Fairies, Folklore and Forteana
SIMON YOUNG FILES A NEW REPORT FROM THE INTERFACE OF STRANGE PHENOMENA AND FOLK BELIEF
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