Disaster and Deserts: Children’s Natural History as Nightmare and Dream

  • Naomi WoodEmail author


Charles Kingsley’s last work for children, the informational book Madam How and Lady Why (1869), treats questions of geology, geography, evolution, theodicy, and epistemology. Like other Victorian popular science, one goal is to integrate the claims of science with those of religion. But it does not do so by domesticating the natural world in any conventional sense. Earthquakes destroy towns and kill innocent people; volcanoes erupt, continents shift, and even a peaceful landscape may mask a genocidal struggle. Such is Kingsley’s personification of natural process Madam How’s way: she demands exertion. Adelene Buckland has shown how Kingsley structures novels using the geological record as a model, so too in Madam How and Lady Why, Kingsley’s informational-narrative treatment melds different generic “strata” to depict the epistemological process as similarly multilayered. As long-past volcanic activity or coral reefs are discerned in the peaceful landscape of southern England, so past truths expressed in imaginative genres may erupt into scientific observation and inductive reasoning. Kingsley’s efforts do not maintain the literal truth of the Bible in a fundamentalist sense, however. Warning against the dangers of the “Tree of Unreason” (a marked departure from Genesis and the story of the Fall), Kingsley champions learning from the “Book of Nature” by direct observation, free inquiry, and experimentation. The greatest sin is not desire for (carnal) knowledge, but failure to reason and act. Kingsley’s figurative language, such as his feminine personifications, places his implied readership of English schoolboys in a simultaneously dependent and erotic relationship to knowledge. Championing exertion and struggle, Kingsley implicitly endorses the British imperial project and naturalizes domination over the global South. Kingsley warns against ignoring material facts in favor of abstract theorizing or looking for divine abrogation of natural laws, since they are in effect God’s fiction—God’s word made world.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EnglishKansas State UniversityManhattanUSA

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