Tuesday's book: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Coming of the Fairies

Here is the fons et origo of all those fairy films. But the story behind this book is far more interesting than the sad and credulous tale contained within it.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Coming of the Fairies was first published in 1922. By that time the author had long abandoned Sherlock Holmes, and was devoting his life to preaching Spiritualism. For Doyle, as for so many others, the loss of a son in the first world war had transformed a mild interest into a passionate search for certainty. The Doyle "Home Circle" was one of millions, all hoping for messages from loved ones who laid dead in the Flanders mud.

In an age of waning faith, psychical researchers looked for scientific proof of life after death. Among the most popular forms of evidence were "spirit photographs". Grieving relatives would willingly pay good money for pictures of what they believed to be beloved ghosts, but only if they could be assured that no cheating (usually double exposure) had taken place.

In May, 1920, Doyle heard from a friend that "two photographs of fairies had been taken in the North of England, under circumstances which seemed to put fraud out of the question". The photographers were two young girls, Frances Griffiths, aged ten, and her cousin Elsie Wright, who was sixteen. They had photographed each other in the company of an assortment of tiny, gossamer-winged fairies of the sort seen in many illustrated books of the day. This was not surprising, as the "fairies" were cut-outs from just such a book, illustrations for Alfred Noyes's "A Spell for a Fairy", published in Princess Mary's Gift Book in 1915. The girls, however, insisted time and again that these were real fairies. The Coming of the Fairies is Conan Doyle's investigation and vindication of their story.

The girls' behaviour is easily explained: a joke ran out of control, they found themselves in too deep to retreat. The interesting part is that their dupe was, of all people, Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes would have cracked the case in five minutes flat. Doyle, however, proved in real life the most credulous of Watsons. He approached the whole episode with that galumphing literal-mindedness which characterised all his Spiritualist endeavours. (Asked about conditions in Heaven he left the question of alcohol open, declared that "any nutrition is of a very light and delicate order" and sex a question of "soul affinity", and thought that golf was probably played.)

Conceit had something to do with it: in such a case, Holmes's creator must be infallible. So did wishful thinking. But mostly it had to do with a failure of imagination: the dead hand of Heaven had claimed another victim. What fantasies of Paradise have ever compared with the Inferno's juicy horrors? In the earthbound Holmes, Doyle was free to create his own avenging angel. Faced with the Beyond, his only recourse was to fairies. A kind posterity has shown which it prefers.

Reprinted by Pavilion Books, pounds 9.99.

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