In visual art, following in the footsteps of the 18th century painters Henry Fuseli and William Blake (8), artists such as Joseph Noël Paton, John Anster Fitzgerald, Richard Dadd, Richard Doyle, Daniel Maclise, Thomas Heatherly, Eleanor
Fortesque–Brickdale, and many, many others created an entire genre of Victorian Fairy Art — a genre found in prestigious galleries and at the Royal Academy exhibitions — not marginalized, as fantasy art tends to be today. These were paintings for adults, not children. John Anster Fitzgerald's fairy imagery, for instance, was often dark and hallucinatory, full of references to opium pipes and opium medicines. (9) Richard Dadd's obsessively detailed fairy paintings were created in a mental hospital where Dadd was interred after he lost his reason and killed his father. Many fairy paintings were distinctly salacious, such as Sir Joseph Noël Paton's huge canvases of luscious fairy maidens in various states of undress. Fairies enabled Victorian painters to explore the subject of sexuality during the very years when that subject was most repressed in polite society. Paintings of the nude were deemed acceptable so long as those nudes sported fairy wings.
The passion for fairies 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 toward 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 — depicting scenes from Romance, legend and myth — promoted a dreamy medievalism and the aesthetics of fine craftsmanship to counter what they saw as a soul–less new world created by modern forms of mass production. ("For every locomotive they build," vowed artist Edward Burne–Jones, "I shall paint another angel.") The Arts & Crafts movement, which grew out of Pre–Raphaelitism, embraced folklore and fairies to such a degree that by the end of the 19th century fairies could be found in middle class homes in every form of decorative arts: wallpaper, draperies, ceramics, stained glass, metalwork, etc. Advances in printing methods allowed the production of lavishly illustrated fairy–tale books, ostensibly aimed at children but with production values calculated to please adults (and the growing breed of book collectors). Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Warwick Goble, the Robinson brothers, Jessie M. King, and numerous others produced wonderful fairy pictures for these volumes. Jessie M. King, like William Blake before her, was an artist who passionately believed in the fairies. Her lovely illustrations were based, she said, on visions seen with her "third eye."
In the pre–television, pre–cinema world of the Victorians, theater, ballet, and opera had greater importance as forms of popular entertainment than they enjoy today — as well as a greater influence on the visual and literary arts. In the 1830s, the new Romantic ballet (as opposed to formal, classical ballet) thrilled large audiences in London with productions that dramatized tales of love between mortals and fairy spirits. Aided by innovations in "point work" (dancing on the points of one's toes), and improvements in theater gas–lighting techniques, sumptuous fairylands were created in hit productions such as 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 Fouqué's Undine), Wagner's Die Feen (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 now, and young women swooned and followed their favorite harpists from concert to concert. Magical music and dance reached its height in the works of Tchaikovsky, the brilliant Russian composer who took London — indeed, all of Europe — by storm. The popularity of his fairy–tale ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker) fuelled the Victorian public's love of all things magical and fey.
In literature — as in art, theater, and ballet — the fairies made their presence known, turning up in numerous books written and published during the Victorian era. Some of these works were for adult readers — such as Anne Thackaray Ritchie's Fairy Tales for Grown–ups, the Arthurian poems of Lord Tennyson and William Morris, and (at the turn of the century) the remarkable fairy poetry of "Celtic Twilight" writers such as William Sharp (writing as Fiona McCleod) and William Butler Yeats. But one of the major shifts we see in fairy literature from the 19th century onward is that more and more of it was published in books intended for small children. There were two major reasons why this shift occurred, despite the fact that adult fascination with fantasy and fairies 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 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 became a special Golden Age, a time of fanciful play and exploration before the burdens of adulthood were assumed. Mothers were encouraged to have a more doting attitude toward their little ones (following the example of Queen Victoria herself), and this, combined with the rising wealth of the Victorian middle class, led to an explosion in the market for children's books.
Children's fiction in the previous century had been diabolically dreary — consisting primarily of pious, tedious books of moral instruction. But in the 19th century, new European fairy–tale collections by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were proving enormously popular with English children. Publishers and writers took note of this and soon began producing volumes of magical tales set in the British Isles— including tales inspired by English fairy lore, toned down and de–sexed for younger readers.
A lot of these fairy–tale volumes, marred by these 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 Lang: The Blue Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc. In addition to re–telling traditional tales, Victorian writers created original fairy stories for children, using the tropes of folklore in charming and innovative ways. These tales include John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River, Charlotte Yonge's The History of Tom Thumb, Christina Rossetti's extraordinary Goblin Market, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, Jean Ingelow's Mopsa the Fairy, George Macdonald's The Princess and the Goblin, Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Garden, to name just a few.
In his excellent book Victorian Fairy Tales, folklorist Jack Zipes divides the magical children's fiction published from 1860 onward into two basic types: conventional stories, and stories written in a utopian mode. Although there were some good fantasy tales of the conventional type, such as the fairy stories of Jean Ingelow and the ghost stories of Mary Louisa Molesworth, many others were forgettable confections full of twinkly fairies with butterfly wings and good little boys and girls who caused no disturbance to the status quo. Utopian fantasies, Zipes notes, demonstrated "a profound belief in the power of the imagination as a potent force" to change English society, and these books were written by some of the very finest authors of the day. George Macdonald, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Lawrence Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, Edith Nesbit (in her later works), and many other writers created magical tales that were archly critical of Victorian life, promoting the possibility of a better society. The prevalence of utopian fantasy 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 Never Land, crowded as they were with beggars, cripples, prostitutes (many of them children), and with 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 Tinkerbell back to life, in the lower classes, both urban and rural, fairies remained a different matter altogether. Here, the delicate winged maidens depicted by painters and ballet dancers were superceded by the fearsome creatures of the still–living oral tradition. Throughout the 19th century, the British newspapers reported cases of fairy sightings, curses, and abductions. The most famous of these incidents occurred as late as 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a spirited young woman in Ireland who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling. Bridget Cleary had fallen gravely ill, and the family had consulted a "fairy doctor." He claimed that Bridget had been abducted and taken under a fairy hill, and that the sickly creature in her bed was a fairy changeling in disguise. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself — ordeals that soon grew so extreme that poor Bridget died. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed, Bridget's husband then went to the fairy fort to wait for his "real" wife to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget's disappearance was soon noted, the body found, the horrible crime brought to light, and Michael and other family members and neighbors found themselves prosecuted for murder. Although this was the most flamboyant case of changeling–murder in the Victorian press, sadly it was not the only account of brutal mistreatment of those deemed to be fairies. Usually the poor victims were children, born with physical deformities or struck by sudden wasting illnesses. It wasn't until the 20th century that reports of fairy abductions began to dwindle — when reports of abductions by aliens began to take their place.
The last major fairy encounter reported widely by the British press took place in the tranquil countryside of Yorkshire in 1917 — when Elsie Wright, sixteen years old, and Frances Griffith, her ten–year–old cousin, contrived to take photographs of fairies at play in their Cottingley garden. Elsie's mother had the photographs sent to Edward Gardner, head of the Theosophical Society, who then passed them on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes). (10) Although the photographs are rather unconvincing by today's standards, professionals at the time could find no evidence of photographic doctoring. The pictures, championed by Conan 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 cut–outs held in place by hat–pins. Even so, their deathbed statements on the subject were more ambiguous, implying that the fairies, if not the photographs, had been real after all.
In her fascinating book Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Carol G. Silver points out that the Cottingley incident, despite briefly reviving interest in the fairies, was actually one of the factors that ended the "Golden Age" of fairy art and literature. "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 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 massive popularity that the fairies had enjoyed throughout the 19th century insured that they'd be branded old–fashioned by the generations that immediately followed. Those who'd survived the hard trials of World War I had little interest in the faux–medievalism and fairies of their grandparents' day. And yet, it is interesting to note that one of the most popular art prints of the war era depicted a simple country boy playing a pipe, surrounded by fairies. This was "The Piper of Dreams," a painting by the Anglo–Italian artist Estella Canziani — an image as ubiquitous in England then as Monet's water lilies are now. Canziani's gentle, forgotten fairy picture once rivaled William Holman Hunt's "The Light of the World" in popularity, and was said to be a favorite of English soldiers in the trenches of World War I.