Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book cover
Yes, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The one who created the most logical and rational investigator of all time. He believed in fairies, didn't you know? No, seriously. I touched on this briefly in my review of The Secret Life of Harry Houdini, but the gist is that Sir ACD was an ardent Spiritualist and devoted a large portion of his later years to promoting and trying to find evidence for the popular new religion. Then he wrote a book about fairies and here we are.

Summary: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), best known as the author of Sherlock Holmes stories but also a devout Spiritualist, was entirely convinced by a set of photographs apparently showing two young girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire playing with a group of tiny, translucent fairies. To demonstrate his unshakeable belief in the spirit world, he published The Coming of the Fairies in 1922. Doyle's book lays out the story of the photographs, their supposed provenance, and the implications of their existence. This quirky and fascinating book allows us to get inside the mind of an intelligent, highly respected man who happened to believe in fairies.

This may seem like an odd choice of book for me. I'm not all that found of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thanks to what I read in the Houdini book mentioned above (they were friends and later, bitter rivals, if you wondered why he'd be relevant), I've professed several times to my dislike of fairies and especially to my dislike of the Cottingley Fairies, considering I can actually see those woods if I lean out of my window and I'm therefore heartily sick of that story. 

So why would I read this? Aside from some kind of fascination of the awful, it's just... interesting. I wanted to know how such a well-respected logical man completely failed to see that those fairies were cut out off a picture book and stuck onto hat pins. This book is from his own hand and I really did want to peer inside his head a little.

It was also partly for amusement value, I have to admit. I wanted to have a bit of a chuckle at ACD's expense - not particularly benevolent of me, but there you go. After a while, however, his belief does start to make a strange kind of sense. If fairies proof can be found that fairies exist, then the other things he believed in (like his wife being able to communicate with his deceased son) might be real as well. He'd based his reputation on Pheneas, his spirit guide, and investigating the fairies may well have shown that he was right all along.

In the introduction, John M. Lynch states that:
It is unfair to force Doyle to wear the mantle of his creation, the ultra-rationalist Holmes.   
That's true, actually. If I wrote a book about a character who believed in fairies, you wouldn't automatically assume that I did too, would you? Logically, the opposite shouldn't be true either. I think the point is that Sir ACD proved in his writing that he was capable of thinking logically, and yet chose not to when it came to the real world. That's the part I have trouble understanding.

So, the book itself. It's short but quite repetetive. To give it some credit, it attempts to produce scientific explanation as to why most people can't see fairies and spirits:

We see objects within the limits which make up our colour spectrum, with infinite vibrations, unused by us, on either side of them. If we could conceive a race of beings which were construed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations, they would be invisible unless we could tune ourselves up or tone them down...
If the objects are indeed there, and if the inventive power of the human brain is turned upon the problem, it is likely that some sort of psychic spectacles, inconceivable to us at the moment, will be invented, and that we shall all be able to adapt ourselves to the new conditions.
Those parts are quite interesting but then the book also evidences Sir ACD's whole trail of documents - This person sent me THIS letter and then I wrote THIS letter to another person...' and quotes the usually quite lengthy letter in full. To be fair to Sir ACD, he does also include the letters from those who haven't come round to his point of view. As they tend to be very much alike, this gets quite tedious.  There are some moments of pure snarkiness which are quite amusing, but on the whole it's a little bit dry.

The Coming of the Fairies is basically a play-by-play of ACD's whole investigation, although I use that term loosely. It can be quite difficult to keep all the different people straight when there are so many letters flying back and forth.

I don't know if you've ever seen the photographs in question, but they're obviously, painfully not fairies. I don't think you need the scientific knowledge we have now to see that. May Bowley wrote to Sir ACD and suggested that:
The whiteness of the fairies may be due to their lack of shadow, which may also explain their somewhat artificial-looking flatness.
Umm, no. They look artificial and flat because... they're artifical and flat. This book even actively considers whether they could be paper cut-outs... and then decides that they definitely couldn't be. Argh. It just shows how desperately people wanted to believe, I suppose.  I actually feel quite sad that they turned out to be fake photographs - wouldn't it be amazing if they were real?

In the end, Sir ACD considers the existence of fairies to be definitively proved - although I think he may need to reconsider his definition of proof. A soldier stating that he saw the fairies too doesn't class as evidence just because he happens to be in the army!

My opinions towards Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have changed thanks to The Coming of the Fairies. Previously I wanted to hit him with The Book of Logic, but now I just kind of want to hug him. He wasn't very objective and refused to believe anything that didn't fit in with him own ideas, but he had his reasons, I suppose. He's just hard to take seriously - he talks about referring to his spirit guide for answers! I respect him for including the oppostion's arguments in this book - he's nothing if not thorough.

The book itself is a little dry. It's full of repetetive correspondance and it trails off a little towards the end, but there are some interesting 'scientific' arguments in and amongst. I would recommend reading this, but perhaps get it from the library instead.

I actually feel quite close-minded now. I mean, I'm not saying I believe in them, but who am I to say that they don't exist?

Read my review of The Secret Life of Harry Houdini, in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle features heavily.


  1. Best reasons for reading a book ever!

    I'm kind of intrigued by the idea of this (other than the dreary letters...) because Arthur Conan Doyle (understanding now why you went with Sir ACD) popped up a lot in The Ghost Hunters as a slightly bonkers spiritualist and I was definitely curious about that side of his life. Apparently he was also a rival of Harry Price because he kept going around trying to disprove various ghostly miracles and tried to ruin him...all of which leads me to think that the man behind the detective was a bit of a loose cannon...

    Library it is, though.

    1. I can lend you it next time I see you, if you want?

      Funnily enough, I was eyeing up The Ghost Hunters yesterday as a Potential Next Book. When I've fiiiiiiiinally finished The Goldfinch anyway, however more years that might take.

      He was a rival of Houdini for exactly the same reason - because Houdini kept going around proving how all of these 'miracles' could be done by sleight of hand.

    2. Ooh, that would be great, actually, thanks!

      I know what you mean about loooong books - until this morning, I'd been listening to One Hundred Years of Solitude for what felt like FOREVER and it was just awful. Awful! I feel free now I've finished!

      Anyway, The Ghost Hunters is good - the middle is slow but the beginning and the end are great! I'm reading The Stepsister Scheme - brilliant :)

  2. Sounds like an intriguing book. I am a fan of Sir Conan Doyle but I have never heard of the book. I will have to go and check that out.

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