Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies

Note: The following essay originally appeared on Skepticality.

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from SkepticalHumanities.com and VirtualSkeptics.com.

I’ve always wondered about the Cottingley Fairy hoax. European spiritualism and fairy folk are a little out of my realm of expertise, but what the heck, let’s give it a go. In some ways, I suppose, the stage was set for the Cottingley Fairies by Romanticism, which celebrated the common man and elevated his culture. This, in turn, led to a reappraisal of national folk traditions in Europe in the 19th century, as seen in the collection and study of folk tales by Anglo-Irish literary luminaries Lady Gregory and Jane Wilde, who was Oscar Wilde’s mother and gathered and published a collection of Irish fairy lore in 1888. This just happens to be the same period that manufactured gnomes (or gartenzwerge) were appearing in German gardens and becoming popular in Europe. Do with that factoid as you will.

If you aren’t familiar with the Cottingley Fairy story, in 1917, two girls, 9-year old Frances Griffiths and her 16-year old cousin, Elsie Wright, presented photographic evidence that they had been cavorting with fairies in the woods behind Elsie’s house in Yorkshire.

See?

See?

A second series of photos appeared in 1920, the year that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a credulous article about them in The Strand, brought the number of fairy photos to 5. But one photo is iconic, the image of Frances sitting in a glen with 4 fairies dancing around her as she gazes off into the distance. In reality, the fairies were copies of images from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary’s Gift Book, held up up with hatpins. The girls admitted this in the 1980s. But as often is the case with claims of the extraordinary the hoax itself is not so interesting, rather it’s the fact that people actually believed this stuff. One of the biggest questions, and the one that has always interested me, is how did someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote one of the most analytical, forensically minded characters in literary history, Sherlock Freaking Holmes, come to believe that these fairies were real.

However, I think that the idea that an author must share personal characteristics with their literary inventions–and the corollary belief that all fiction is somehow autobiographical– is one that often leads people to strange, insupportable conclusions. I can think of no better example of this than the notion that the key to Shakespeare’s “real” identity is somehow hidden in the plays or in the sonnets. That somehow in order to write about the nobility that one needs to have been a noble, or that to write about Italy, one would need to have travelled to Italy, or that to write a series of sonnets that one has to have had one’s own real-life dark lady and a pretty pool boy. I think that there is a tendency to think about Conan Doyle in terms of his creation Sherlock Holmes, who it is admitted by all other characters in the novels as a universal genius. People think that any mind that could create a character as clever as Sherlock Holmes must be at least as shrewd. (Honestly, if you look more closely, you realize that Holmes, much like Hannibal Lector, is simply given knowledge by his author that he otherwise could not possibly know.)

The book that came out of Conan Doyle’s exposure to the Cottingley Fairies, 1921’s The Coming of the Fairies, is, in a word, a hot mess. It’s a quick read–one night should do it for you. The book is really a collection of writings, letters, testimonials, and previously published articles about fairy folk, with special attention to the photos taken by Frances and Elsie. Despite the pretense in his introduction that he’s just laying the facts on the table for analysis, you can tell, Conan Doyle is a true believer. Throughout, when he quotes someone raising a reasonable objection, you can see Conan Doyle inventing reasons to dismiss them. But there are a couple of historical particulars that make the telling of the fairy story really interesting, especially with respect to the types of special pleading that the believers came up as well as the unstated assumptions about childhood and class that are especially jarring to the modern ear.

For instance, it seems likely that Conan Doyle harbored a highly romanticized idea of childhood that may have blinded him to the possibility that the two girls were not being completely honest. It is the very purity and innocence of children, by some mechanism as of yet unknown, that allowed the children to see the fairies. Edward Gardner, who was Conan Doyle’s proxy and collaborator on the investigation, and who was known, according to Conan Doyle, for his “reputation for sanity and character” (23), worries that the window of opportunity afforded by the girls’ abilities may be closing as it is just a matter of time before one of the girls “will ‘fall in love’ and then–hey presto!!” (25). Conan Doyle himself thought that perhaps the girls’ powers of perception would have flagged in the three years between the taking of the first photos and Gardner’s visit to them in Yorkshire, because “I was well aware that the processes of puberty are often fatal to psychic power.”

Another presupposition that seems to have blinded Conan Doyle and Gardner to the possibility of a hoax was that the girls’ artisan class precluded them from designing elaborate photographic hoaxes involving double exposures and so on. But they were not expecting something so staggeringly simple as paper dolls on a stick. Conan Doyle opens the first chapter, “The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public, or else the constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character” (13).

I think that most interesting for science enthusiasts is how Conan Doyle was sensible of the need to put the existence of these little creatures in a modern scientific context. Very few people had ever seen fairies while awake, and most of Conan Doyle’d experiencers claim to have been especially psychic. This worked well for Conan Doyle, who was above all a committed Spiritualist and had a great interest in seeing the claimed abilities of these sensitive people (and thereby proof of the afterlife) proved with photographic evidence. He makes a move familiar in modern new age circles of saying that perhaps the critters existed in another frequency and that perceiving them was a matter of tuning. Perhaps, he thought, some sort of fairy detecting goggles would be developed that would allow regular people to perceive fairyland.

There is nothing, strictly speaking, preventing little winged people living in your garden other than the course that evolution happens to have taken. Well, that and house cats. Nonetheless, Conan Doyle and his correspondents spend a surprising amount of time talking about how they can reconcile the existence of these little creatures with evolution. The solution is that the fairy is descended from butterflies, while the gnome “has more of the moth.” They even attempt to sketch out the biogeography of fairy folk and other ethereal critters by analyzing masses of anecdotes from around the world.

Throughout the book, fairies seem to embody a close relationship with nature, one buoyed by happiness, music, and a carefree idyllic existence. According to Gardner, “For the most part, amid the busy commercialism of modern times, the fact of [fairies’] existence has faded to a shadow, and a most delightful and charming field of nature study has too long been veiled. In this twentieth century there is promise of the world stepping out of some of its darker shadows.” We can’t avoid the immediate context of this statement, as the previous decade had seen mankind perfect mass death on the battlefields of Europe, a conflict that took Conan Doyle’s son. As the industrial engines that had powered commercialism turned to manufacturing corpses on unfathomable scales, perhaps the escapism and innocence of childhood visions seemed overpoweringly attractive to these spiritual seekers. We may be certain that the surge in interest in spiritualism during and after WWI was related to the loss of a generation of European youth in much the same way spiritualism prospered in the wake of the American Civil War. A harmonious and joyous return to nature, which just happened to confirm the powers of those who could communicate with that lost generation, was perhaps seen as restorative to a crippled Europe.

An excellent review of some of the issues raised by the Cottingley incident can be found in Carole Silver’s study, “On the Origin of Fairies: Victorians, Romanticism, and Folk Belief.”

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from SkepticalHumanities.com and VirtualSkeptics.com.

 

3 Responses to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies

  1. Pacal says:

    I remember reading about the Cottingley Fairy photo’s more than 30 years ago in the book by Randi Flim – Flam. I had already known that Doyle had been a committed Spiritualist but that he was taken in by obvious fake fairy photos was a jaw dropper. That and the way he dismissed the fact that one of the young ladies had worked in a Camera / photo store before the photos were taken was a bit much.
    I am rather intrigued by the idea but forth by Doyle and others that with the onset of puberty the young ladies might not be able to see the fairies anymore. This goes right back to Christian notions of Virgins having great virtue and power, and being vehicles for God’s power and of course being able to do such things as control Unicorns. It is fascinating that Doyle and the others seemed to have clung to the idea that sex sullied and stained virtuous young ladies and that they were thus unable to see a “purer”, more innocent, natural world. Although in this case it seems that actual sex was not needed only puberty! Isn’t it amazing how old tropes are recycled. I suppose this goes right along with the old myth of masturbatery insanity.
    As for how some one who could create the super rational Sherlock Holmes could believe such nonsense? Well your right that fictional creations are not always biography. However Holmes does have his woo aspects: As you said:
    “Honestly, if you look more closely, you realize that Holmes, much like Hannibal Lector, is simply given knowledge by his author that he otherwise could not possibly know”
    Your right! This is especially true of those scenes in which Holmes deduces all about someone from a hat / cane etc, and does something similar with a crime scene. Those are almost pure woo and Holmes is almost always totally right about his fantasies, opps! I mean deductions. (In fact I can’t remember in Doyle’s Holmes stories about Holmes being wrong about anything when he does these psychic readings.) This type of woo blends rather easily into spiritualism etc. So yeah Doyle’s Holmes does have his woo aspects.
    Although the Cottingley Fairy episode is considered by many the nadir of Doyle’s psychic delusions I do not think so. My nomination for the silliest delusion that Doyle ever had related to psychic nonsense is Doyle’s nonsense about Houdini. Doyle was absolutely convinced that Houdini went through brick walls by dematerializing and that Houdini could not do the trick any other way! Doyle even wrote a chapter in a book claiming so. To show I am not making this up see: Doyle, Arthur Conan, The Edge of the Unknown, Echo press, New York, 2006 (Original 1930), see Chapter 1, The Riddle of Houdini. Before this Doyle and Houdini had been friends, not any longer.
    Doyle’s defence that the young ladies were not sufficiently smart to deceive him, if the photos were fakes, is also rather funny.

  2. Bradley Skene says:

    Some years I had a dream in which Doyle and Holmes were engaged in a public debate about the fairies (Holmes arguing against, naturally), which went devastatingly wrong for Doyle when Holmes produced a copy of Princess Mary’s Gift Book and showed slides of blow ups of the book’s illustrations side by side with slides of the fairy photos.

  3. cuchlann says:

    Obviously your point that authors don’t have to be the same as their characters is true — but something that is relevant to this period of Doyle’s life is his own detective work. Doyle worked privately and gathered evidence and interviews to exonerate two men, one of whom was about to be executed and whose lawyers had even given up on him. So in fact it is correct to say that Doyle was an “analytic” mind.

    The study of spiritualism in the 19th century can, in some ways, be compared to the study of certain variations of string theory today — the motive precedes the evidence. I’m not claiming that string theory is wrong, far from it, but in at least some cases the desire to find a theory that makes sense of every field predates the specific studies of string theory. In the same way, spiritualists were trying to be rigorous and scientific in the way of a 19th (and early 20th) century scientist, but they were studying something that just happens to have not panned out. In the big picture there was no evidence that every claim of hauntings, psychism, etc were wrong (just as, technically, there’s no evidence that effectively says there’s no chance of those things now). There just happened to be less evidence then than now.

    Also, while Doyle didn’t identify as Christian for much of his life, particularly as a young adult, when he discovered spiritualism he wrote that it was a comfort, as it gave him a way to express what he had always believed without all the baggage — the strict Christian upbringing he’d had made him dislike traditional Protestantism but he never identified as agnostic or atheist. He had been basically Deist before discovering spiritualism, which allowed him mentally to reconcile his interest in science with his belief in a “first mover” and the spiritual results of that movement.

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