Buckley's book spines
Buckley’s book spines

Arabella Buckley (1840-1929) was a populariser of science who was acquainted with a number of well known scientists including Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Buckley and Wallace had more than just natural history in common, they also shared an interest in Spiritualism. Those who have written about Buckley  comment that her spiritualism doesn’t appear in her books and is kept hidden from certain scientific friends.

Her public side

Fairy-land of science and its follow up Through magic glasses are probably Buckley’s more known works.  Both these books use magical terms to teaching children about nature, science and evolution. In the first, fairies are likened to natural forces such as magnetism, gravity, crystalisation and electricity. She says in the introduction:

There are forces around us, and among us, which I shall ask you to allow me to call fairies, and these are ten thousand times more wonderful, more magical, and more beautiful in their work, than those of the old fairy tales. They, too, are invisible, and many people live and die without ever seeing them, or caring to see them (pg. 6)

A magician is the main character in Through magic glasses, who uses the magic glasses (microscope, telescope, spectroscope and photographic camera) to peer into the secrets of nature. He is in fact the Principle and founder of a public boys school who teaches them about such things as mosses, fungi, stars, and horses.

Cover of Life and her children
Cover of Life and her children

We have two books by Buckley in our special collections: Life and her children and its sequel, Winners of Life’s race. Both these books tell the story of life on earth from the amoeba to “The large milk-givers which have conquered the world by strength and intelligence”. These books have the occasional reference to fairy-land; for example the prawn is described as

…the crystal fairy of the sea, [and] … the crab, when big, is the lumbering armed giant, who destroys and devours without mercy, glaring out of his coat of mail, and not fearing any creature except a stronger crab than himself (pg. 167)

Both books are very descriptive and invite young readers to use their imaginations to discover these creatures and explore the worlds they inhabit. She moves through the animal kingdom demonstrating how the different species are related and develops a theme of mutuality. Gates has called her a pioneer in continuing “Darwin’s observations with far greater emphasis on mutuality”(pg. 169). One of my favourite descriptions in Winners of Life’s race is for the birds of prey:

It needs only a glance at them to see that they are strong destroyers, with their powerful wings, their sharp hooked beaks, their long toes with pointed claws, and their strong muscular thighs; and because most men admire strength and power, we call such birds noble, thought their nobility chiefly consists in loving their little ones, and asking neither pity not shelter from others, as they themselves are pitiless in return (pg. 174)

This mention of parental care reoccurs throughout the book and Buckley states that it is only after reaching the “clever, industrious, intelligent insects” that it begins and develops as we move up the “scale of life”.

Cover of Winners of Life's race
Cover of Winners of Life’s race

Both of these books have decorative covers and illustrations throughout. Not only do they contain general illustrations of animals, but also anatomical diagrams demonstrating how the various species are related. One of my favourite illustrations is that of the bat, especially after  Buckley describes them firstly as

…  a grotesque looking animal at best; but some of these leaf-nosed bats are simply hideous, with their wide-open mouth, sharp teeth, and skinny leaves sticking up around their nose.

Then as,

…gentle-looking.. [with] Their fox-like and intelligent faces [which] are a pleasure to look at, reminding one of the lemurs, and harmonising beautifully with their quiet and peaceful life among the fig-tree… (both pg. 237)

She is referring to vampire bats in the first quote then fruit bats in the second.


The “other” side

Buckley’s interest in spiritualism has been mainly documented through her correspondence with Alfred Russel Wallace, who she met through working as Charles Lyell’s secretary. Their letters discuss Buckley’s visits to mediums and her own attempts to communicate with spirits, they even attended at least one séance together (Fichman). Wallace sponsored Buckley’s application to join the Society of Psychical Research in 1896, which resulted in her becoming an Associated Member. She is mentioned in their Journal twice (Volumes 8 and 9) and their Proceedings (Volume  14), although two of these are related to one of the Society’s General Meetings where a letter from her is read out. In this letter Buckley describes a case of telepathy between herself and her step-daughter. On the other occasion she is noted for making a remark at another General Meeting about a suggestion experiment in which the medium was perhaps confused by the fact that there were two people in the room with the same name. A search for information on the step-daughter (Rosa or Rose Elizabeth Marie Fisher) brings up a mention of her in “Reincarnation for everyman” by Shaw Desmond where she is described as a lady of “high probity and scientific training”. The author mentions a case in which Rose, approaching a house she has never visited, describes the interior decor and furnishings and discovers, upon entering the house, that her “vision” of it was correct. Wallace definitely influenced Buckley in her investigations into spiritualism but it was her spiritualist mother who must have sown the first seed. Buckley visits mediums to help with a serious case of writers block (Lightman) and her letters to Wallace mention her communications with the spirit of her dead sister who refers to Wallace’s own son whose death greatly affected him.

Chapter title page from Winners of Life's race
Chapter title page from Winners of Life’s race

With her family and Wallace, on one side, and her more sceptical friends (including Darwin and Lyell) on the other, Buckley, Slotten, comments  “remained conflicted”. Lightman states that she kept this side hidden and didn’t show it in her books “to avoid raising questions about her credibility as a scientific author”.  With the references to fairies in  the four books looked at here, it can be viewed that spiritualism does appear in at least some of her work. As Silver’s article points out fairies were seen by the Victorians as a variety of beings including angels, spirits, elementals and prehistoric ancestors. In Through Magic Glasses the narrator mentions a book he saw when he was younger called World without end with a cover featuring a stile with a tree at each end and after asking a neighbour what it means he gets the reply

I do not rightly know what happens when there is no end, but I do know that there is a mighty lot to be found out in this world, and I’m thinking we had better learn first all about that, and perhaps it may teach us something which will help us to understand the other

Does this refer to life continuing after death with the possibility of rebirth or the taking on of another form, such as that of a fairy?  In the final chapter the narrator has a waking dream were he travels back in time and encounters Palæolithic peoples and then travels forward briefly meeting Romans, Saxons and finally the Britons. Could this be connected to Buckley’s experiences with mesmerism, perhaps linked to past life regressions? It could, of course, be that the references to fairies and magic is merely a descriptive tool used to make her books more appealing to children. We shall really never know.

(I became interested in Arabella Buckley through cataloguing past MPhil Dissertations so would like to thank the author, A. Silke, for bringing her to my attention. I also thank Jill Whitelock for helping me with the collections of the Society for Psychical Research at the University Library)


Bown, N., Nurdett, C. & Thurschwell, P. (ed.) The Victorian supernatural

Buckley, A. B. Fairyland of science (ed. by A. Fyfe)

Buckley, A. B. Through Magic Glasses via http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37589/37589-h/37589-h.htm

Buckley, A.B. Life and her children

Buckley, A. B. Winners in Life’s race

Fichman, M. An elusive Victorican

Gates, B.T. “Revisioning Darwin with sympathy: Arabella Buckley” in Gates, B. T. & Shteir, A. B. (ed.) Natural eloquence

Gates, B.T. Kindred nature

Lightman, B. Victorian popularizers of science

Nicholson, H. “Postmodern fairies” in History Workshop Journal 46 (1998)

Silke, A. “Arabella Buckley, popularisation and The Fairy-land of science” MPhil Dissertation, 2002

Silver, C. “On the origin of fairies: Victorians, Romantics and folk belief” in Browning Institute Studies 14 (1986)

Slotten, R.A. The heretic in Darwin’s court