THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When approaching any massive encyclopedic reference work such as Jess Nevins’s The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, one of the first things to do is look at entries with which the reader has familiarity, to ensure that the information presented doesn’t contradict the reader’s own knowledge of the topic. With hundreds of entries, The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana certainly provides readers with enough topics that there will be something of which everyone has some knowledge.
The tome is comprised of entries covering not only characters from Victorian-era literature, but also themes, such as “fin-de-sičcle unease” or “The Yellow Peril.” These are scattered throughout the work and treated as any other entry, although it might have been more helpful if they had been formatted slightly differently to highlight their different and overarching nature.
The thematic entries are well thought out and tie in not only to the literature they are describing, but also tie in to the real world as Nevins explains why these themes and stereotypes were able to take root in the mass consciousness. In some cases, Nevins points out that the type of story, such as “The Lost Race” story, predated the period and its authors, but something, either an author like H. Rider Haggard, or something, such as the tenor of the times, caused the story style to strike a chord with the readership as a whole. Many of these themes and tropes continued to be seen long after the Victorian period came to an end, as well.When dealing with individual characters, such as the entry on Phileas Fogg, from Jules Verne’s Le tour du monde en quatre vingt jours, Nevins not only describes Fogg’s character and adventure, but also provides and explanation of the manner in which Verne and his contemporaries may have perceived the work and the way in which Verne approached writing the book.
One of the things which becomes evident in reading through The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is how many of the elements of early science fiction were already extant during the period. Although Shelley, Verne, and Wells may be the names of the period most often associated with the creation of science fiction, Nevins points out authors like Mór Jókai, whose novel A Jöv Század Regénye was a look at the creation of a super-metal and, despite being published in the 1870s, would have fit perfectly in any of the Gernsback magazines or their early competitors.
While in some ways, all of The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is a bibliography, Nevins includes a bibliography of books which cover folklore and critical analysis of the period covered by the main topic of the encyclopedia. If there is one drawback to the book, it is that Nevins covers numerous texts and authors who will not be readily available to the reader. Fortunately, libraries and used book sources can rectify that situation for the interested reader.
The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is an interesting, educational and insightful look at a literature which formed the basis of much of the popular culture of the twentieth century. The roots of such ubiquitous characters as Indiana Jones, the Kimball Kinnison, and Nick Charles can be found in the writing covered by Nevin's book. Whether you are dipping into it at random or looking for specific information about Victorian literature, The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is a worthwhile addition to any library.
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