by Terri Windling
As the English theater historian Michael Booth has stated, "The acceptance and rapid growth of fairyland as a fit subject matter for literature, painting, and the stage from the 1820s to the 1840s and its survival until at least the First World War is one of the most remarkable phenomena of 19th-century culture." I'd like to look a little closer at this fascinating historical phenomena, which bubbles just under the surface of the tales written for this anthology.
The first thing to note about the surge of interest in magic and fantasy in 19th century England is that this is a late development when compared to continental Europe. Fairy stories for adult readers had been popularized by Italian intellectuals in the 16th century, the French avant-garde in the 17th century, and the German Romantics in the 18th century -- but it took until the 19th century for the trend to finally catch on in England. The British Isles have always boasted a wonderfully rich oral folklore tradition and are steeped in myth cycles both Arthurian and Celtic; furthermore, English literature rests on works by writers unafraid to dip into this well of magic: Sir Thomas Malory, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare among them. So why did it take so long for fairy tale arts to blossom across the Channel?
The answer is a religious one. British society was governed by Puritan social codes after the Revolution of 1688; certain art forms were made illegal, while others were effectively discouraged by the culture -- fantastical arts among them. English literature of the 17th and 18th centuries was expected to be serious, rational, Protestant, and deeply moral -- while the magical tales of Great Britain's folk heritage were deemed to be crude, perverse, frivolous, lower class, and uncomfortably pagan. Magic did not entirely disappear from literature: Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels were both popular 18th-century texts...yet these were satires, poking fun at the conventions of folk and fairy tales; the magic in them was rationalized as allegory, and distanced by humor.
It was not until the end of the 18th century that fantasy, rooted in the folklore tradition, began to cast a spell of enchantment once again: through the works of the English Romantic poets, and mystical artists like Henry Fuseli and the poet/painter William Blake. Early in the 19th century, magical tales and poems by the German Romantics (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Ludvig Tieck, Novalis, etc.) were translated and published in English magazines -- including "Undine," an enormously popular story by Baron de la Motte Fouqué about a water nymph’s love for a mortal knight, which inspired. a host of subsequent stories, paintings, and dramatic productions. At the same time, Sir Walter Scott and other antiquarians were busy collecting folk tales and ballads from all across the British Isles, preserving old country lore in a nation that was rapidly urbanizing. Two groundbreaking volumes by Thomas Keightley (Fairy Mythology) and Thomas Crofton Croker (Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland) proved popular among antiquarian scholars and creative artists alike, kicking off an explosion of folklore collections by Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, Anna Eliza Bray, Joseph Jacobs, and many others. The word "folklore" itself was coined by the English antiquarian William Thoms in 1846
Two 19th century continental imports brought magical tales to an even wider audience: German Popular Stories by the Brothers Grimm, first published in England in 1823, and The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1846. These influential volumes helped to make fairy tales, and fantasy in general, more acceptable to Victorian readers -- for although both books are darker in tone than the simplified Disney fairy tales of today, they were not as dark, sensual, or disturbing as fairy and folk tales from the oral tradition. (The Brothers Grimm revised the folk tales they collected to reflect their own Protestant values, and Andersen’s Danish fairy tales were unabashedly Christian.) Subsequent English fairy tale editions continued this moralizing trend, taming the complexity and moral ambiguity of older fairy stories by turning their heroines into passive, modest, dutiful Victorian girls and their heroes into square-jawed fellows rewarded for their Christian virtues.
Throughout English history we find that when the untamed side of human nature is at its most repressed in polite society, it tends to erupt and express itself in obsessive and subversive forms. Thus, while we generally think of Victorian culture as rigid, pious, and strictly divided into hierarchies of class and gender (all of which is true), it was also a society obsessed by sex (there were more brothels in Victorian London than at any other time in its history), awash in alcohol and narcotics, and rife with subversive politic ideas -- such as socialism and feminism, both of which would dramatically change British culture in the century to come. While respectable Victorian society was as straight-laced as it could possibly be, among young artists and other rebels the 19th century was the heyday of British bohemianism --as exemplified by the colorful lives of painters like Dante Gabriel Rosetti, writers like Oscar Wilde, and aesthetes like Lady Ottoline Morrell, culminating in the notorious wine-and-women lifestyle of "gypsy painter" Augustus John. When we look at these twin cultural movements -- strict morality and wild bohemianism -- it is easier to understand another odd aspect of Victorian life: the widespread interest (despite Christian piety) in psychic phenomena and the occult.
Spiritualism was a practice that flourished in all classes of society (right up to the Royal Court) in which " mediums" enabled forms of contact with the spirits of dead. The fad was started in America by the Fox sisters in 1848, who claimed to communicate with the dear departed through mysterious knocks on a table. They took this talent on tour, and other mediums followed suit, bringing American-style Spiritualism to England in 1852. Soon "table-tapping" parties were all the rage, especially among idle upper-class ladies and gentlemen. Spiritualist societies sponsored lecture tours, opened reading rooms, and published newspapers, while mediums of both genders developed huge followings.
As the 19th century progressed, ghosts, goblins, sylphs, fairies, and other supernatural creatures not only visited parlors rich and poor through seances and Ouija boards, they also populated all areas of visual, literary, and performance art. In fine art, Shakespeare’s fairies were reimagined with the aid of folklore texts, inspiring paintings crowded with sprites in detailed natural settings. Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Frances Danby, Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, and Eleanor Fortesque-Brickdale were just a few of the numerous artists who created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art -- a genre which was not marginalized, as fantasy art tends to be today, but found in prestigious galleries and at the Royal Academy exhibitions. These were paintings for adults, not children, and they had subversive qualities. Fitzgerald’s fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and opium medicines. (Opium derivatives like laudanum, called "the aspirin of the 19th century," were available without prescription in England until 1868, commonly used for insomnia, headaches, and the pains of menstruation. It may perhaps be no accident that England’s twin obsessions with fairies and Spiritualism occurred during the same span of years when casual opium use was widespread.) Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Paton’s huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress. At a time when public expression of sexuality was severely repressed, when medical "experts" proclaimed that respectable women were incapable of sexual pleasure, artists both male and female discovered that sensual scenes were acceptable just so long as all their nubile maidens sported gossamer fairy wings.
The fairy fad among Victorian adults must also be viewed in light of the rapid changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, as Britain moved from the rhythms of its rural past to the mechanized future. With factories and suburban blight transforming huge tracts of English countryside, fairy paintings and stories were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. In particular, the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, Evelyn de Morgan, etc.) was often based on Romance, legends, and myth, promoting a dreamy Medievalism and the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship to counter the ugly new world created by modern forms of mass production. ("For every locomotive they build," vowed Edward Burne-Jones, "I shall paint another angel.")
The Arts & Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre-Raphaelitism, embraced folklore to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century, fairies and other magical creatures were commonly found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. At the dawn of the 20th century, lavish new fairy tale volumes were produced that turned illustration into a fine art by the likes of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielsen, Jessie M. King, Warwick Goble, Eleanor Vera Boyle, Walter Crane, and the Robinson brothers.
It was not until 1915, however, that the most famous fairy picture of the Victorian/Edwardian age appeared in exhibition in London: "The Piper of Dreams" by the English-Italian artist Estella Canziani. Canziani, the daughter of fairy painter Louisa Starr, grew up among the Pre-Raphaelites and studied at the Royal Academy; her work drew on her interest in Italian folklore and peasant traditions. "The Piper of Dreams," a wistful picture of a country boy surrounded by fairies, was published as a print by the Medici Society, and became a runaway bestseller . . . a print as ubiquitous in England then as Monet’s water lilies are now. This gentle, forgotten fairy picture once rivaled Holman Hunt’s famous Biblical scene, "The Light of the World," in mass popularity and was a favorite among English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
In the pre-television, pre-cinema world of the Victorians, theater, ballet, and opera had greater importance than today as forms of entertainment -- as well as a greater influence on the visual and literary arts. In the 1830s, the new Romantic ballet ( influenced by Romantic art and literature) thrilled large audiences in London with productions that dramatized tales of love between mortals and spirits. Aided by innovations in "point work" (i.e. dancing on the points of ones toes) and improvements in theater gas-lighting techniques, a sumptuous vision of fairyland was created in hit productions like La Sylphide: the tragic story of a mortal man in love with an elfin maid. In theater, fairy plays were staged with stunningly elaborate special effects, each new production striving to be even more spectacular than the last. Fairy music was another popular phenomenon, much of it imported from Germany: such as Weber’s fairy opera Oberon, Hoffman’s Ondine (based on the Fouqué story), Wagner’s The Fairies, and Mendelssohn’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fairy music for the harp was composed and performed by charismatic musicians as popular then as pop stars are today; young women swooned and followed their favorite harpists from concert to concert. Magical music and dance reached its height at the end of the 19th century in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London (indeed, all of Europe) by storm with his fantastical ballets: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.
Magical music, dance, drama, and art...these things all fused together to create an enchanted atmosphere, inspiring the writers of books that are now considered classics of the fantasy field. Some of these works were written for adults, such as the "imaginary world" novels of William Morris (The Well at the World’s End), the adult fairy tales of Anne Thackeray Ritchie (Bluebeard’s Keys and Other Stories), and the adventure novels of H. Rider Haggard (She), as well as the Arthurian poetry of William Morris (The Defence of Guenevere) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King). But one of the major shifts we see in magical literature from the mid-19th century onward is that more and more of it was published in books intended primarily for children. There are two major reasons why this shift occurred, despite the fact that adult fascination with fantasy and magic had rarely been so high.
First, the Victorians romanticized the very idea of "childhood" to a degree never seen before; earlier, childhood had not been viewed as something quite so separate from adult life. Children, according to this earlier view, came into the world in sin and had to be quickly, strictly civilized into God-fearing members of society. By Victorian times, this belief was changing to one in which children were inherently innocent, rather than inherently sinful -- and childhood was thus a special Golden Age before the burdens of adulthood. (Our modern notion of childhood as a sheltered time for play and exploration is rooted in these Victorians ideals, although in the 19th century they held true only for the upper classes. Most Victorian children still labored long hours in fields and factories -- as Charles Dickens portrayed in his fiction, and as he experienced in his own childhood.)
Just as the "innocence" of the countryside was vanishing due to the Industrial Revolution, the golden innocence of childhood was doomed to vanish as a child matured. This is a theme running through many great works of Victorian fantasy, in which magic is accessible only to children and lost on the threshold of adulthood. From Lewis Carroll’s "Alice" books to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Victorian writers grieved that their young, wise heroes would one day grow up. (There is a darker side to this ideal, however, and some prominent Victorians were a little too interested in children. Lewis Carroll may or may not have been a closet paedophile, but he certainly had an uncomfortable interest in photographing scantily clad little girls; while the great Victorian art critic, John Ruskin, famously fell in love with an eight-year-old child, and constantly pestered the illustrator Kate Greenaway to send him drawings of unclothed "girlies." Kate declined.)
The second reason that Victorian publishers produced so many new volumes for children was due to the growth of an English middle class that was both literate and wealthy. There was money to be made by exploiting the Victorian love affair with childhood; publishers had found a market, and they needed product with which to fill it. Children’s fiction in the previous century had been diabolically dreary --consisting primarily of pious, tedious books full of moral instruction. By the 19th century, some educators were still decrying the evils of "immoral" fairy stories, but once the Grimms and Andersen collections proved to be so popular, English publishers jumped on the fairy tale band wagon in increasing numbers. Cheap story material was available to them by plundering the fairy tales of other lands, simplifying them for young readers, then further revising the stories to conform to Victorian gender roles and moral standards. A lot of these fairy tale volumes, marred by heavy-handed alterations, make abysmal reading today -- but some retained enough of the magic of their source material to have stood the test of time, such as the famous series edited by Andrew & Jane Lang: The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.
In addition to retelling traditional fairy tales, the Victorians also created original stories by using the tropes of folklore in innovative ways. From the middle of the century onward, some of the best writers of 19th-century England turned their hand to children’s fiction: John Ruskin (The King of the Golden River,1841), Charlotte Yonge (The History of Tom Thumb, 1855), Christina Rossetti (Goblin Market,1862), Charles Kingsley (The Water-Babies,1863), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865), Jean Ingelow (Mopsa the Fairy, 1869), Edward Lear (Nonsense Songs, 1871), George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin, 1872), Mary Louisa Molesworth (The Tapestry Room, 1879), Mary de Morgan (The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde, 1880), Juliana Horatio Ewing (Old-fashioned Fairy Tales, 1882), Oscar Wilde (The Happy Prince and Other Tales, 1888), Ford Madox Ford (The Queen Who Flew, 1894), Laurence Houseman (House of Joy, 1895), Evelyn Sharp (The Other Side of the Sun, 1900), Rudyard Kipling (Puck of Pook’s Hill, 1906), J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan in Kensington Garden, 1906), Edith Nesbit (The Enchanted Castle, 1907), and Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows, 1908).
Chances are that unless you’ve done more reading than most in the field of Victorian literature, you’re probably more familiar with the men on the list above than with the women (with the possible exception of Christina Rossetti or E. Nesbit). As I prepared this Introduction, a number of well-read friends asked me if there were any female fantasy writers in 19th-century England, and the answer is: Yes, indeed there were, writers so popular and financially successful in their day that as a group they incited the envy and approbation of many male colleagues. George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street, published in 1891, paints a vicious portrait of an outspoken woman writer, vain and utterly talentless, who is lionized for her children’s fiction while the lives of "real" literary artists fall into ruin all around her.
So if these women were so successful, why are the books by the men above still known and loved by children today while most of those by women are read only by feminist scholars? It's not just gender bias, but also because the tales by 19th-century women can make for distinctly uncomfortable reading. Down through the centuries, fairy tales have often been used as a way of speaking, in symbolic language, about topics at odds with the dominant culture. For Victorian women, it was the totality of their lives at odds with the culture they lived in, hemmed in by 19th-century ideals of femininity, duty, and motherhood. What one finds over and over again beneath the surface of magical stories by Victorian women is anger.
This is addressed by folklorists Nina Auerbach and U. C. Knoepflmacher in their insightful book Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women: "The most moving Victorian children’s books are steeped in longing for unreachable lives. Lewis Carroll, George Macdonald, and J. M. Barrie envied the children they could not be; out of this envy came their painful children’s classics. Most Victorian women envied adults rather than children. Whether they were wives and mothers or teachers and governesses, respectable women’s lives had as their primary object child care. British law made the link between women and children indelible by denying women independent legal representation. As Frances Power Cobbe pointed out in a witty essay, ‘Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors’ were identical in the eyes of the law. In theory, at any rate, women lived the condition Carroll, Macdonald, and Barrie longed for."
Yet in the years when the children’s book industry was still new (and before Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung taught us to look at the subtext of fiction more closely), Victorian women had a freedom of expression unknown to children’s book writers today. As long as their tales conformed outwardly to the conventions of popular children’s fiction, they were able to populate their tales with extremely subversive characters and creatures, such as clever, hot-tempered, female fairies and irascible, intractable heroines.
It was not, however, just the women of England who used the writing of magical tales as a form of social critique, nor were they the only writers who challenged Victorian gender assumptions. As Jack Zipes points out in the introduction to his excellent collection Victorian Fairy Tales, "There is a strong feminine, if not feminist, influence in the writing of both male and female writers. In contrast to the Kunstmärchen tradition in Germany and folklore in general, which were stamped by patriarchal concerns, British writers created strong women characters and place great emphasis on the fusion of female and male qualities and equality between men and women." Zipes cites George Macdonald’s work as an example of Victorian fantasy literature in which boys and girls alike develop qualities of intelligence, courage, and compassion -- for magic, in Macdonald’s tales, "is nothing else but the realization of the divine creative powers one possesses within oneself."
In Victorian Fairy Tales, Zipes divides the magical fiction published from 1860 onward into two groups: the conventional and the utopian. Although a few good writers worked in the conventional mode, such as Jean Ingelow and Mary Louisa Molesworth, on the whole these were forgettable books full of twinkly fairies with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls who caused no disturbance to the status quo. Utopian fantasies, on the other hand, demonstrated (in Zipes' words) "a profound belief in the power of the imagination as a potent force" to change English society, and were being written by some of the finest writers of the day. Macdonald, Carroll, de Morgan, Ewing, Wilde, Housman, Kipling, Barrie, Nesbit (in her later works), and others created extraordinary tales that were archly critical of Victorian life, promoting the possibility of a better society. The prevalence of fantasy in this mode is explained by looking at the context of the culture which produced it -- a society in the grip of great upheaval due to rapid industrialization. Fairies flittered across London stages and nested in bucolic scenes on gallery walls, but outside on the city streets it was a long, long way from Neverland, crowded with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and homeless, desperate men and women displaced by the new economy.
While the upper classes charmed themselves with fairy books and dancing nymphs and clapped to bring Tinker Bell back to life, among the lower classes (where the fairy faith still existed in living memory), fairies were seldom viewed as the sweet little moth-winged creatures of Victorian children’s books; they were still the tricky, capricious, dangerous beings of the oral folk tradition. Throughout the 19th century, British newspapers still reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions. The most famous occurred as late as 1895, and riveted readers across the nation. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a handsome young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling.
The facts are these: Bridget, a twenty-six-year-old dressmaker, and her husband Michael, a cooper, lived in a comfortable cottage near her family home in southern Ireland. Bridget fell sick with an undiagnosed illness (it may have been simple pneumonia); within a few days she was feverish, raving, and (according to her husband) no longer looked like herself. When regular medicine did not help, the family called in a "fairy doctor" -- for the cottage was located close to a fairy hill, which was bad luck. The "fairy doctor" confirmed that the ill woman was actually a fairy changeling and the real Bridget had been abducted, taken under the hill by the fairies as a consort or a slave. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself. Bridget was tied to the bed, forced to swallow potions, sprinkled with holy water and urine, swung over the hearth fire, and eventually burned to death by her increasingly desperate husband. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed and buried (with the aid of her family and neighbors), Michael then went to the fairy fort to wait for the "real" Bridget to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget’s disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the crime brought to life, and Michael and nine others were charged and prosecuted for murder.
Although the most flamboyant, this was far from the only case of changeling-murder in the Victorian press, although usually the changelings were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden illness that caused the child to waste away.
A less gruesome but equally famous occurrence took place in Yorkshire in 1917, when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten-year-old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies in their garden at Cottingley. Three years later, Elsie’s mother attended a Spiritualist lecture by a friend of a prominent Theosophist named Edward Gardner, which led to the photographs being sent to Gardner -- and then on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes, and son of the fairy painter Charles Doyle). Although the photographs are rather unconvincing by today’s standards (the fairies look one-dimensional, sporting the clothes and bobbed hairstyles of the day), professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring. The pictures, championed by Doyle, caused an absolute sensation, and brought the fairy craze well into the 20th century. Only when Elsie and Frances were old ladies (in the 1980s) did they admit that the Cottingley fairies were actually paper cutouts held in place by hatpins. Yet their final deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, and one of the photos, may have been real after all.
In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carole G. Silver suggests that the Cottingley photos, despite briefly reviving interest in fairies and fairy communication, were actually one of the factors that marked the end of the fairy art era. "Ironically," she says, "the photographs, the ostensible proof of the actual existence of the fairies, deprived the elfin people of the grandeur and their stature. The theories that Gardner [and other Spiritualists] formulated to explain the fairies’ nature and function reduced them to the intelligence level of household pets and the size of insects." In addition to this, the popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the 19th century was enough to ensure that they would be branded old-fashioned by following generations, particularly those whose "innocence" was trampled on by two World Wars.
Various scholars give different dates for the end of England’s Golden Age of Fantasy Art, Literature, and Drama -- just as folklore postulates different dates for "the flitting of the fairies," which is when, supposedly, the Fair Folk left British shores forever. In 1890, Fiona Macleod wrote that "the Gentle People have no longer a life [in] common with our own. They have gone beyond the gray hills. They dwell in far islands perhaps where the rains of Heaven and the foam of the sea guard their fading secrecies."
In his famous poem "The Horns of Elfland," Tennyson wrote that even the echoes of elfin bugles were dying, dying, dying...and yet, of course, the fairies never die. Despite these waves of departure and farewell, the green hills of the British Isles are still thickly populated by the elfin tribes, who seem to be thoroughly enjoying their present revival in popular culture.
When one compares the many social issues common to both the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the Technological Revolution of our own (a changing economy, disappearing countryside, conflicting ideas about gender and class), it is no surprise that fairies and fantasy have made a comeback, with a vengeance. As Silver notes, "to believe or half-believe in fairies was, by the turn of the century, an expression of revolt against complex urbanized society, so tightly conscious of its manners and morals. Moreover, such a faith was a response to the conflict between society’s demand for respectability and conformity and the forces of demonic energy that lie beneath the surface of human nature. Conservatives and radicals alike could find in such belief a cogent criticism of the age."
She was talking about the dawn of the 20th century, but her words could apply to the dawn of the 21st century as well. Magic is thriving once again: in fantasy books and mythic arts, in folk music, in film, in online journals, and in numerous other contemporary art forms. The horns of Elfland still blow, for a whole new generation.
Listen close, and you will hear them.
Credits & copyrights:
Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.
"Fantasy, Magic, & Fairyland in 19th Century England" was published in Queen Victoria's Book of Spells (Tor Books, 2013). Portions of the text were taken from a previous, related essay: "Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature," published online in The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2004. The essay in its current form is copyright c 2013, and may not be reproduced without the author's permission. For information on obtaining permission (text only), please go here.