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Though later considered an embarrassing misstep on the author's part, this artifact of the writer's bibliography remains an intriguing read, and essential for anyone looking to understand the fad for the occult in the early decades of the 20th century.
Scottish surgeon and political activist SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE (1859-1930) turned his passions into stories and novels, producing fiction and nonfiction works sometimes controversial (The Great Boer War, 1900), sometimes fanciful (The Lost World, 1912), and sometimes legendary (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892).
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In November 1920 the celebrated author Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle announced the beginning of a new "epoch
in human thought." He believed that he was
presenting "a strong prima-facie case" (pp. 39-40) for
the existence of fairies, based on photographs taken
by two young girls in July and September 1917. Noting
that "in a matter involving so tremendous a new
departure one needs overpowering evidence before
one can say that there is no conceivable loophole for
error," (p. 40) Doyle laid out the case for the existence
of fairies in the village of Cottingley, Yorkshire. Some
have seen this announcement in The Strand magazine
and Doyle's subsequent book The Coming of the
Fairies as the writings of a sixty-one-year-old who
was losing his ability to think rationally. But to truly
understand why the creator of Sherlock Holmes, one
of the most unsentimental and logical characters in
literature, would believe in fairies requires an understanding
of Doyle's life, his general acceptance of
spiritualism, and what he felt would be the result
of widespread acceptance of the Cottingley photos.
While it is clear-despite the protestations of some
supporters even to this day-that the photographs
werefaked by the young protagonists, this introduction
aims to provide the reader with sufficient back-
ground to appreciate Doyle's claims and to understand
why Doyle wanted fairies to exist.
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh
to Irish parents in 1859. Though given a Jesuit education,
he rejected Christianity in 1875 before entering
the University of Edinburgh, from which he
graduated in 1881 with an MB CM. He briefly served
as a ship's doctor on a voyage to the West African
coast, and then in 1882 set up a practice in Plymouth.
This practice was unsuccessful, however, and
while waiting for patients Doyle began writing stories.
He received an MD from Edinburgh in 1885 for
his work on syphilis. After moving his practice to
Southsea he began to achieve literary success, and
his first major work, A Study in Scarlet, which introduced
Sherlock Holmes, was published in 1887. It
was around this time that Doyle became interested
in psychic phenomena. The success of Holmes-particularly
when he began to appear in short stories
in The Strand-led Doyle to fear that he would be
forever associated with that character rather than
with the historical fiction he favored, and in an 1893
story Holmes apparently perished at the hands of
his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. In the years
leading up to World War I, Doyle successfully gained
public notice as a historical novelist, and he eventually
resurrected Holmes. His defense of British actions
during the Boer War earned him a reluctantly
accepted knighthood in 1902. Not afraid to take on
unpopular causes, he crusaded against the Belgian
slave trade in the Congo, supported legalization of
divorce, championed Irish home rule, defended the
Irish rebel Roger Casement, and vocally helped expose
miscarriages of justice in the cases of George
Edalji and Oscar Slater.
Doyle married Louisa ("Jane") Hawkins in 1885, a
marriage that would last until her death from tuberculosis
in 1906. He also maintained a strong platonic
relationship with Jean Leckie, whom he married
in 1907. His first marriage resulted in two children,
Mary and Alleyne Kingsley, and the death of
the latter in 1918 of pneumonia aggravated by war
wounds propelled Doyle further into an examination
of spiritualism. Thus began what Owen Dudley Edwards
has termed Doyle's "world crusade to evangelize
for spiritualism." A series of books resulted: The
New Revelation (1918), The Vital Message (1919),
The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921), Case for
Spirit Photography (1922), The Coming of the Fairies
(1922), Our American Adventure (1923), Our Second
American Adventure (1924), and the two-volume
History of Spiritualism (1926). To understand
Doyle's support for spiritualism, and how the Cottingley
fairies played into that, it is best to first examine
spiritualism as a movement.
Doyle was one among many who believed that there
was a "spirit world" and that communication was possible
between our plane and that one. The Swedish
scientist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) is credited
as the first significant promoter of Spiritualism.
He claimed to be able to communicate with spirits
and to travel through the spirit plane, and his writings
on the subject were said to be inspired by spirits
and angels. The idea that spirits could actively help
people and that a medium was required to access this
source of knowledge formed the basis for the development
of modern Spiritualism. After Swedenborg's
death an American medium named Andrew Jackson
Davis claimed to contact his spirit in 1844, and Davis's
work The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations,
and a Voice to Mankind (1847) offered the
form of cosmic evolutionism that would become evident
in Spiritualism in the subsequent 150 years.
It was around this time-March 25, 1848, to be
precise-that Leah, Catherine ("Kate"), and Margaretta
("Margaret") Fox reported that they were able
to communicate with spirits in their home in Hydesville,
New York. The Fox sisters developed a system
consisting of specific numbers of raps that allowed
them to communicate with what they claimed was
the spirit of Charles B. Rosna, who had been murdered
by the previous owner of the house. The sisters
became instant celebrities, and soon hundreds
of people were flocking to the house to witness the
phenomenon. The sisters eventually began to use automatic
writing and, later, voice as means of communicating
with Rosna's spirit. Leah, Kate, and Margaret
eventually went on tour and conducted séances
for profit, often channeling the spirits of famous individuals
such as Ben Franklin. Celebrities such as
P. T. Barnum, James Fenimore Cooper, and Horace
Greeley offered enthusiastic support. These séances
were, however, not without problems. Leah was often
accused of trying to glean personal information
from the sitters before the séance, and when one sitter
noted that Franklin's spirit spoke in an unexpectedly
ungrammatical fashion, Margaret left the séance
table exclaiming, "You know I never understood
grammar!" This did not dampen belief in the sisters,
and indeed the Spiritualist movement soon took on
religious overtones. In 1853 the first Spiritualism
church was founded, and membership in Spiritualist
organizations reached about two to three million.
The central belief of this movement was that a
spirit world overlaps the material one. Death causes
the subconscious spirit-the essence of the human-to
move into a realm where it can continue to progress,
becoming closer to God. Psychic experiences, it
was claimed, provide evidence for this immortal soul
and a close link between the conscious (earthly) and
unconscious (spirit) realms. Spirits can communicate
with the living through mediums or psychics, such
as the Fox sisters, and thus act as guides for mortals.
Mediums are able to access the spirits because they
are able to raise their natural "vibration" and thus
be in tune with the vibrations of the spirits.
Some bad blood, however, did develop between the
Fox sisters. Kate and Margaret felt that Leah was
spending the great majority of the money paid to
them. Perhaps as a form of revenge, the two younger
sisters appeared at the New York Academy of Music
on October 21, 1888. On stage, Margaret admitted
fraud, stating that they initially created the rappings
by tying an apple to a string and hitting it
against the floor or wall. Later the sisters had produced
the spirit raps by cracking their toe joints.
Margaret proceeded to demonstrate this to the audience
of two thousand. Kate sat silently, watching
from a box overlooking the stage.
It would appear that Spiritualism had been dealt
a coup de grâce. As it turned out, Kate refused to either
confirm or deny the confession, and it was later
learned that a reporter had offered $1,500 to Margaret
and Kate if they would admit to fraud. Margaret
recanted her confession in writing shortly before her
death in 1895. Whatever the nature of the confession
(and recantation), many Spiritualists, Arthur
Conan Doyle among them, refused to see the episode
as tarnishing the evidence for communication with
the spirit realm. In any case, by the 1880s Spiritualism's
influence had waned, and many Spiritualists
shifted to newer religions such as Christian Science
and Theosophy, or to more secular movements like
Freethought, Anarchism, and Communism.
It is in this atmosphere that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
investigated spiritualist activity in Vermont
in 1874. Blavatsky's early life is somewhat mysterious.
Born in the Ukraine in 1831, she married Nikifor
Blavatsky (twenty-three years her senior) just
before turning seventeen. Separating from Nikifor
within a few months, she entered a twenty-five-year
period that believers refer to as her "Veiled Years."
According to Blavatsky, she spent this time traveling
the world, eventually entering Tibet to study with a
group she called the "Brothers." In 1871 she appeared
in Cairo where she formed the Societe Spirite, which
closed after dissatisfied customers complained of
fraudulent activities. In 1873 she emigrated to New
York, where she impressed people with her apparent
ability as a medium and clairvoyant.
While in Vermont Blavatsky encountered the journalist
Henry Steel Olcott. Together, they founded the
Theosophical Society in November 1875. In a series
of often dense works, beginning with Isis Unveiled
in 1877, Blavatsky outlined the key points of Theosophy
and in so doing embraced elements of Neoplatonism,
Gnosticism, and Romantic idealism, as well
as religious traditions such as Buddhism, Sufism,
Briefly put, Theosophy sees itself as a manifestation
of the Ancient Wisdom tradition. Philosophically
monistic (i.e., denying a separation between
mind and matter), it holds that the universe has exhibited
a goal-directed, purposive, evolutionary pattern,
which includes the reincarnation of the individual
human consciousness. This gives rise to the
belief that human life is meaningful and purposeful,
and various ethical rules that stem from the view
that all objects in the universe-both living and nonliving-are
imbued with consciousness or spirit. Individual
humans are aided in their progression to
ultimate consciousness through the teachings of
various sages or prophets.
Significant in relation to the Cottingley fairies
is the Theosophical concept of death. Death is not
seen as a terminal event but rather as the beginning
of the next phase of an individual spirit's development.
It is only through dying and shedding the
material world that progress can be made to the ultimate
truth, though reincarnation in human form
is a possibility for individuals who have not learned
the lessons from past actions. Human life exists on
one of a number of planes of existence; evidence is
sought both for the presence of these various planes
and communication between them.
By 1882 the Theosophical Society became an international
organization, and its headquarters was
moved to Adyar near Madras, India, thus reflecting
the ties between Theosophy and Eastern thought.
This in turn led to the formation of a national section
in England in 1888, which became influential
as Blavatsky resided in London from 1885 until her
death in 1891. It was in London that she produced
some of her most noted works-The Secret Doctrine
(1888), The Voice of Silence (1889), and The Key to
Theosophy (1889)-while supported by a committed
group that included the Freethinker and Fabian socialist
Anne Besant (who would assume control of
the international Society in 1907 following the death
of Olcott). It was around this time that one of Arthur
Conan Doyle's patients, Major General Alfred Wilks
Drayson, first exposed him to Theosophy, and while
Doyle became doubtful of the movement after a brief
two-year flirtation, it nevertheless gave him the plot
of his first novel, The Mystery of Cloomber (1888).
Excerpted from The Coming of the Fairies
by Arthur Conan Doyle
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted August 6, 2004
Doyle was a firm believer, and in their own way, caught up in childhood's wonder and happiness, the girls, too, were believers in the Daoine Sidhe. Whether or not they staged the pictures - and the evidence and later interviews strongly suggested that they did - the fact remains that these pictures and the spirited debate that they sparked made others realise that there is indeed a subjective reality lurking in the sunlight and shadows behind our 'normal' lives. A good read, and quite thought-provoking.
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Posted July 5, 2014