguably even more impressive than the fabled conversion of pumpkin to carriage (and back again). That same year, Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, which in its own way talked of organisms shifting forms over time. The fairy-tale possibilities and resonances of evolutionary theories were often highlighted in the second half of the nineteenth century, as authors drew heavily on such allusions when dealing with Darwin. With natural selection, like a fairy godmother, adapting plants and animals to fit new environments, what better comparison for the transformation of objects and creatures than Cinderella?

Charles Henry Bennett, ‘Wonderful Plants’, from John Cargill Brough, The Fairy-Tales of Science (1859). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, Thomas Henry Huxley, science itself was Cinderella, an overlooked step-sibling to Theology and Philosophy, and hard at work in the real world. But others drew more precise comparisons, for both serious and comic effect. For instance, one imagined correspondent to Punch could ‘readily understand’, he wrote in 1879, ‘the pumpkin changed into a carriage, the rats into footmen, and the other arrangements for the Transformation Scene wrought by Cinderella’s scientific godmother’. These were ‘evidently a mythic foreshadowing of some great Darwinian Doctrine of Evolution’, and therefore ‘reasonable enough’. ‘But a slipper of glass!’, he exclaimed, ‘The thing is preposterous.’ Taking issue with the linguistic confusion which had, by the late 1870s, converted the orphan’s footwear from vair to verre, or fur to glass, he demanded accuracy of his fantasy. This act of iconoclasm dared to apply the latest scientific knowledge, as well as new techniques of biblical analysis and close-reading, to the sacred fairy-tale canon.

Other works, such as nursery classic The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley (1863), wove together observations on natural history and evolutionary theory as the scientific warp to a societal weft in a moral fable, which chronicled Tom’s series of evolving adventures. Rather than a fairy godmother, here maternal teachers introduced Tom to the wonders of nature, and to correct behaviour. Throughout, Kingsley’s avuncular narrator made joking reference to contemporary men of science (including Huxley), but also to the wider spirit of enquiry, ‘Fairy Science’, which they served. In fact, the narrator argued, the ‘most wonderful and the strongest things in the world’ are things, from faith to kindness to forces, which ‘no one can see’; fairies are ‘what makes the world go round’.

However, this very invisibility of evolutionary mechanism also permitted the use of Cinderella figures in arguing against Darwinian doctrine. For example, the veterinarian brothers George and Albert Gresswell’s book describing a Wonderland of Evolution (1884) very explicitly used a fairy godmother to embody the process of ‘Evolution’, pairing her with ‘Chance’. Though its first-person narrator transformed into an evolutionary catalogue of appropriate organisms, beginning with the ‘lowly form’ that represented the origins of life on earth, the purpose of such presentation, revealed in a conclusion, was to ridicule its precepts. They used fairy guides and talking animals to save the phenomenon of divine power, and downplay the role of chance. However, reviewers were not kind to this book, one writing that: ‘It is not at all evident that the authors understand themselves what is the theory of evolution… Their attempt to make fun of it is certainly a distinct failure.’ Combining fairy tales and science had no guarantee of success.

Connections between Cinderella and science have persisted in more recent times. For instance, the very latest techniques in photobotanic technology were employed by John Nash Ott and his researchers in recording time-lapse footage of pumpkin growth to be animated in the 1950 Disney film. With the imminent release of a live-action version of Disney’s Cinderella, many are asking whether its magical transformations could actually happen in the real world. These Victorian authors argued that, through the process of evolution, it already was.

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