Sunday 19 March 2017

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies by Katherine Webb

Back in 2009, I wrote my second novel, The Unseen. It was set in Berkshire during the long, hot summer of 1911, when England was poised on the brink of the huge social changes the First World War would bring. The fight for women's suffrage was already well underway, and my central character, Cat, is an intelligent young woman from London who is forced, by her low birth, to work in service - and to take a job in a rural backwater when her political activism makes her all but unemployable. Her struggle to make life better for herself and her fellows draws her, reluctantly, into the sphere of a charismatic spiritualist, and into a series of strange misadventures that lead, ultimately, to murder...

The story, which also deals with the influence of spiritualism and new eastern philosophies like Theosophy on established religious thought forms - these latter embodied by a very naive young vicar - was partly inspired by the case of the Cottingley Fairies. In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two schoolgirls living in Cottingley, West Yorkshire, took a series of photographs of what they claimed were real fairies. These famous pictures had always fascinated me – when I was younger because I liked to think that the fairies were real, and as I grew up because the hoax (or alleged hoax!) lasted as long as it did, and managed to convince several prominent and well-respected figures of the age, including the leading theosophist Edward Gardner and, most famously of all, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Elsie Wright, pictured in 1917 with one of the 'fairies' at Cottingley

So why were these rational, intelligent men so prepared to accept that the pictures were genuine? To sceptical, modern eyes, the photos look very staged indeed. Rather than appearing to be wild, elemental creatures, the fairies have neat, fashionable hair styles and slip dresses; they appear two dimensional, perfect, and doll-like. Photography experts at the time confirmed that the pictures had not been taken as double exposures, and that nothing had been painted or printed onto the negatives after exposure. One even testified that in one picture of the fairies dancing, they seemed to have moved during the exposure – proof positive that they were real, and animated. Or perhaps, that a light and flimsy paper figure had shifted slightly in a breeze…

Leading theosophist, Edward L. Gardner

The answer to why the photos convinced these men becomes evident when you read the letters that passed between Edward Gardner and Conan Doyle, the articles about the case which Conan Doyle wrote for Strand Magazine, and his later book The Coming of the Fairies. They believed because they so desperately wanted to believe. For Gardner and Conan Doyle, fairies were part of a hierarchy of nature spirits and ethereal beings, in turn a part of the ‘universal soul’ that lies at the centre of theosophy. Only the truly enlightened, or the naturally clairvoyant, would be able to see these pure beings. As such, their existence proved the tenants of theosophy, or the ‘Divine Truth’, to be true. 
But sightings of fairies didn’t always fit the theosophical model so neatly, and in The Coming of the Fairies, Conan Doyle clearly wrestles with the details of some reported cases. One Mrs Hardy, living in New Zealand, described seeing fairies riding around her garden on little fairy horses. This was not the only account of fairy horses that Conan Doyle had come across, but he admitted that such descriptions made things “more complicated and harder to understand.” If they had miniature horses, then, as Conan Doyle writes, “why not dogs?” At this point, the fairies stopped being the essence of nature made visible in bodies less dense than air, and became the ‘little people’ of childhood stories. So perhaps what made the Cottingley fairies so attractive, from a theosophical point of view, was that they had been seen by virginal young girls, often thought to possess a natural clairvoyance; that they were seen in an area of unspoilt natural beauty; and that they showed no complicated behaviour or equipment that interfered with the idea that they were indeed manifestations of pure natural energy.

The number of ghost and fairy sightings, and the popularity of theosophy and spiritualism from the late Victorian era right the way through the Edwardian, shows that people at the time were very keen to believe in an ‘other world’ of some kind – either the world of the spirits of the dead, with which a medium could communicate; or on a grander scale, in a whole pantheon of spirits of various types and powers. Perhaps, as some writers believe, these beliefs came to fill a void that was left behind at a time when new discoveries were encroaching on religious faith. Darwin’s theory of evolution was gaining ground, and undermining the traditional Christian explanation of the origins of mankind. Science, medicine and rationalism had left some people with serious doubts about the church’s teachings, and yet the world was still full of wonders – from electricity to anaesthesia – that remained beyond most people’s understanding. Spiritualism stepped into this gap. In short, people still wanted to believe in something – in some supernatural driving force; and if that were no longer God, then they would look for alternatives.

The fairy 'sunbath' or 'bower' photo, which Frances insisted, to her dying day, was genuine.

It was this desire to believe that was my starting point as I began to shape the story of The Unseen. I started to wonder why different people might believe, and what their various reactions to the possibility of fairies living at the bottom of the garden might be; and also why somebody might be prepared to assemble a hoax to help convince the sceptics. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths admitted in later life that their photos had been faked, and taken with the help of paper cut outs. The high-profile attention they received had made it impossible for them to confess at the time.  But to her dying day, Frances insisted that there had been fairies at Cottingley, and that the final picture they took, of the fairy bower, was genuine. Using a fake to prove that something is real…a fascinating idea that I carried into my book!

Frances Griffiths with 'the leaping fairy'.


Joan Lennon said...

A fascinating post - thank you!

Susan Price said...

This whole question of belief is fascinating. Why did Conan Doyle balk at the idea of miniature fairy dogs when he's already swallowed the idea of fairies with 1920s hairstyles and frocks? Perhaps the fairies did have tiny dogs to go with their tiny horses but had left them at home that day?

Janie Hampton said...

I'm quite sure there are fairies at the bottom of MY garden... it's just I'm too old to see them.