I had more reason than most for feeling that my childhood had truly ended when I entered my twenties. It happened to coincide with the revelation, after more than 60 years, that the celebrated photographs of the Cottingley Fairies had been faked. On the leafy bank of a Yorkshire stream, two young cousins, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, in a spirit of innocent fun, had produced images which, in a veryshort space of time, would excite and confound the great and good of England and beyond. But the era of na´vetÚ has passed and we want to put some distance between ourselves and these quaint, fading relics, don't we?
Well, no. Despite being apparently discredited, Cottingley has never ceased to affect and inspire us in our age of reason. There are aspects to the story that tell us so much, not just about the period in which the Fairies made their appearance, but about ourselves as inquisitive beings, trying to understand and be reconciled with our place among worlds, seen and unseen.
I read what I could, fascinated by the subject. It seemed huge tracts of forest must have been pulped over the course of almost a century in disseminating vast amounts of opinion and conjecture from pundits boasting an equally varied array of qualifications and agendas. Sadly though, Frances herself had remained silent. Strange I thought, that the little girl at the heart of the story would have nothing to say.
My own mother was already elderly when she made some throwaway remarks, vaguely linking the Cottingley affair with friends of our family. It was at her funeral in November 2007 that I again made the acquaintance of Christine Lynch, and in a moment of cloud-parting revelation discovered that she wasn't just connected, she was none other than Frances' daughter. The book that follows could be said to have begun its journey to fruition at that very moment. Frances had indeed left a memoir, and answers would follow - as would yet more intrigue.
At last I understood the reasons for Frances' reticence, perhaps obvious when we consider the circumstances in which the photographs came to light. She was six years younger than Elsie, who possessed the necessary photographic skills. The older girl was also the more voluble of the two, much less shy about courting the publicity when it came, albeit unasked for.
Elsie's mother, Polly, through her association with the Theosophists, had been the conduit by which the first pictures reached the wider world and as such became the principal correspondent with interested parties from the outset. The subsequent involvement of Conan Doyle and his writings on the subject created, from what had been conceived by Elsie as a childish prank, fuel for a major intellectual treatise on the paranormal at a time when war and profound loss had created a near-perfect environment for the proliferation of such ideas.
Much later, when that oversight was eventually addressed, Frances had become too bruised by the experience to accept the opportunities that were offered to set the record straight. Only she knew what had actually happened, but the reaction to Elsie's pictures had been a source of embarrassment. She had been sworn to secrecy in any case and wanted nothing more than to put the entire episode behind her and get on with a normal life.
Another half century would pass before, during another heightened spell of Cottingley mania, Frances reluctantly agreed to participate in television and print interviews. Only then did she begin to write her memoir, desiring at last to reveal the full story - that the first four photographs had been faked by Elsie, but the last - the so-called 'Fairy Bower', which she herself had taken almost as an afterthought - was genuine. These revelations, startling at the time, formed the hub of the book she intended to publish. But it was not to be. A betrayal and an illicit leak to the press left her entirely disenchanted. She stepped back from the public eye for the last time and would not live to see her version of these seminal events in print. But despite everything - her natural reticence and desire for privacy, a wariness of those who might misrepresent the facts and her disillusion with a cynical world - it was a version from which she never wavered, right up to her death in 1986.
I find it an engaging first-hand account, all the more so by virtue of the important context it provides; revealing insights into the circumstances of her life and those of her family, before, during and after the dubious celebrity Cottingley bestowed on her.
Frances' daughter Christine also provides essential testimony in the book's second section, describing the effect the controversy had on their family life. She is also much less circumspect, challenging certain perceptions that Frances, in many ways too close to events, and certainly in her latter years too jaded by them, might have let go. It serves to remind us that, whatever her role in perpetrating the hoax, Frances never profited from it and indeed was as much used by those that did as the Fairies themselves.
Whether it be nostalgia for lost innocence, fascination with the obsessive character of Conan Doyle or an academic intrigue into the nature of such phenomena, the appetite for those few iconic images of Frances, Elsie and the little folk of Cottingley Glen continues unabated. What follows is, at last, in Frances' own words. It is the only first hand account of the background to, and the circumstances surrounding, the actual Coming of The Fairies.