Updated: May 19, 2020
Fairies of the Gilded Age
Victorians loved their fairies, when a segment of the population believed they were real. Faery lore, flower faeries fit nicely with Spiritualism and belief in the occult that was on the rise during Victoria's reign in England. Fairies became a favorite stand in for naturalism, the language of flowers, and for some, darker connotations.
Bridget Cleary, wife of a cooper in 1895, was famously bludgeoned to death because her husband believed his wife had been taken by the fairies and replaced with a changeling - a doppleganger who looked like his wife. Fairies, and the belief in the danger they could do, was very real for some people in the Victorian period. The belief in changelings was a way to explain children who had health conditions or mental conditions that baffled their parents.
When a baby was born, the family took measures to ensure the baby wouldn't be snatched, including leaving an open pair of iron scissors near the bedside. What could possibly go wrong with that idea?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies
One of the biggest believers of the age was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. He was a spiritualist and believed in psychic phenomenon.
A little after the Victorian period (1917), Sir Arthur goes whole hog on the existence of fairies when he sees some photographs taken by two girls in Cottingley, England. He saw them as proof positive of the existence of fairies, which only strengthened his arguments on other spiritualism. They became known as the Arthur Conan Doyle Fairies. Sadly for Sir Arthur, one of the girls admitted to the fraud when she was an old lady in the 1980s.
The Victorians, like people before and after, had superstitions they held to. The Victorian period ushered in great changes - photography, expansion of the railroads, the telephone, the electric light bulb. So much change, so rapidly, with so many people moving from rural backgrounds to cities and urban living. Is it any wonder that Victorians looked for entertainment that let them escape? This was the era that produced Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and of course, the real life monster of Jack the Ripper. Fairies were a way of escaping an age that was becoming more scientific, more industrial, more urban.
You will find fairies popping up in the art and music of period, as well as other nods to nature and the natural world.
There was Victorian Fairy Harp music, as well as popular adult fairy tales being shared in the drawing rooms and parlors of the age. If you'd like to read some Victorian faery stories for yourself, check out the work of Andrew Lang. He edited 25 collections of faery stories for his contemporaries.
The Legend of Victorian Fairies
We'll dive into the first history of fairies in another post, but for now, I hope this piqued your interest in the Victorian mind and its preoccupation with fairies. To some degree, that fascination has never left us. Look at all the Disney fairies we love, the modern fantasy stories that we read, the movies we watch to see how fairies have stayed with us just as much as they did with Victorians.
Want more Victorian myths and fables? Check out my post on Victorian vampires.