Jess Nevins’ The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

Encyclopedia_of_Fantastic_Victoriana_coverTo the casual reader or observer, it sometimes may seem that the twentieth century was the time of real blossoming in terms of the Fantastic in literature: after all, that’s when science fiction really came into its own, and when a certain Don of Oxford penned a tale about hobbits and gold rings. But the more rigorous student of the Fantastic knows that Fantasy, as well as those tropes that eventually spun away to become science fiction, are far older than just a hundred years. The literature of the fantastic stretches back as far as Homer, after all, and likely even before that. The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, a long-gestating labor of love by Jess Nevins, focuses on the Fantastic of the Victorian era. The nineteenth century was one of the richest periods for the exploration of the Fantastic in art, and the literature of the time gave us such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Ivanhoe, Judah Ben Hur, Allan Quatermain, Quasimodo, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz . . . it’s an endless list, one suspects. Nevins has done nothing less than provide twenty-first century readers with a guidebook for an era of the Fantastic that fewer and fewer these days are aware even exists.

Jess Nevins is a reference librarian at Sam Houston State University in Texas, and he has written several books about the comic book work of Alan Moore. (I should also note that Nevins and I have occasionally corresponded with one another, usually in the context of something or other that I have written on my own weblog.) The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana has its genesis in a Web site Nevins maintained on his own time; eventually all of the material on the Web site found its way into the book, but in a more scholarly format as well as with a giant amount of material never seen on the Web site at all. The result is a truly massive book. It is over 1,000 pages long, its pages are large, and there are no illustrations. This book is text, text, and more text. In other words, the reader more than gets her money’s worth here in terms of sheer reading pleasure.

Nevins’s approach is, as he tells us, to be “subjective, not objective,”and “prescriptive” rather than “descriptive.” This means that he does not shy from sharing his opinions on the works he discusses here, and it’s a fairly daring choice. It would have been safer, and probably easier, for Nevins to take a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, but to do so would negate the very fact that this entire project is a great labor of love for an entire period of literature that is at times underappreciated. Thus Nevins is unafraid to tell us that he finds The Three Musketeers a wonderful spectacle, that James Fenimore Cooper is “prolix” and “has the penny-a-word writer’s inability to get to the point that Taras Bulba is an ugly, “morally vile” story, that Sir Walter Scott is overrated, and so on. He even uses his single Appendix to make his own attempt to salvage the literary reputation of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Nevins’s approach is in its way refreshing, and in its way it makes the enormity of the book even more amazing. Nevins actually read everything he writes about here.

I did have some problems with the book’s organization, however. Calling the book an “Encyclopedia” implies a certain nature as a reference work, but I found the book more suited to browsing than to actual reference use. Entries are organized, for example, by character name. Thus, to learn what Nevins makes of the work of Alexandre Dumas, one cannot simply look up the “Dumas, Alexandre” entry. One must actually look up The Three Musketeers, which is easy enough since that’s the title of the book. However, if one wishes to look up The Count of Monte Cristo, the reader can’t simply look up that title — the reader must already know the name of the main character of that novel, and thus flip to the “Dantes, Edmond” entry. (I did not recall the name of Edmond Dantes, so I came across that entry purely by random flipping through the book.) There is an entry about Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, under “T” for “Todd, Sweeny,” which seems odd because few people would think to use the phone-book style “last name, comma, first name” style of indexing. I also wondered why Ben-Hur was listed under “Hur, Ben” as opposed to “Ben-Hur, Judah.” For a book that’s set up as a reference work, it’s surprisingly difficult to find specific information within it.

The only other quibble I have with The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana would be that Nevins focuses his attention on the original literary works only. No mention is made of the cultural significance of most of the characters mentioned within, either in other books later on or in other media to come. However, this is not a major quibble, especially considering the more than 1,000 pages of worthy material here.

The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is a wonderful effort, and I can’t help but be amazed at the scope of Jess Nevins’s effort in producing it. I highly recommend it, although I do think it should probably be called a “Guidebook” more than an “Encyclopedia.”

(Monkeybrain Books, 2006)