Do you believe in fairies?
Or maybe: “Deborah, do you believe in fairies?”
I’ve always found it a difficult question, personally. The obvious answer is, “No.” I’ve never seen a fairy (and, believe me, as a child I looked!), I’ve never held much conviction in “sensing” supernatural influences like auras or anything like that, and I found, as a young reader, that the wide variety of fairies in various books made it difficult to know what I was looking for when it came to fairy folk. Small and in the flowers? Tall and gracious? Noble? Mischievous? They came in such diversity that it was clear no one really knew what made a fairy.
But I was a lover of fairy tales and I deeply, passionately, madly loved fairies. I just didn’t know where to find them. Or really believe that they, you know, existed. But I wanted them to, and I couldn’t think of a reason why they shouldn’t exist, if only I knew what they were and where they were.
Which brings me to a book which has been sitting on my bedside table for months, waiting for me to have a chance to read it: Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real, by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler.
First thing to note: I knew of the Cottingley Fairies, of course, because… fairies. As has been established, I knew and loved fairies and read all about them. Including the famous so-called hoax. I didn’t like the story, though, because it all seemed to circle around “how could Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have been taken in by a couple of girls?” Which seemed to me to be the wrong question to ask.
Second thing to note: Despite my reservations about the Cottingley Fairies story, I was at my local children’s book shop and they had this on display and I fell for it. Hard. The cover was so tender and so beautiful, and the title wasn’t calling it a hoax and seemed respectful… and, let’s be honest, this is a pretty, pretty book. I bought it.
(Newsflash: Deborah Falls in Love with Book and Buys It; Nobody Registers Surprise.)
Well, after I finished a chunk of writing, I cleared up the pile of books which have been waiting for me and this one surfaced again. I read it. And I’m totally, completely, 100% in love. This book, and I do not say so lightly, totally understands about fairies, and I’d just say that Marc Nobleman and Eliza Wheeler get it! They don’t talk down to the reader. They don’t pat those two clever girls, Elsie and Frances, at Cottingley on the head. They don’t sneer at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for believing in fairies. They get it. Add to that that the aesthetic of the book is stunning in its own right and perfectly suited to the gentle yet strong story of the two girls and the women they became, and you have, I believe, a perfect book of its kind.
The question is how Marc Nobleman wove a story which so encapsulated a famous “hoax” without ever calling it a hoax or imputing that the girls were out to make mischief while so brilliant a man as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was taken in by their machinations.
What Nobleman did which was so very, very simple, and very, very clever, was to listen to the girls and talk about them, rather than talk about the history of photography, Doyle’s peculiarities, or any of the other numerous angles I’ve seen on this story. He never once says that “fairies are real” or, conversely, that “the girls were out to hoax people,” but instead gently recounts the fun that the girls had together at Cottingley and outlines their motivation for photographing the fairies. Gradually, the story of the fairies grows, outgrowing the girls’ probable intentions, and when it reaches the ears of Doyle, it explodes. The girls stand by their story (in part, he suggests, so as not to embarrass Doyle), and only later in life, after the death of Doyle, do they explain the full story… almost. In fact, it seems that the younger of the girls, Frances, never really made it clear whether or not she maybe did believe in fairies… just a little.
I love how Nobleman treats Elsie and Frances with perfect respect, never imputing any malice or even mischievous intent to their actions. I love how the art mirrors and amplifies this respect. I love how he never looks down his nose at Doyle. I love how he builds a new story out of the old one, a story which never denigrates belief in fairies, or the desire to believe in fairies, and which even demonstrates a kind of respect for that desire. Altogether, I think this is a beautiful account of the creativity and brilliance of two little girls enjoying a summer in a lovely corner of the world– and who enjoyed playing with the fairies, whether the fairies knew it or not.