Saturday, 25 March 2017

Edward Lear by Miranda Miller

   I’ve been reading Edward Lear’s wonderful nonsense poems to my little grandsons and have just noticed that there is a plaque to him near where I live. The site is now a seedy mews off the Holloway Road in north London but when he was born in 1812, the youngest to survive of twenty-one children, it was a middle class family house in the village on Holloway, near Highgate.

   When Lear was four his father, Jeremiah Lear, a stockbroker, was imprisoned in the King’s Bench for debt. The family was scattered and Edward's eldest sister, Ann, who was twenty years older than him, looked after him. They lived together until she died, when Edward was almost fifty. Lear was a delicate child and an epileptic, at a time when the illness was considered shameful. He referred to it as “the Demon” and throughout his life he also suffered from acute bouts of depression. He had very little formal education and later wrote, “I am always thanking God that I was never educated;” in spite of this he taught himself six languages and became an accomplished composer as well as a poet and artist. He played the accordion, flute, guitar and  piano.

   As he and his sister had no money he had to earn his own living from an early age: “ I began to draw for bread and cheese about 1827, but only did uncommon queer shop-sketches – selling them for prices varying from ninepence to four shillings.” Audubon’s great work, The Birds of North America, was first published in the 1820s and started a fashion for big, lavishly illustrated books about exotic birds and plants. In his late teens Lear visited the Zoological Gardens to study parrots:

"...for the last 12 months I have so moved – thought – looked at, – & existed among Parrots – that should any transmigration take place at my decease I am sure my soul would be very uncomfortable in anything but one of the Psittacidae.”

  The Psittacidae (1832) established Lear as a celebrated illustrator. In 1846 the young Queen Victoria invited him to Osborne to teach her drawing.

   In 1846 Lear published A Book of Nonsense, a very successful volume of limericks, and in 1867 his most famous poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of his patron Edward Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby.

   Although Lear's nonsense books were popular during his lifetime a rumour circulated that "Edward Lear" was a pseudonym, and that the books' true author was the man to whom Lear had dedicated the works, his patron the Earl of Derby. Supporters of this rumour offered as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that "Lear" is an anagram of "Earl". Perhaps this is yet another example of British snobbery, like the insistence of many scholars thatShakespeare couldn’t have written his own plays because he didn’t have enough education.

   Lear's delightful inventions, such as The Quangle Wangle and The Pobble Who Has No Toes, were brilliant jokes that came out of his profound knowledge of natural history. He adored children, although he never had any, and travelled all over Europe. He had many friends:

How pleasant to know Mr.Lear!

Who has written such volumes of stuff!

Some think him ill-tempered and queer,

But a few think him pleasant enough.

His mind is concrete and fastidious,

His nose is remarkably big;

His visage is more or less hideous,

His beard it resembles a wig.

   Lear was constantly worried about money and his letters are full of this. In 1863 he begged an aristocratic friend to “ write to Lord Palmerston to ask him to ask the Queen to ask the King of Greece” to create a job for him as “Lord High Bosh and Nonsense Producer...with permission to wear a fool’s cap(or mitre)....three pounds of butter yearly and a little pig, - and a small donkey to ride on.” He fantasized about selling his illustrations to Tennyson’s poems for £18,000 and buying a “chocolate coloured carriage speckled with gold, driven by a coachman in green vestments and silver spectacles wherein sitting on a lofty cushion composed of muffins and volumes of the Apocrypha.”

Lear fell unrequitedly in love with several men and proposed marriage (unsuccessfully) to a woman 46 years younger than him. He died in 1888 - just a few months after his famous cat, Old Foss - in San Remo on the Italian Riviera, where he had lived for eighteen years with his Albanian servant. I hope his solitary life gave him pleasure and that he sometimes, like the Owl and the Pussycat, found someone to dance with:

'Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling

Your ring?' Said the Piggy, 'I will.'

So they took it away, and were married next day

By the Turkey who lives on the hill.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,

Which they ate with a runcible spoon;

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,

They danced by the light of the moon,

The moon,

The moon,

They danced by the light of the moon.


Friday, 24 March 2017

Off to the Alderney Literature Festival.

Well, I am writing this in haste this month so apologies for a short blog.

On the day this post is scheduled to go live,  I will be at the Alderney Festival of Historical Literature and preparing to give my talk on "Eleanor of Aquitaine: the fact behind the fiction and the fiction behind the fact."

I am also hoping to get in some walking around this small Channel Island, just three miles long and one and a half wide, situated  7 miles from the French coast and with a population of a little over 2,000 people. To get there from the UK mainland, one has to fly to Guernsey, and then take a a 20 minute 'island hopper' flight on an 18 seater light transport plane - outside of the summer months anyway.  Alderney a bird's eye view   I have never been to Alderney before but am very much looking forward to it.

The  Festival has been running since 2013 and this year's takes place from the 24th to the 26th of March and its theme is 'Perception versus Reality'  a subject very close to my heart following my recent researches into Eleanor of Aquitaine where the perception and the reality are poles apart - inasmuch as we currently understand what that reality might be (she says with an eyebrow raised in irony).  The premise of the debate at the festival is that 'historical reality is in fact a fluid concept.'  As well as my talk about Eleanor, I shall also be sitting on a panel with Imogen Robertson and Anna Mazzola asking how true to life the setting of a historical novel can be and what do historical novelists owe to the truth?  It's going to be a terrific discussion.

I am also very much looking forward to sitting in on a talk by Joyce Meader on 'Knitted comforts for the military from 1850 to the present day.'  I am not a knitter - would love to be but I don't have the manual dexterity or the logic to follow patterns.  However I am still fascinated by the subject.

I shall report when I return.  And in the meanwhile, here's the website.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Where does history begin, actually? Scattered reflections by Leslie Wilson

Kendal Castle; tangible history in my childhood
The past begins as each second is left behind; indeed, the present moment is only a footstep between the past and the future. But where is the boundary between the past and history?
I've been thinking this rather a lot over the last while, as I have had the feeling of living through history, what with Brexit and Trump in America, and the way in which the UK seems to be morphing into a rather unpleasant place which isn't what I thought it was. Of course, nowadays, we access unrolling history, even across the Atlantic, as it happens. In the past, news  arrived as fast as the report could reach you; on foot, or horseback, by boat, and later by train. (There was also the semaphore in the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the earliest form of telegraph.) But reading old newspapers, you really notice this lag. It took six months, in the eighteen hundreds, to reach India, so news from the subcontinent would turn into history on the voyage, maybe. For the unlucky few, history came and found you. In the Thirty Years' War, some people only realised that there was a war when the soldiers arrived to rape, loot and pillage.

I remember Hilary Mantel saying, when we co-tutored an Arvon course, that lived history looked quite different from history written up in a book, because when you're living through events, they seem fluid. This came back to me when I wrote about the Kristallnacht pogrom in Saving Rafael. When some hooligans arrive and start to smash up your house, you have no idea that it's happening all over Berlin. It takes time for this to become apparent; which is why I sent my hero and heroine out onto the streets to find out. It is not yet Kristallnacht, it is a series of terrifying events that you can't get a handle on, that provoke raw, horrible emotions. The function of history is to analyse, to get a handle on these events. Maybe the function of the historical novelist is to take the handle off; the door swings wildly in a howling gale, and you have no idea where the wind is blowing from.
Berlin Wall art, East Side Gallery: Brezhnev and Honecker smash through the Wall.

I suppose this question exercises me particularly because I'm a historical novelist. If I write a novel about the protest against the Iraq war (for example), is that historical? Or Berlin, when the Wall came down? If not, how far back does one have to go? Would Greenham Common be historical, for example? Dickens's novels, and George Eliot's, were usually set in the past, maybe twenty years ago, but would not regard themselves as historical unless they were dealing with events a good deal further back. Maybe it doesn't matter.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Scotland's Medieval Monasteries by Catherine Hokin

Forget Park Run, Tough Mutha, Iron Man and triathlons. A few weeks ago we embarked on an endurance feat far more favourable to writers on the research trail: 4 monasteries in 24 hours or, as we fondly christened it, The Tough Monk Challenge.

Medieval monasteries and abbeys are an integral part of Scotland's historic landscape and many of them are rightly famous landmarks including Iona, Dunfermline, Sweetheart and Inchcolm. The Scottish monastic movement has its roots in the Celtic period and was a great influence in the way Christianity spread after the seventh century with abbots remaining far more powerful than bishops. The early monasteries themselves, however, bore little relation to what we now understand from the term and were often little more than isolated collections of wooden huts inhabited by hermits. It is not until the Normans begin to really impact on society after 1100 that we see a great wave of Scottish monastic building, promoted particularly by King David I (1124-1153).

 Plan of St Gall
Life in medieval monasteries was strictly organised and strictly run and, whatever order the monks espoused, the principles were broadly in line with (or reacting to) the rules written by St Benedict in c.530 AD. Not only was the internal life rigidly structured, the external fabric (the buildings) also followed a set of ideals, known as the Plan of St Gall. The plan, named after the Abbey in which it is still held, is the oldest preserved visualisation of a medieval building complex. Five pieces of annotated and sewn together parchment contain the plans for forty structures as well as boundaries and roads and an orchard. Each building and its use is identified in 333 inscriptions and include bake and brew houses, an abbot's residence and a dormitory and refectory for the monks. It appears to have been designed for Gozbert, the Abbot of St Gall from 816-837, and it is an idealization of a monastery - no complex was ever built to its exact specifications and scholars have described it as a meditation on monasticism. Most of us, however, who are familiar with monastery layouts, would easily find our way round the plan and its influence on the complexes that were built is clear.

 Jedburgh Abbey - it doesn't actually lean
The four we visited, Melrose, Dryburgh, Jedburgh and Kelso, are all in the Scottish Borders. They were founded between 1113-1150 and all have close links to David I. They are in varying states of preservation, with Kelso being little more now than a massive gateway, but they are all visually stunning - especially if you see them as we did in snowdrop season. With the exception of Kelso, each of the four has its own claim to fame. Jedburgh, an Augustinian monastery founded in 1147 is an extraordinary marriage of Romanesque and early Gothic architecture and is the best preserved in terms of its scale and its beautiful rows of arches. Melrose, Cistercian dating from 1136, is most famous for reputedly having the heart of Robert the Bruce buried in its graveyard. That may or may not be true: the Abbey words its claim that the casket, discovered first in 1921 and reburied in 1998, is Bruce very carefully and the position of its discovery, under the Chapter House rather than close to the high altar, makes the idea questionable. It is, however, a nice story and Bruce was known to have had great affection for the Abbey. What I loved most about Melrose, however, are the wonderful carvings which cover the outside and include saints, gargoyles and, for no reason anyone knows, a pig playing the bagpipes.

 Dryburgh Abbey
My favourite was Dryburgh. The setting is impossibly romantic, nestled in a bend of the River Tweed and surrounded by trees which act like curtains to the first view. It is hardly surprising that Walter Scott, the great exponent of romantic Scotland, is buried in the ruin's north wing. Accounts of his funeral read not unlike passages from his novels (of which I am a massive fan): the day was dark and lowering and the wind high and when the coffin was taken from the hearse, and again laid on the shoulders of the afflicted serving-men, one deep sob burst from a thousand lips (Lockhart, Life of Walter Scott). I tried not to let the fact that he is buried next to General Haig spoil the moment.

 Headstone Dryburgh
The Abbey also has a Chapter House with traces of medieval wall paintings and a collection of rather wonderful headstones embossed with figures including a number who are reading. Oh and it is haunted by a ghost called Fat Lips - a woman who lost her lover in the 1745 Rebellion, moved into the ruins and maintained that a little booted man named Fat Lips used to do her housework. Could anything be more perfect?

Maintaining a medieval monastery was tough in Scotland even before the Reformation's bite desecrated what was left. If your community was in the Highlands, internecine strife could reduce you to rubble; if you were in the Borders, the ongoing battles with the English were your main concern. Melrose Abbey was destroyed in the early 1300s by Edward II, rebuild and then, in 1385, Richard II burnt it down. The poor monks of Kelso, which was regularly attacked, were reduced to begging food and clothing from the surrounding locals on frequent occasions. It's quite remarkable so much has survived for us to gaze in awe upon.

I've got Sweetheart Abbey in my sights next where the heart of John Balliol, the King of the Scots who annoyed his people so much they signed the first treaty with Europe, may well be buried. As a second referendum looms, I'm wondering how many more of these rather significant caskets might suddenly turn up...

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Heartthrobs by Carol Dyhouse - Review by Imogen Robertson

I am a reading machine at the moment. I volunteered to be a judge on the inaugural HWA Endeavour Ink Crown for Historical Fiction and am the proud possessor of just under a hundred new novels to read and a nervous twitch, but I’m glad to say just before I descended into the whirlpool of fiction, I read Carol Dyhouse’s new book Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. I recommend it to you all, readers, writers, historians, men and women alike. 

Publicity portrait of Rudolph Valentino as Julio Desnoyers
in the 1921 Metro Pictures production
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The book is an examination of the heartthrob in popular culture from Lord Nelson and Mr Darcy through to George Clooney and Christian Grey, examining the female, rather than male gaze and looking at female desire rather than desirability. It feels, which seems astonishing in 2017, like a very fresh perspective. The book looks at these fictional or constructed male paradigms and asks what is it women want from them. Is romance literature a drug, an escape? If so what are we escaping from? What do these men offer women beyond an escape? What can these fantasy male figures tell us about how women have understood their own desires at various points in modern history? I think these men can often be a great deal more informative than the contemporary cultural criticism. 

For some reason I’m now imagining male literary critic, eating offal off a breadboard in Shoreditch and sneering at the cupcake shop across the road. Apologies to all the feminist un-snobbish men out there, you are of course my heartthrobs, but all our woke baes will know such offal chomping disdain towards women, romance literature and cupcakes certainly exists. 

Dyhouse explores these question and quandaries with relish. She is a curious and informed guide to the popular culture of the long twentieth century, and clear-eyed without being judgemental. The book offers a fascinating set of questions and an enthusiastic examination of tough issues: it is serious with being preachy, and entertaining without being glib. She also knows how to write a damn fine sentence, such as her description of Twitter: ‘The network itself, now immense, with its constant refigurings, and evanescent patterns of fragmentary thoughts, communications, and ‘trending topics’ brings to mind the murmurations of bees or starlings.’ 

I should mention that Carol is a friend of mine, and of course, while I say that purely in the interests of full disclosure, it also gives me the chance to boast. I told a professor about something and she put it in a book! I developed a bit of an obsession about Charles Garvice some years ago and managed to pass it on to Carol and she discusses this forgotten colossus in her first chapter. This makes me feel very grand. There, ok, I’m done, but do read the book. It’s a handsomely produced volume, and both charming and clever - a proper heartthrob indeed. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Trial of the Scottish Chartists - by Ann Swinfen

The history of the Chartist movement in England is widely known and well documented. Less well known, perhaps, is the Chartist movement in Scotland, and the trial which took place in Edinburgh in November, 1848, of three of its leaders.
1848 Paris
The year, 1848, was one which shook the foundations of society throughout Europe, and came to be known as ‘the year of revolutions’. Starting in France, a series of uprisings spread through more than fifty countries, sparked off by a sustained period of agricultural failures and unemployment. Generally started by a loose and unsustainable alliance of the middle and working classes, they sought to overthrow the long established power of the old European aristocracies and promote more widespread democracy.

1848 Poland - slaughter of aristocrats

Tens of thousands died. Although the wider aims of the movements were not achieved, there were some victories, such as the abolition of serfdom in Hungary and Austria, and the establishment of more democratic forms of government in some countries.
1848 Serbia
The roots of Chartism in Britain, however, lay ten years earlier. The Reform Act of 1832 not having satisfied widespread demands for reform to the rights to vote and to stand for election, in 1837 six working men and six members of Parliament formed a committee which in 1838 produced the People’s Charter, a document which set out the six fundamental principles of Chartism. These were:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  2. A secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for Members of Parliament in order to allow the constituencies to return the man of their choice.
  4. Payment of Members of Parliament, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the Nation.
  5. Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliamentary elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal manhood suffrage in each twelve-month period.

The movement was thus intended to achieve its aims by constitutional means, and not by means of the violence employed during the 1848 uprisings in continental Europe, when many aristocrats were ruthlessly slaughtered, and the rebellions were put down with equal ruthlessness.

In Britain, following the publication of the Charter, enormous mass rallies were held, particularly in the north of England, in the industrial Midlands, in the south Wales mining valleys, and in Glasgow. Millions of people signed petitions in support of the Chartist aims. 
Presenting the 1842 petition to Parliament

Popular support was further increased by a flood of Chartist newspapers and pamphlets, and by many of its early leaders the Charter was seen as a means to improve the living conditions of the working classes. Chartism was a ‘knife and fork, a bread and cheese question’, according to one of them, Joseph Rayner Stephens. However, there were others who advocated more extreme methods of achieving political reform, and their activities caused serious alarm amongst the authorities, who were not unmindful of matters in the rest of Europe. Stephens himself was arrested and imprisoned for taking part in an unlawful assembly.

Chartist activity and the attempts of the authorities to suppress it continued throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s, then with the rise of revolutionary movements in continental Europe there was a resurgence of support for Chartism in Britain during 1848. The violence of extreme Chartists escalated, as did the legislation passed to curb their activities and the punishments meted out to those found guilty.
High Court of Justiciary
It was against this background that the trial took place at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh of the three Scottish Chartist leaders – John Grant, Henry Ranken, and Robert Hamilton. The charges against the accused stated that they ‘did…wickedly and feloniously, combine and conspire…with other persons to the prosecutor unknown, calling themselves Chartists, to effect an alteration of the laws and constitution of the realm…not peaceably and lawfully, and loyally, but by force and violence, or by armed resistance to lawful authority.’ In addition they were charged that they did ‘wickedly and feloniously, and seditiously, resolve and agree to form a body, to be called the National Guard, and to be provided with arms, to be used for the illegal and seditious purpose of effecting, by force and violence, or by armed resistance to lawful authority, the said alterations of the laws and constitution of the realm.’

In the current climate of apprehension and fear, all of this was pretty damning.

Support for the Chartist movement had been strong in Scotland during the earlier part of 1848, particularly in the large cities, and this support was also extended to the formation of an armed National Guard, whose purpose, by means of armed insurrection, would be to tie up English forces, enabling the Irish to attack and overwhelm the English garrisons in Ireland. Moreover, Robert Hamilton was reported in the Scottish press to have declared, at a mass meeting at Bruntsfield Links, that he did not see why a revolution could not take place here as well as in France, and that, while at one time he would have been satisfied with the Charter, now he would not be satisfied with anything less than a Republic.

Therefore, these men appeared to be advocating the creation of an illegal armed force, followed by the destruction of the constitution and the overthrow of the monarchy. Earlier Henry Ranken had not spoken, on the whole, in so inflammatory a fashion, until he began to make threats about the kind of armed force that was proposed, including the use of such deadly weapons as ‘Warner’s long range’. This was a recently invented long range missile, intended to blow up ships at a distance of up to five miles. In the event, it was a failure, but at the time it may have seemed alarming. Ranken also began to advocate that young men should provide themselves with arms, should go to Ireland and assist the Irish revolutionaries, and should accept nothing less than a Republic. John Grant’s role had been primarily to act as chairman of the mass meeting at Bruntsfield Links in June, and to declare that the resolution to form a National Guard had been adopted.

It was as a result of this meeting and others, and the inflammatory speeches made, that the three men were arrested in August and went on trial in November 1848. Ironically, support for Chartism had already begun to fall away in June, so that a number of planned mass meetings were poorly attended. Perhaps the extreme measures proposed – armed insurrection and creation of a Republic – were too much to stomach for those who supported the more reasonable original six articles of the Chartist movement. Events on the Continent must also have alarmed many, who wanted no part in such violence.
James Crauford, counsel for the prosecution
Up to early 1848, the treatment of the Chartists in Scotland had been restrained. As long as their meetings and rallies were orderly and held primarily for the purpose of political discussion, the authorities were willing for them to go ahead, while keeping a wary eye on them. It was when the talk turned to an armed National Guard and the goal of Republican government that the patience of the authorities snapped. Yet even the trial of the three leaders was conducted with courtesy, the men being judged ‘all respectable men, and, except as politicians, sensible’. James Crauford, counsel for the prosecution, was praised for his ‘highly temperate address’, in a trial which might well have called forth a good deal of impassioned and inflammatory rhetoric.

The three Chartists retained, as counsel for the defence, James Wellwood Moncreiff. Moncreiff was willing to undertake the role of defence counsel not because he was a supporter of Chartism, but because he had great sympathy for working men and a personal regard for the three accused. Moncreiff was a skilled and shrewd lawyer, and managed to have a number of points raised by the prosecution ruled inadmissible. He was also able to bring forward a witness who swore that Ranken was opposed to the formation of the National Guard, and had called for a public meeting in the hope of putting a stop to the proposal. Ranken was, he said, ‘what was called a moral force Chartist’. On the basis of this and other evidence, Moncreiff argued that there was nothing criminal in holding Chartist opinions. Chartism was ‘a code of politics quite as respectable in itself as any held by any other body of men. A man was as much entitled to uphold the six points of the Charter, as any other individual was entitled to hold his opinions, whatever they might be.’
James Wellwood Moncreiff counsel for the defence
The whole of Moncreiff’s address drew applause. When the jury withdrew – for a mere half hour – they returned a verdict of not proven on the charge of conspiracy against the three men. John Grant was found not guilty of the charge of sedition. There remained the charge against Ranken and Hamilton of being ‘guilty of using language intended and calculated to excite popular disaffection and resistance to lawful authority’. The jury found the two men guilty of the charge, with the words ‘intended and’ omitted.

This threw the court into some confusion. The judge pressed the foreman on whether the word ‘intended’ had been deliberately omitted. It had. Moncreiff then seized the opportunity to argue that the jury’s verdict meant that the men had not intended to produce that result. Intention was the essence of the crime. Their actions had not amounted to sedition.

The ensuing confusion was debated by three judges, who could not come to a unanimous decision on what the jury had actually meant. If they had meant the men were not guilty, would they not have said so? Should the men be sentenced to long periods of imprisonment, or set free? In the end, leniency prevailed. All three were sentenced to just four months in prison. Compared with some of the sentences handed out to English Chartists, this was lenient indeed. In fact one leader of (non-Chartist) riots in Glasgow earlier that year, George Smith, was condemned to eighteen years' transportation. To add to the conflicting opinions, Lord Campbell, a member of the Cabinet, was to say that he thought the verdict should have been one of acquittal.

There is an amusing postscript, as Moncreiff revealed in his memoirs. Twelve or fourteen years later, at a ‘somewhat stormy’ meeting, a man jumped up and made ‘an admirable speech’ in support of Moncreiff and his colleague. It was one of the three accused Chartists (he does not say which).  

I thanked him afterwards, and expressed my surprise at the moderation of his sentiments. ‘Ah,’ he replied, ‘it makes all the difference when a man has to heed for his children.’ I found afterwards that he had been prosperous in his trade and was a master manufacturer.

Ann Swinfen

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'.