Spellbound The Fairy Tale and The Victorians by Molly Clark Hillard Reviewed!

In examining the relationship between fairy tales and Victorian culture, Molly Clark Hillard concludes that the Victorians were “spellbound”: novelists, poets, and playwrights were self-avowedly enchanted by the fairy tale, and, at the same time, literary genres were bound to the fairy tale, dependent upon its forms and figures to make meaning. But these “spellbound” literary artists also feared that fairy tales exuded an originative power that pervaded and precluded authored work. Victorians resolved this tension by treating the form as a nostalgic refuge from an industrial age, a quaint remnant of the pre-literacy of childhood and peasantry. However, Spellbound: The Fairy Tale and the Victorians demonstrates that fairy stories, rather than operating outside of progressive modernity, significantly contributed to the language and images of industrial, material England. Hillard challenges the common critical and cultural misconception (originating with the Victorians themselves) that the fairy tale was a quaint and quiescent form.

Through close readings of the novels of Dickens, Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë; the poetry of Tennyson and Christina Rossetti; the visual artistry of Burne-Jones and Punch; and the popular theatricals of dramatists like Planché and Buckingham, Spellbound opens fresh territory into well-traversed titles of the Victorian canon. Hillard reveals that these literary forms were all cross-pollinated by the fairy tale and that their authors were—however reluctantly—purveyors of disruptive fairy tale matter over which they had but imperfect control.   
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Ohio State University Press (28 Mar 2014) 

 Molly Clark Hillard is assistant professor of English at Seattle University 

Part One – Matter discusses the works of such Victorian era greats as Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Bronte’s Jane Eyre by analyzing its poetry, aspects of fiction and drama  in terms of how the Victorians used sentimentality while taking a nostalgic look at the fairy tale during the industrial age.  The works of Charles Dickens will take precedence in these chapters making up part one of Spellbound because he was the most successful nineteenth-century writer of the day! 

Part Two – Spell has to be my favorite part of Spellbound. Firstly, two of my favorite men and their works are discussed within the Victorian fairy tale and folklore context socially and culturally: Alfred Lord Tennyson and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.  Each of them represented the gender status of female in regard to the fairy tale princess and the subject of Sleeping Beauty both poetry form and in painting form.  Alfred Lord Tennyson’s, ‘The Day Dream’ is analyzed in terms of how it fits into the fairy tale genre or aspect. Also, in stark contrast the reader will find The Briar Rose paintings by Burne-Jones included in images in Spellbound and The Briar Rose history both French and British fairy tales are analyzed within a refreshing aspect. I enjoyed these chapters immensely. It made me look at their works differently and form an even better perspective on the historical aspect of their works. 

As if this is not enough, the author juxtaposes Tennyson’s The Day Dream and aspects of Idylls of the King against John Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes.  I always think of that gorgeous J.E. Millais painting whenever I read that Keats poem. Sadly, Mr. Millais is not brought into these chapters but you will find John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice quoted throughout Spellbound giving it another interesting perspective on the connection between the subtext of fairy tales used during the Victorian era by such brilliant Victorian men and women. 

Part Three – Produce introduces the reader to the concept of ‘fairy folk’ within the fairy tale aspect of its origins during the nineteenth century. What did the Victorians think of ‘fairy folk’ did they believe in them or dismiss the concept altogether? These chapters will discuss how fairies travelled between the human and fairy world characterizing fairy legend within the theme of Victorian literary representation. Some aspects of cultural nineteenth century events are mentioned and discussed i.e. The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, Punch Magazine imagery are used within the pages of Spellbound as well as Richard Doyle’s, The Fairy Tree.  I wasn’t familiar with Richard Doyle’s work so this was such a pleasant and unexpected discovery to read about. One discovery that did not surprise me included in this part was the woman’s name, Christina Rossetti and her most disturbing work, ‘Goblin Market!  You cannot discuss fairie folk and the nineteenth-century without mentioning Christina Rossetti!   The author discusses the theme of what she terms ‘female hunger’ and its search for knowledge, labor and domestic economy within Goblin Market. The concept  of the ‘violated maiden’ found in Goblin Market is brought to light within the context of how The Victorians perceived this work written by a well-known poetess from an even more well-known family, ‘The Rossetti’s. However, when it comes to Spellbound only Christina Rossetti’s works are mentioned and included here! 

Part Four - Paraphrase as if goblins weren't scary enough up pops "Lupus in fabula" (the wolf in the tale). The wolf as a corrupt character either lurking in the forest waiting to attack an innocent young girl or the wolf used as a figure who teaches young girls self-sufficiency, chastity, restraint even mortality.

These chapters will demonstrate how "Little Red Riding Hood" taught Victorians themes of pursuit, shameful knowledge and violent ends through a fairy tale figure representing endangered virtue. For instance, Charles Perrault's Le Petit Chaperon Rouge is discussed possibly beginning the fairy tale aspect of Little Red Riding Hood. Also, The Grimms' Rotkappchen is introduced and analyzed in-depth.

Overall, Spellbound is a cultural and analytic in-depth examination of the relationship between fairy tales and Victorian culture. Were the Victorians "Spellbound" and enchanted by these tales? You will have to read it to find out.

 Thank you to The Ohio State University Press for my free copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

To purchase Spellbound in the United Kingdom, AmazonUK  and in the United States, Amazon


I'm intimidated to read this collegiate book but I love fairy tales and your review made it sound very intriguing! Purchased a copy anyway, thanks!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Francine,
I completely understand about being intimidated but I think you'll really enjoy Spellbound.
Thanks for visiting and commenting!