Sunday, 15 May 2011

[035] The Case of the Cottingley Fairies - Joe Cooper

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies by Joe Cooper

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

In 1917 two cousins living in West Yorkshire claimed to have photographed fairies. Their story captured the imagination of British society, but why were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the theosophist Edward Gardner and many others so willing to be convinced that the photographs were genuine? Had Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths really seen fairies at the bottom of the garden?

Joe Cooper interviewed Elsie and Frances over six years and he researched the case their prevarications give way to confessions. But to her death Frances maintained that "there were fairies at Cottingley" and the last photograph of 'The Fair Bower' has never been satisfactorily explained. 

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies gives a balanced insider's account of the affair. Joe Cooper, who was an advisor on the film about the affair, Fairytale: A True Story, has uncovered a strange and twisting tale that reveals a great deal about the human will to believe. 

Why I Picked It Up:

I'd always been intrigued by the story of the Cottingley Fairies but had never really read much up on it. This seemed like a good chance to investigate.

What I Think:

Now, I'm not particularly one for non-fiction. I distinctly remember thinking as a young girl "Who would read non-fiction when there's so much fiction in the world?" I'd much rather be enveloped in a strange world or come of age with a confused child or watch two kids overcome a dystopian government than read about something that actually happened. 

As with anything, there are a few exceptions to this rule. I've read (and own) every book that Bill Bryson has ever put out (my hero for all time!) and will devour books on the history or development of the English language. Dorky? Yes. To each their own, I suppose. Everyone has those things that interest them. 

Something else that has always interested me is the unexplained. I love mysteries, both of the literal and the supernatural kind. I read about ghosts and Bigfoot and all that good stuff and have since I was a little girl. So a story about the two girls who claimed to photograph fairies? Right up my alley.

For the surprisingly larger number of people than I assumed that don't know the backstory of the Cottingley Fairies, here's a short idea of what happened: In the 1910s, in a small village in England, two cousins (Elsie, 16 and Frances, 10) went out one day with one of their father's cameras and came back claiming to have taken shocking pictures. Over a period of a few years, five photographs came out of the girls with what appeared to be fairies. Okay, there's one with a gnome, but still. 

This set the rural English community abuzz. They gained quite a reputation for awhile, including gaining the interest of the wonderful but kind of occult-y Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The photographs were published and gained both tons of believers and tons of people calling it a hoax. The girls kept silent, though, claiming that they were real fairies.

Years passed and the photos would come up from time to time. Both girls grew up, married and had families. It wasn't until the eighties, when the girls were both old ladies, that they confessed the the photographs were cardboard cutouts from one of their children's books. Elsie claims this of all the photos while Frances says that the fifth and final of the pictures is real. Both of them have now passed.

It's a great story, to be sure, and definitely made for a good book. This is the kind of thing that makes a fiction girl read non-fiction.

The only problem?

This book was written by perhaps the strangest narrative voice I have ever read. Joe Cooper is a joke (no offense, Joe). He believes in fairies. 100%. He is sure that fairies exist and somehow, some parts of the photos are real. 

Now, I'm all for believing in the unbelievable but it seems hard to me when he has interviewed the actual people, been told to his face that it was a fraud and then still gone on believing it. The book, obviously, is completely biased towards the occult and the existence of many fairy tale creatures. Do I want to believe in elves, fairies and gnomes? Yes. Do I? No. Does Joe Cooper? You better believe it.

This book could have been handled extremely well by someone who wouldn't have taken a personal stance, by someone who wouldn't demonize the girls but also wouldn't claim that fairies existed in real life. It's this over-the-top belief system that makes the book more silly than serious and hard to read. It honestly was a struggle to get through. Read it if you're interested but take everything with a grain of salt.

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