“Oh, the fairies!/ Whoa, the fairies.! Nothing but splendour,/ And feminine gender.”
The conventional conception of fairies is that they are female and that they are young and attractive. I am as guilty as others in perpetuating this: in both The Elder Queen and in the recent Albion awake! my central characters are fairy women, invested with strength, allure and passion. These are powerful and abiding archetypes; they make for good story lines, but they may also be a source of confusion in our correct analysis of fairylore.
Since Victorian times the dominant trend in fairy lore has been to make the fairies more and more diminutive- especially in theatrical representations. We may blame J M Barrie and Tinkerbell for this, but the miniaturising theme was far wider than just one author.
There have always been small fairies, but in earlier times they were generally conceived as being adults of small stature rather than infants of normal height. It must be noted that the term ‘elf’ popularly denoted tininess from the late eighteenth century at least (for instance in Blake and Keats). That notwithstanding, until the early nineteenth century representations of fairies tended to treat them as adults. In the case of painter Henry Fuseli, indeed, his fairy maids are women of a notably self-aware and unsettling character.
However, it was during the Victorian period that the representation of fairies degenerated through childlike figures to cloying cuteness. During the same period, too, Victorian culture separated out ‘the child’ as distinct from adults and elevated the innocence of childhood. Previously children were merely small people; they have since become a separate social and cultural category. James Kincaid has argued that the modern concepts of sexuality were created by the Victorians as entwined with their notions of the uncorrupted infant. The result, he suggested, was that childhood and innocence have become idealised, fetishised and eroticised in everyday culture (Erotic innocence, Duke University Press, 1998). He asserts that writers such as Lewis Caroll and J M Barrie absorbed this erotic idealising of children and “drove [it] into our cultural foundations.”
I would suggest that there have been a number of consequences of these cultural trends for our perceptions of fairyland:
- we have tended to lose sight of the former nature of fairies. As they have increasingly become little girls, some of the more sinister aspects to their characters have been elided;
- despite what I have just said, a powerful tension has arisen between the ‘child’ fairy and the earlier imagery- for example the fairies of Shakespeare and, even more strongly, Keats. The result was the projection of adult emotions and motivations and (my key focus here) sexuality onto fairies who were now often conceived as infants; and,
- the 19th century use of children as fairies in theatrical performances, giving public visibility to girls acting on stage and, perhaps, portraying inappropriate roles.
Let me address the last point in more detail. Advances in stagecraft enabled Victorian theatres to offer magical spectaculars, with fairies flying, disappearing and posing behind veils of magical mist. Actresses had a reputation for lax morals, already, and there was some public concern over the impact upon the young girls employed to portray fairies. Would the exposure “convert them into coquettes before they have even reached their teens?” asked the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885. Regardless of the impact upon the girls themselves, Eileen Barlee in Pantomime waifs (1884) fretted that they were “Dressed in the airiest and, alas!, the scantiest of costumes … and many were in flesh-coloured tights.” They were presented to audiences as nearly naked or apparently so. The verse at the top of the posting reflects this sense of sexualisation; it is taken from a music hall song quoted by Lionel Lambourne in the catalogue to the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition of Victorian fairy painting.
These stage performances may all have been perfectly innocent in themselves, but the reactions of the viewers are another matter. I am reminded of Graham Greene’s scurrilous and scandalous review of Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie, published in the magazine Night and day in October 1937. He commented provocatively that Temple was being presented as “a fancy little piece” and a “complete totsy.” Her admirers, Greene alleged, were middle aged men and clergymen who would respond to her “dubious coquetry.” Their respectable predecessors of a generation or two earlier, the Dean of Barchester and Mayor of Casterbridge, may well have felt the same about Fairy Phoebe and her hosts whom they saw on stage. What is involved, perhaps, is a ‘sanctioned’ opportunity to regard the young actresses.*
This may all seem hyper-alert, but let me give a few examples. Firstly, an account of a supernatural encounter recorded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The coming of the fairies (1922). He supports his case for the reality of the Cottingley fairies with other evidence of their existence. He relates how two respectable gentlemen visited a hill in Dorset:
“I was walking with my companion … when to my astonishment I saw a number of what I thought to be very small children, about a score in number, and all dressed in little gaily-coloured short skirts, their legs being bare. Their hands were joined, and all held up, as they merrily danced round in a perfect circle. We stood watching them, when in an instant they all vanished from our sight. My companion told me they were fairies, and that they often came to that particular part to hold their revels. It may be our presence disturbed them.”
In a more recent version of the same event, there are some telling differences. The walkers witnessed: “a group of about twenty young girls … naked except for a little gaily coloured short skirt that lifted up from time to time on the gentle breeze.” The changes may well be entirely unconscious, but it seems to me that the tone here has changed from being a mere account of a curious experience; indeed, the tenor of the second version is not unique. Geoffrey Hodson was a theosophist and fairy-hunter who discovered elves all over Europe. He wrote of his journeys in two books, The Kingdom of faerie (1930) and Fairies at work and play (1927). I will quote from each respectively.
- Cotswolds, 1925- of devas he says that “The actual form and manner are those of a vivacious school girl.”
- At Geneva he tells us that “A particular fairy I am observing is a fascinating and charming creature … The face resembles that of a very pretty young country girl.” Another deva had the form of a “a fresh young country girl.”
- In Lancashire in 1921 he was surrounded by dancing fairies, the leader of whom has a “form … perfectly modelled and rounded, like that of a young girl.” We are assured that “There are no angles in the transcendently beautiful form.”
- A deva met in a pine forest near Geneva in 1926 was “like a lovely young girl, in thin white drapery through which the form can be seen.” Another such is “definitely female and always nude… Her form is always entrancingly beautiful.”
Hodson in his writing repeatedly discloses a sexualised response to the visions he experiences, in one cases admitting that it was only by an effort of will that he did not allow himself to be seduced by the allure of one rounded young spirit.
We may seem more aware of sexuality in texts now, but as Diane Purkiss warns us in her 2000 study, Troublesome things, “We in the post-modern world are apt to be convinced that sex is at the bottom of everything, that we know far more about sex than the Victorians did, and that we can read their unconsciousness like a book. These are all dangerous thoughts. Just because sex seems to us at the bottom of everything, does not mean that this is equally true for all others; just because we know a lot more about our own sexualities (and do we really?) does not mean we know a lot about Victorian sexualities; just because we read something in a text doesn’t mean it is there for everyone.”
Despite these words of caution, Purkiss concedes that some artists of the period trod an uncertain line between eroticism and harmlessness. She proposes, for example, that some of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower fairies hover in this uncertain interstice. Mostly, these are demure illustrations, although sometimes perhaps Barker does allow what may be interpreted as some risque off-the-shoulder looks. This hint of the other world of faery did not escape Barker’s biographer, Janet Laing; in her book, Cicely Mary Barker, (Penguin, 1995), Laing describes one alphabet fairy as follows:
“The more mystical and sensual side of fairy land is epitomised by the Jasmine fairy. In the heat of the summer the ‘cool green bower’ and ‘sweet scented flowers’ are particularly seductive.” (p.55)
As I suggested in an earlier post, Arthur Rackham too appears to have taken advantage of the ‘value-free’ environment of Faerie to indulge in pictures of girls in see-through frocks and careless deshabille; witness this illustration of Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As discussed in that previous post, depicting fairies seems to have been treated by many artists as a licence to adapt classical nudes to a more domestic scene, a wisp or two of gauze maintaining an illusion of modesty and decorum.
Furthermore, it may be worth remarking that all these child like ‘forms’ (whether presented as ‘art’, on stage or in the Cotswolds) are simultaneously naked or scantily attired and independent of adult society. Those factors combined may well have served to liberate the response of some observers from the normal social and moral restraints. Without doubt, the consequence has been that we have ended up confused and uncomfortable with aspects of our fairy lore.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries weren’t all irredeemable tweeness amongst fairies. For example, Christina Rossetti wrote the strange and disturbing Goblin Market, a poem that, as Diane Purkiss neatly expresses it, “restores fully a sense of the otherness and menace of the fairy world.” More recently, the huge international popularity of Tolkien’s stories of elves and dwarves has helped to provide a much needed corrective to the saccharine flower fairies of the Edwardian nursery. Legolas and Arwen have revived the Norse and Celtic traditions of human sized and mature fairies. Their robust combativeness and sexuality are a welcome reminder of older visions of the supernatural and are redressing the balance of imagery in the popular imagination.
We are left with a puzzling dichotomy in the conventions as to representations of faery in the twenty-first century. A short search on the internet readily confirms this. On the one hand we have the sexy faery babe, as represented here by a picture created by Bente Schlick.
In contrast, there are the images of fairies as the embodiment of childhood innocence, for which I have selected an image ‘Caught by a sunbeam’ by artists Josephine Wall.
Lastly, there are the mature, self-possessed and possibly dangerous fairy women found in Brian Froud’s work. Fairy maids in corsets with heaving cleavages are not rare, but they are hugely outnumbered by the more fey images, it has to be admitted. The newly established convention that fairies are perfect manifestations of physical attractiveness and/ or innocence stand in stark contrast to older conceptions. Fairies maidens were renowned in folk-lore for their alluring beauty, but they often suffered defects that betrayed their real nature: they might have cow’s tails, cloven feet beneath their long dresses, fingerless hands or hollow backs. These aspects of fairy nature are very seldom found now in the idealised portrayals that are so prevalent- Froud’s pictures being something of an exception in their honest naturalism and occasional disturbing honesty about the ‘average’ physique (pot bellies and drooping breasts). The main problem with these paragons of prettiness is that they are one dimensional. Deprived of the darker, more dangerous aspects of traditional fairy nature, they become merely decorative- charming but devoid of deeper meaning.
In conclusion, it may be argued that our ‘use’ of the fairy myth has changed in recent centuries. Whereas fairies were originally the causes of unexplained events and a source of supernatural protection and help, they have increasingly become the vehicles for our fantasies- a convenient way of expressing issues that might not otherwise be tackled.
* By way of a footnote: as a result of the comments in his review, Graham Greene was sued by Fox Entertainments and by Shirley Temple’s parents. They demanded damages for his libellous insinuations and a trial in the High Court concluded that the images were entirely decent and innocent and that the claimants were therefore entitled to an award of £3500 compensation from the magazine and the author. Night and day went into insolvency; Greene fled the country for Mexico, where he wrote his most admired work, The power and the glory. Literature’s gain, perhaps…
This post is a version of a chapter that appears in my new book, British fairies.