Fairies, Folk­lore and Forteana

SI­MON YOUNG FILES A NEW RE­PORT FROM THE IN­TER­FACE OF STRANGE PHE­NOM­ENA AND FOLK BE­LIEF

Fortean Times - - Strange Days - Si­mon Young writes on folk­lore and his­tory and runs www.fairy­ist.com

COTTINGLEY’S FAIRY FAKERS

The Cottingley Fairies, whose 100th an­niver­sary is upon us (see pp30-35), were not, as we now know, real. All were de­signed, drawn and then cut out by two young York­shire girls, Frances Grif­fiths and Elsie Wright, who hood­winked first many of their rel­a­tives, then lo­cal theosophists and fi­nally Arthur Conan Doyle.

Pos­ter­ity has cho­sen to go easy on Frances and Elsie: af­ter all, it is ar­gued, this was a kids’ game that got out of hand. The chil­dren were caught in a lie, and what is worse they were caught in a lie by so­cial ‘bet­ters’ in nasty and un­for­giv­ing Ed­war­dian Eng­land. The present writer has be­come im­pa­tient with this ver­sion of events. I have the great­est sym­pa­thy for Frances and Elsie, both now de­parted. The girls played their part in the Cottingley drama with that spe­cial panache given to those who have grown up breath­ing Pen­nine air. But this idea that the two were pas­sive agents, be­ing ex­ploited and prod­ded along by a cruel class sys­tem re­ally needs to be put through the pa­per shred­der.

In 1917 when the first two pho­to­graphs were taken Elsie was 16 or 17 and Frances was 9 or 10. They took the pho­to­graphs af­ter their fam­ily had ridiculed Frances’s fairy sight­ings: Frances it will be re­mem­bered claimed to her death that she re­ally had seen fairies. It wasn’t they, but Elsie’s mother, who brought the pho­tos to a theosophist meet­ing in 1919, and things span out of con­trol from there, the pho­to­graphs ul­ti­mately mak­ing their way into the Strand mag­a­zine. So far so good. What is of­ten for­got­ten, though, is that the third, fourth and fifth pho­to­graphs were taken in 1920, three years af­ter the first two. Ed­ward Gard­ner, their theosophist ‘min­der’, gave the girls two cam­eras and 20 plates and asked them to snap fairies in Cottingley Beck. Elsie was no longer a child. There is a re­mark­able pho­to­graph of her on the beck bank in that year, a stun­ning young woman. It would, of course, have been dif­fi­cult at this point to tell the whole truth. But the girls could eas­ily have ‘failed’ to have taken the last pho­to­graphs: “Sorry, Mr Gard­ner, we pho­tographed the fairies but they don’t ap­pear on the neg­a­tive”. The theosophists were con­vinced that the on­set of pu­berty un­der­mined the abil­ity to ‘materialise’ fairies, so their ab­sence would have been un­der­stood. In­stead, Frances and Elsie reached again for the hat pins and the scis­sors...

Should we blame them? Not in the least. They brought a lit­tle magic to glum post-war Eng­land. But nor should we start scratch­ing around for al­i­bis on their be­half. In 1917, Frances and Elsie were out to trick their fam­ily; in 1920, they were out to trick the world.

THEOSPOPHISTS WERE CON­VINCED THATTHE ON­SET OF PU­BERTY UN­DER­MINED THE ABIL­ITY TO ‘MATERIALISE’ FAIRIES

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