Table of Contents, Preface & Introduction
- Title Page
- Copyright Notice
- Preface 🌹 Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
- Introduction: Fantasy, Magic, and Fairyland in Nineteenth-Century England 🌹 Terri Windling
- Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells 🌹 Delia Sherman
- The Fairy Enterprise 🌹 Jeffrey Ford
- From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvellous, Scheduled for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire) 🌹 Genevieve Valentine
- The Memory Book 🌹 Maureen McHugh
- La Reine d’Enfer 🌹 Kathe Koja
- For the Briar Rose 🌹 Elizabeth Wein
- The Governess 🌹 Elizabeth Bear
- Smithfield 🌹 James P. Blaylock
- The Unwanted Women of Surrey 🌹 Kaaron Warren
- Charged 🌹 Leanna Renee Hieber
- Mr. Splitfoot 🌹 Dale Bailey
- Phosphorus 🌹 Veronica Schanoes
- We Without Us Were Shadows 🌹 Catherynne M. Valente
- The Vital Importance of the Superficial 🌹 Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer
- The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown 🌹 Jane Yolen
- A Few Twigs He Left Behind 🌹 Gregory Maguire
- Their Monstrous Minds 🌹 Tanith Lee
- Estella Saves the Village 🌹 Theodora Goss
- About the Authors
- Recommended Reading
- Also Edited 🌹 Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
- About the Editors
- Copyright Acknowledgments
Welcome to Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, a book of all-new tales of Gaslamp Fantasy, or stories set in a magical version of nineteenth-century England. Gaslamp tales can take place at any time during the 1800s, from the Regency years early in the century to Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837–1901). The stories may occasionally stray into the Edwardian era, but the genre ends with World War I. Although commonly set in England itself, such tales may also unfold in other locations, including Britain’s former colonies—especially those where British culture has been, or remains, a dominant force.
Steampunk fiction, which blends nineteenth-century settings with science fiction elements, receives a great deal of popular attention these days, yet it is only one form of the diverse range of fiction that falls under the Gaslamp Fantasy label. You’ll also find historical fantasy, dark fantasy with a deliciously gothic bent, romantic tales, detective tales, and “fantasies of manners”: magical fiction that owes more to Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope than to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Popular works of Gaslamp Fantasy can be found on both the Adult and Young Adult shelves, including Homunculus by James P. Blaylock, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, The Prestige by Christopher Priest, Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton, and Sorcery & Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer … as well as A. S. Byatt’s mainstream novel Possession, which has more than a little magic around the edges. A longer list of books in this vein is in the back of this book.
Since many excellent Steampunk anthologies already exist, our purpose in creating Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells was to explore and celebrate the broader genre of Gaslamp Fantasy, encouraging the authors herein to approach our nineteenth-century theme in a wide variety of ways. Some of our writers were inspired by classic nineteenth-century texts; others by historical personages, including Queen Victoria herself, in youth and in old age; still others by diverse aspects of nineteenth-century culture ranging from theatre, science, and politics to fairy lore and spiritualism.
Why, it might be asked, are so many of us in the fantasy field so fascinated by the nineteenth century? Perhaps because the culture of the period was awash in fantasy. As Terri will discuss in more depth in the introduction immediately following this, at no other time and place in Anglo-American history were magical stories so widely read by the general public, or elements of the supernatural so prized. Bestselling works of fantasy literature were published for readers of all ages, “fairy art” hung on the walls of respectable galleries, and a passion for supernatural romance swept through the theatre, ballet, and opera worlds from the 1830s onward. Throughout the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution created enormous societal upheaval, disrupting old rural ways of life and transforming the British countryside in a manner both astonishing and distressing. Fantasy provided both escape from the social pressures caused by rapid urbanization, and a means to address these issues through the metaphoric language of myth and symbolism.
Today, as our own technological revolution causes sweeping societal change and upheaval, many of us turn to fantasy for the same reasons: to escape the modern world. And, perhaps, to understand it just a little bit better when we return.
Fantasy, Magic, and Fairyland in Nineteenth-Century England—An Introduction
As the English-theater historian Michael Booth stated in Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850–1910, “The acceptance and rapid growth of fairyland as a fit subject matter for literature, painting, and the stage from the 1820s to the 1840s and its survival until at least the First World War is one of the most remarkable phenomena of 19th-century culture.” In the following pages, I’d like to look a little closer at this fascinating historical phenomena, which bubbles just under the surface of the magical tales gathered in this volume.
The first thing to note about the surge of interest in fairies and fairy tales in nineteenth-century England is that adult interest in these subjects developed late in comparison to continental Europe. Fairy stories for adult readers had been popularized by Italian intellectuals in the sixteenth century, the French avant-garde in the seventeenth century, and the German Romantics in the eighteenth century, but it took until the nineteenth century for the trend to finally catch on in England. The British Isles have always boasted a wonderfully rich oral folklore tradition and are steeped in myth cycles both Arthurian and Celtic; furthermore, English literature rests on works by writers unafraid to dip into this well of magic: Sir Thomas Malory, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare among them. So why did it take so long for fairy-tale arts to blossom across the Channel?
The answer is religion. British society was governed by Puritan social codes after the Revolution of 1688. Certain art forms were made illegal, while others were effectively discouraged by the culture, fantastical arts among them. English literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was expected to be serious, rational, Protestant, and deeply moral, while the magical tales of Great Britain’s folk heritage were deemed to be crude, perverse, frivolous, lower-class, and uncomfortably pagan. Magic did not entirely disappear from literature: Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels were both popular eighteenth-century texts … yet these were satires, poking fun at the conventions of folk and fairy tales; the magic in them was rationalized as allegory and distanced by humour.
Not until the end of the eighteenth century did fantasy, rooted in the folklore tradition, once again begin to cast a spell of enchantment through the works of the English Romantic poets, and mystical artists such as Henry Fuseli and the poet/ painter William Blake. Early in the nineteenth century, magical tales and poems by the German Romantics (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Ludvig Tieck, Novalis, etc.) were translated and published in English magazines—including “Undine,” an enormously popular story by Baron de la Motte Fouqué about a water nymph’s love for a mortal knight, which inspired a host of subsequent stories, paintings, and dramatic productions. At the same time, Sir Walter Scott and other antiquarians were busy collecting folk tales and ballads from all across the British Isles, preserving old country lore in a nation that was rapidly urbanizing.
Two groundbreaking volumes by Thomas Keightley (Fairy Mythology) and Thomas Crofton Croker (Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland) proved popular among antiquarian scholars and creative artists alike, kicking off an explosion of folklore collections by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Anna Eliza Bray, Joseph Jacobs, and many others. The word folklore itself was coined by the English antiquarian William Thoms in 1846.
Two nineteenth-century continental imports brought magical tales to an even wider audience: German Popular Stories by the Brothers Grimm (first published in England in 1823) and The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (first published in 1846). These popular collections helped make fairy tales, and fantasy in general, more acceptable to Victorian readers … for although both books are darker in tone than the simplified Disney fairy tales of today, they were not as dark, sensual, or disturbing as fairy and folk tales from the oral tradition. The Brothers Grimm revised the folk tales they collected to reflect their own Protestant values, and Andersen’s Danish fairy tales were unabashedly Christian. Subsequently English fairy-tale books continued this moralizing trend, taming the complexity and moral ambiguity of older fairy stories by turning their heroines into passive, modest, dutiful Victorian girls and their heroes into square-jawed fellows rewarded for their Christian virtues.
* * *
Throughout English history we find that when the untamed side of human nature is at its most repressed in polite society, it tends to erupt and express itself in obsessive and subversive forms. Thus, while we generally think of Victorian culture as rigid, pious, and strictly divided into hierarchies of class and gender—all of which is true—it was also a society obsessed by sex (there were more brothels in Victorian London than at any other time in its history); awash in alcohol and narcotics; and rife with subversive political ideas such as socialism and feminism, both of which would dramatically change British culture in the century to come. While respectable Victorian society was as straitlaced as it could possibly be, among young artists and other rebels the nineteenth century was the heyday of British bohemianism, as exemplified by the colorful lives of painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, writers such as Oscar Wilde, aesthetes such as Lady Ottoline Morrell, and culminating in the notorious wine-and-women life of “gypsy painter” Augustus John. When we look at these twin cultural movements—strict morality and wild bohemianism—it is easier to understand another odd aspect of Victorian life, which was a widespread interest in psychic phenomena and the occult.
Spiritualism flourished in all classes of society, right up to the royal court, with “mediums” enabling contact with the spirits of the dead. The fad was started in 1848 in America by the Fox sisters, who claimed to communicate with the dear departed through mysterious knocks upon a table. They took this talent on tour, and other mediums followed suit, bringing American-style Spiritualism to England in 1852. Soon “table-tapping” parties were all the rage, especially among idle, upper-class ladies and the recently bereaved. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms, and published newspapers, while mediums developed huge followings.
As the nineteenth century progressed, ghosts, goblins, sylphs, fairies, and other supernatural creatures not only visited parlors rich and poor through séances and Ouija boards, they also populated all areas of visual, literary, and performance art. In fine art, Shakespeare’s fairies were reimagined with the aid of newly published folklore texts, inspiring paintings crowded with sprites in detailed natural settings. Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Francis Danby, Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, and Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale were just a few of the artists who created an entire genre of “Victorian fairy art”—a genre that was not marginalized, as fantasy art tends to be today, but was found in prestigious galleries and at Royal Academy exhibitions. These were paintings for adults, not children, and they had subversive qualities. Fitzgerald’s fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and medicines. (Opium derivatives, such as laudanum, called “the aspirin of the nineteenth century,” were available without prescription in England until 1868 and commonly used for insomnia, headaches, and the pains of menstruation. It may not be an accident that England’s twin obsessions with fairies and Spiritualism occurred during the same years when casual opium use was widespread.)*
*Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Paton’s huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress. At a time when public expression of sexuality was severely repressed, when medical “experts” proclaimed that respectable women were incapable of sexual pleasure, artists both male and female discovered that sensual scenes were acceptable as long as all their nubile maidens sported gossamer fairy wings.
The fairy fad among Victorian adults must also be viewed in light of the rapid changes wrought by the industrial revolution, as Britain moved from its rural past to its mechanized future. With factories and suburban blight destroying huge tracts of English countryside, fairy paintings and stories were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. In particular, the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, Evelyn De Morgan, etc.), which was often based on romance, legend, and myth, promoted a dreamy medievalism and the aesthetics of hand craftsmanship to counter the ugly new world created by modern forms of mass production. (“ For every locomotive they build,” vowed Edward Burne-Jones, “I shall paint another angel.”) The Arts and Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre-Raphaelitism, embraced folklore to such a degree that by the end of the nineteenth century, fairies and other magical creatures were commonly found in middle-class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. At the dawn of the twentieth century, many lavish new fairy-tale volumes were produced, illustrated by the likes of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Jessie M. King, Warwick Goble, Eleanor Vere Boyle, and the Robinson brothers. Not until 1915, however, did the most famous fairy picture of the Victorian/ Edwardian age appear in exhibition in London: The Piper of Dreams by the English-Italian artist Estella Canziani. Canziani, the daughter of fairy painter Louisa Starr, grew up among the Pre-Raphaelites and studied at the Royal Academy; her work drew on her interest in Italian folklore and peasant traditions. The Piper of Dreams, a wistful picture of a country boy surrounded by fairies, was published as a print by the Medici Society and became a runaway bestseller … a print as ubiquitous in England then as Monet’s water lilies are now. This gentle, forgotten fairy picture was a favourite among English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
* * *
In the pre-television, pre-cinema world of the Victorians, theater, ballet, and opera had greater importance as forms of entertainment than they do today, as well as a greater influence on the visual and literary arts. In the 1830s, the new Romantic ballet (influenced by Romantic art and literature) thrilled large audiences in London with productions that dramatized tales of love between mortals and spirits. Aided by innovations in “point work” (dancing on the points of one’s toes) and improvements in theaters’ gas-lighting techniques, a sumptuous vision of fairyland was created in hit productions such as La Sylphide, the tragic story of a mortal man in love with an elfin maid. In theater, fairy plays were staged with stunningly elaborate special effects, each new production striving to be even more spectacular than the last. Fairy music was another popular phenomenon, much of it imported from Germany. Favourites included Weber’s fairy opera Oberon, Hoffman’s Ondine (based on Fouqué’s “Undine”), Wagner’s The Fairies, and Mendelssohn’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy music for the harp was composed and performed by charismatic musicians as popular then as pop stars are today; young women swooned and followed their favourite harpists from concert to concert. Magical music and dance reached its height at the end of the nineteenth century in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London—and, indeed, all of Europe—by storm with his fantastical ballets: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.
* * *
Magical music, dance, drama, and art … these things all fused together to create an enchanted atmosphere, inspiring the writers of books that are now considered classics of the fantasy field. Some of these works were written for adults, such as the “imaginary world” novels of William Morris (The Well at the World’s End), the adult fairy tales of Anne Thackeray Ritchie (Bluebeard’s Keys, and Other Stories), and the adventure novels of H. Rider Haggard (She), as well as the Arthurian poetry of William Morris (The Defence of Guenevere) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King). But one of the major shifts we see in magical literature from the mid-nineteenth century onward is that more and more of it was published in books intended primarily for children.
This shift occurred for two major reasons, despite the fact that adult fascination with fantasy and magic had rarely been so high. First, the Victorians romanticized the idea of childhood to a degree never before seen; earlier, childhood had not been viewed as something quite so separate from adult life. Children, according to this earlier view, came into the world in sin and had to be quickly, strictly civilized into God-fearing members of society. By Victorian times, children had come to be seen as inherently innocent—and childhood was thus a special golden age before the burdens of adulthood.* Just as the “innocence” of the countryside was vanishing due to the industrial revolution, the golden innocence of childhood was doomed to vanish as a child matured. This theme runs through many great works of Victorian fantasy, in which magic is accessible only to children and lost on the threshold of adulthood. From Lewis Carroll’s Alice books to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Victorian writers grieved that their young, wise heroes would one day grow up.**
*Our modern notion of childhood as a sheltered time for play and exploration is rooted in these Victorian ideals, although in the nineteenth century they held true only for the upper classes. Most Victorian children still labored long hours in fields and factories, as Charles Dickens portrayed in his fiction, and as he experienced in his own childhood.
**This ideal had a darker side, however, in that some prominent Victorians were a little too interested in children. Lewis Carroll may or may not have been a closet pedophile, but he certainly had an uncomfortable interest in photographing scantily clad little girls; while the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin famously fell in love with an eight-year-old child and constantly pestered the illustrator Kate Greenaway to send him drawings of unclothed “girlies.” Kate declined.
The second reason that Victorian publishers produced so many new volumes for children was due to the growth of an English middle class that was both literate and wealthy. There was money to be made by exploiting the Victorian love affair with childhood; publishers had found a market, and they needed product with which to fill it. Children’s fiction in the previous century had been diabolically dreary, consisting primarily of pious, tedious books full of moral instruction. By the nineteenth century, some educators were still decrying the evils of “immoral” fairy stories, but once the Grimms and Andersen collections proved so popular, English publishers jumped on the fairy-tale bandwagon in increasing numbers. Cheap story material was available to them by plundering the fairy tales of other lands, simplifying them for young readers, then further revising the stories to conform to Victorian gender roles and moral standards. A lot of these fairy-tale volumes, marred by heavy-handed alterations, make abysmal reading today, but some retain enough of the magic of their source material to stand the test of time, such as the famous series edited by Andrew Lang (The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.).
In addition to retelling traditional fairy tales, the Victorians also created original stories by using the tropes of folklore in innovative ways. From the middle of the century onward, some of the best writers of nineteenth-century England turned their hand to fantasy: John Ruskin (The King of the Golden River), Charlotte Yonge (The History of Tom Thumb), Christina Rossetti (Goblin Market), Charles Kingsley (The Water-Babies), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Jean Ingelow (Mopsa the Fairy), Edward Lear (Nonsense Songs), George Macdonald (The Princess and the Goblin), Mary Louisa Molesworth (The Tapestry Room), Mary de Morgan (The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde), Juliana Horatia Ewing (Old-Fashioned Fairy Tales), Oscar Wilde (The Happy Prince and Other Tales), Ford Madox Ford (The Queen Who Flew), Laurence Housman (House of Joy), Evelyn Sharp (The Other Side of the Sun), Rudyard Kipling (Puck of Pook’s Hill), J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan in Kensington Garden), Edith Nesbit (The Enchanted Castle), and Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows).
Chances are that unless you’ve done more reading than most in the field of Victorian literature, you’re probably more familiar with the men on the list above than the women (with the exception of Christina Rossetti and E. Nesbit). As I prepared this introduction, a number of well-read friends asked me if there were any female fantasy writers in nineteenth-century England, and the answer is, yes, indeed, there were—writers so popular and financially successful in their day that as a group they incited the envy and approbation of many male colleagues. George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street, for example, published in 1891, paints a vicious portrait of an outspoken woman writer, vain and utterly talentless, who is lionized for her children’s fiction while the lives of “real” literary artists fall into ruin all around her.
So if these women were so successful, why are the books by the men above still known and loved by children today while most of those by women are read only by feminist scholars? It’s not just gender bias, but also because the tales by nineteenth-century women can make for distinctly uncomfortable reading. Down through the centuries, fairy tales have often been used as a way of speaking in symbolic language about topics at odds with the dominant culture. For Victorian women, it was the totality of their lives at odds with the culture they lived in, hemmed in by nineteenth-century ideals of femininity, duty, and motherhood. Over and over again beneath the surface of magical stories by Victorian women one finds rebellion and anger. This is addressed by folklorists Nina Auerbach and U. C. Knoepflmacher in their insightful book Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers:
The most moving Victorian children’s books are steeped in longing for unreachable lives. Lewis Carroll, George Macdonald, and J. M. Barrie envied the children they could not be; out of this envy came their painful children’s classics. Most Victorian women envied adults rather than children. Whether they were wives and mothers or teachers and governesses, respectable women’s lives had as their primary object child care. British law made the link between women and children indelible by denying women independent legal representation. As Frances Power Cobbe pointed out in a witty essay, “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors” were identical in the eyes of the law. In theory, at any rate, women lived the condition Carroll, Macdonald, and Barrie longed for.
Yet in the years when the children’s book industry was still new (and before Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung taught us to look at the subtext of fiction more closely), Victorian women had a freedom of expression that was all too rare. As long as their tales conformed outwardly to the conventions of popular children’s fiction, they were able to populate their tales with extremely subversive characters and creatures, such as clever, hot-tempered, female fairies, and irascible, intractable heroines.
It was not, however, just the women of England who used the writing of magical tales as a form of social critique, nor were they the only writers who challenged Victorian gender assumptions. As Jack Zipes points out in the introduction to his excellent collection Victorian Fairy Tales:
There is a strong feminine, if not feminist, influence in the writing of both male and female writers. In contrast to the Kunstmärchen tradition in Germany and folklore in general, which were stamped by patriarchal concerns, British writers created strong women characters and place great emphasis on the fusion of female and male qualities and equality between men and women.
Zipes cites George Macdonald’s work as an example of Victorian fantasy literature in which boys and girls alike develop qualities of intelligence, courage, and compassion—for magic, in Macdonald’s tales, “is nothing else but the realization of the divine creative powers one possesses within oneself.”
In Victorian Fairy Tales, Zipes divides the magical fiction published from 1860 onward into two groups: the conventional and the utopian. Although a few good writers worked in the conventional mode, such as Jean Ingelow and Mary Louisa Molesworth, on the whole these were forgettable books full of twinkly fairies with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls who caused no disturbance to the status quo. Utopian fantasies, on the other hand, demonstrated (in Zipes’s words) “a profound belief in the power of the imagination as a potent force” to change English society, and they were being written by some of the finest writers of the day. Macdonald, Carroll, de Morgan, Ewing, Wilde, Housman, Kipling, Barrie, Nesbit (in her later works), and others created extraordinary tales that were archly critical of Victorian life, promoting the possibility of a better society. The prevalence of fantasy in this mode is explained, as discussed earlier, by looking at the culture that produced it—a society in the grip of great upheaval due to rapid industrialization. Fairies flittered across London stages and nested in bucolic scenes on gallery walls. But outside, the city streets were a long, long way from never-never land, crowded with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and homeless, desperate men and women displaced by the new economy.
* * *
While the upper classes charmed themselves with fairy books and dancing nymphs and clapped to bring Tinker Bell back to life, among the lower classes (where the fairy faith still existed in living memory), fairies were seldom viewed as the sweet, little moth-winged creatures of Victorian children’s stories; they were still the tricky, capricious, dangerous beings of the oral folk tradition. Throughout the nineteenth century, British newspapers still reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions. The most famous occurred in 1895 and riveted readers across the nation. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a handsome young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbours because they thought she was a fairy changeling.
The facts are these: Bridget, a twenty-six-year-old dressmaker, and her husband, Michael, a cooper, lived in a comfortable cottage near her family home in southern Ireland. Bridget fell sick with an undiagnosed illness (it may have been simple pneumonia); within a few days she was feverish, raving, and (according to her husband) no longer looked like herself. When regular medicine did not help, the family called in a “fairy doctor”—for the cottage was located close to a fairy hill, which was deemed bad luck. The fairy doctor stated that the ill woman was actually a fairy changeling and said the real Bridget had been abducted, taken under the hill by the fairies as a consort or a slave. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself. Bridget was tied to the bed, forced to swallow potions, sprinkled with holy water and urine, swung over the hearth fire, and eventually burned to death by her increasingly desperate husband. Convinced it was a fairy he and Bridget’s family and neighbours had killed and buried, Michael then went to the fairy fort to wait for the “real” Bridget to ride out seated on a milk-white horse. Instead, Bridget’s disappearance was noted, the body found, the crime brought to life, and Michael and nine others charged and prosecuted for murder.
Although the most flamboyant, this was far from the only case of changeling murder in the Victorian press, although usually the changelings were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden illness that caused the child to waste away. A less gruesome but equally famous case unfolded in Yorkshire in 1917, when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten-year-old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies in their garden at Cottingley. Three years later, Elsie’s mother attended a Spiritualist lecture by a friend of the prominent Theosophist Edward Gardner, which led to the photographs being sent to Gardner, and then on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes, and son of the fairy painter Charles Doyle).
Although the photographs are rather unconvincing by today’s standards (the fairies look one-dimensional, sporting the clothes and bobbed hairstyles of the day), professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring. The pictures, championed by Doyle, caused an absolute sensation and brought the fairy craze well into the twentieth century. Only when Elsie and Frances were old ladies (in the 1980s) did they admit that the Cottingley fairies were actually paper cutouts held in place by hatpins. Yet their final deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, and one of the photos, may have been real after all.
In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carole G. Silver suggests that the Cottingley photos, despite briefly reviving interest in fairies and fairy communication, were actually one of the factors that marked the end of the fairy-art era. “Ironically,” she says, “the photographs, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived the elfin people of their grandeur and their stature. The theories that Gardner [and other Spiritualists] formulated to explain the fairies’ nature and function reduced them to the intelligence level of household pets and the size of insects.” In addition to this, the popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century was enough to ensure that they would be branded old-fashioned by generations to come, particularly those whose “innocence” was trampled on by two World Wars.
* * *
Various scholars give different dates for the end of England’s Golden Age of Fantasy Art, Literature, and Drama—just as folklore postulates different dates for “the flitting of the fairies,” which is when, supposedly, the Fair Folk left British shores forever. In 1890, Fiona Macleod wrote that “the Gentle People have no longer a life [in] common with our own. They have gone beyond the grey hills. They dwell in far islands perhaps where the rains of Heaven and the foam of the sea guard their fading secrecies.” In his famous poem “Blow, Bugle, Blow,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote that even the echoes of elfin bugles were “dying, dying, dying.”
And yet, of course, the fairies never die. Despite these waves of departure and farewell, the green hills of the British Isles are still thickly populated by elfin tribes, who seem to be thoroughly enjoying their present revival in popular culture.
When one compares the many social issues common to both the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and today’s new technological revolution (a changing economy, disappearing countryside, conflicting ideas about gender and class), it is no surprise that fairies and fantasy have made such a strong comeback. As Silver notes, “to believe or half-believe in fairies was, by the turn of the century, an expression of revolt against complex urbanized society, so tightly conscious of its manners and morals. Moreover, such a faith was a response to the conflict between society’s demand for respectability and conformity and the forces of demonic energy that lie beneath the surface of human nature. Conservatives and radicals alike could find in such belief a cogent criticism of the age.”
She was talking about the dawn of the twentieth century, but her words could apply to the dawn of the twenty-first century as well. Magic is thriving once again—in fantasy books and mythic arts, in folk music, in film, in online journals, and in numerous other contemporary art forms. The horns of Elfland still blow, for a whole new generation.
Listen close, and you will hear them.^