In the period following the Enlightenment literary fairy tales and texts which dealt with ethereal, supernatural and magical subjects constituted a backlash against the systemic alienation and increasing mechanisation of the population’s everyday experience, engendered by the Industrial Revolution. The Victorian’s not only recognised the subversive potential of fairy tales to counter the ‘advantageous’ enforcement of empiricism and scientific rigour propagated by the Enlightenment, they embraced the literary schema as an antidote to the growing industrialization which was affecting England so profoundly, both socially and culturally.

This experience is described adroitly by Barry Supple in his essay ‘The Governing Framework: Social Class and Institutional Reform in Victorian Britain’ (The Victorians, ed. by Laurence Lerner, 90-119. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978):

‘the impersonalization of factories, the imposition of a compelling and external discipline, the prolonged activity at the behest of machinery, […] the anonymity of the urban community […] amounted to a marked deterioration in […] the standards of life for large numbers of people.’

Victorian writers used the literary fairy tale to engage with and comment on these issues; women’s rights, religious and moral responsibility, organisation of labour, class equality and the nature of human and social autonomy and cohesion were interpreted and confronted through fairy tales, to varying degrees and effect throughout the nineteenth century.

One of the truly pivotal moments in the evolution of the Victorian literary fairy tale was the publication in 1846 of Mary Howitt’s translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Wonderful Stories for Children’. His remarkable collection of tales combining the fantastical with Christian motifs and a morally sound stance ensured it was prolifically popular with the middle-class, a social body whose growth and influence had been fostered by the Industrial Revolution. It became apparent that the strictly didactic approach to literature and education encouraged during the Enlightenment was in fact detrimental to young minds, who were more likely to engage with and respond to the creativity and imagination found in the work of Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and their contemporaries. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century emphasis shifted from ehortative moral didacticsm to fairy tales as a form of entertainment which could incorporate whimsy whilst still interacting with the social consciousness of their readership. In many cases authors wished to inculcate within the reader an awareness of the injustice and disparities among the sexes and social classes, encouraging a humane stance against the forces of oppression enabled by the Industrial Revolution. By creating utopian, or dystopian, worlds of fantasy and fairy tale, Victorian authors had the freedom and unique perspective to comment on the contentious social issues within nineteenth century England.