I was already aware of the Cottingley Fairies before reading this book; I remember watching a documentary years ago, as well as the 1997 film Fairy Tale. I knew that, early in the 20th century, a series of photographs appeared, taken by two young girls and allegedly showing fairies playing in the garden. Were the photographs real? Well, the girls managed to convince half the world that they were, including the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! In The Cottingley Secret, Hazel Gaynor gives a fictional account of the story of one of the girls, Frances Griffiths, and through her eyes we see how and why they take the photographs and the effect the incident has on the rest of their lives.
Frances’ story begins to unfold in 1917, when she and her mother return to England from South Africa because her father has gone to fight in the war. Arriving in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley, where they will stay with family, nine-year-old Frances gets to know her cousin, Elsie Wright, who is sixteen, and the two quickly become close friends. When Frances insists that she has seen fairies playing by the beck, or stream, at the bottom of their garden, she and Elsie decide to take photographs to prove that they exist. However, they are completely unprepared for the sensation they cause when the pictures are eventually made public.
One hundred years later, in 2017, Olivia Kavanagh is in Ireland where she has inherited her grandfather’s bookshop. Sorting through his things, she comes across an old manuscript and is fascinated by what it contains: the true story of the Cottingley Fairies, written by Frances Griffiths herself. As Olivia delves into Frances’ story, she discovers her own family connection to the village of Cottingley and begins to understand the appeal of believing in fairies!
I’ve mentioned in the past that I often have problems with dual timeframe novels, particularly where one period is much more interesting to read about than the other, but I’m pleased to say that I think The Cottingley Secret is one of the better examples of this type of book. Although I did find Frances’ narrative slightly more compelling, I liked Olivia too and enjoyed watching her discover the story of the fairies while also trying to bring new life to the ‘Something Old’ bookshop, coming to terms with her grandmother’s dementia and making some important decisions about her future.
I can’t talk too much about how Hazel Gaynor approaches the subject of the fairies and whether or not Frances’ sightings of them are genuine, because that would spoil the novel, but I do think she creates a convincing explanation for how the girls come to take the photographs while leaving just enough mystery in the story to raise some intriguing possibilities. You may also be wondering how so many people, ranging from photography experts to the author of Sherlock Holmes, were so ready to believe that the fairies were real, but remember that the photographs were published at a time when the world was just emerging from four years of war and it’s easier to see why people were desperate for some magic in their lives.
I have now read two of Hazel Gaynor’s books – this one and The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, about Grace Darling – and have enjoyed both. I’m looking forward to reading more!