The Cottingley Secret is such a marvellous amalgam of true historical events and a delightful modern day book of magical realism that I am not sure that any review I write will really do it justice, but one can but try!
I think most people in my age bracket will remember the revelation that the Cottingley Fairies photos had been faked by two cousins from the Yorkshire town some several decades previously. As a child I actually remember Seeing the story on Arthur C Clarke’s programme about the supernatural. Those pictures had divided the nation, sceptics and believers alike had staked their reputations on their theories.
This book takes that story and the mysticism it always evoked and focuses the reader on the perspective of the younger of the girls, Frances and links it to the destiny of a modern woman Olivia whose familial connection to the Cottingley affair is revealed gradually as she tries to engage her Grandmother who is sinking further and further into Dementia.
Olivia herself, a believer in the fairy Folk as a child, begins a journey of discovery and attempts to open herself up to magic again after a terrible loss, an acceptance of a bitter truth and a chance inheritance with the potential to change her life entirely as a result.
The two timelines are interwoven so skilfully through the device of a undiscovered personal account ‘Notes on a Fairy Tale, by Frances Griffith. This story of a lost and lonely young girl forced to move to England from South Africa to live with family she had never met, to a wild and unfamiliar landscape had strong echoes for me of “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodson Burnett. It draws you into the tale,in much the same way, the evident discovery of joy in the untamed nature of The North, the sheer magic of the place giving comfort to a lonely child, the kinship of Elsie and Frances, echoes that of Mary and Dickon.
Such a feeling of intense enjoyment was evoked by the account of the unchecked escalation of the notoriety of the photos , a young girl’s fear for a father at war and the revelation that for Frances at least, the belief in and encounter of fairies was real.
The photos may have been fabricated, but here the magic that prompted their creation is realised in the undergrowth of that infamous beck.
Olivia’s strand of the book is just as beautiful. Grief, loss, rebirth and renewal all feature as her unexpected
inheritance of her Grandfather’s used book store allows for a searching of her soul, and an acceptance of a lethargy in spirit that has led her to accept a man wholly unsuited to her whimsical spirit . The story of the Yorkshire Fairies offers an opportunity via her ailing Grandmother’s connection to the Cottingley Incident to learn about and remember the joyous and vivacious soul her Grandmother had been, as Dementia now ravages her mind and physical health.
The moments between Martha and Olivia left me near tears, it is the honesty of the descriptions of the effects of the disease and the sheer thievery of it’s symptoms that ground the narrative in reality, providing a foil so that the lighter more joyful and magical elements can be shown in such vivid relief. The addition of friendly family friends and a grieving widower and his delicate daughter are liberal seasonings of sugar and spice to what is an utterly delicious and delightful whole.
I loved this book, I know it will invigorate interest in the Cottingley Photos and start the debate over the fifth photo and it’s authenticity, but for my part I can wholeheartedly say I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES!