Late-Victorian Folklore: Constructing the Science of Fairies

In 1878 the London Folklore Society (FLS) was founded against the backdrop of the Victorian fascination with fairies, antiquarian enthusiasm, passion for specimen collections and the science of anthropology as set out by Edward Burnett Tylor in Primitive Culture (1871). This group of middle class, mainly metropolitan, amateur scholars set out to collect, categorise and study fairies. These early FLS members attempted to forge a science of fairy origins, a cultural archaeology, using collected folklore and printed folk-tales to reconstruct supposed pre-historic beliefs. Folklorists were determined to present their fairy science as a serious academic discipline with a ridged methodological focus, based on comparative anthropology. Volumes such as David MacRitchie’s Testimony of Tradition (1890), Edwin Sidney Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales (1891), Alfred Nutt's The Voyage of Bran (1895/1897),  and John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901) sat against dozens of articles in the FLS’ journal hoping to rationally explain fairies and the origins of fairy belief. However, these academic folklorists often had a complicated relationship with the fairies, struggling to reconcile their historical model of fairy-lore with contemporary supernatural encounters and elite manifestations of fairy-beliefs among spiritualists. Andrew Lang, a folklorist and psychical researcher, fiercely debated with colleague Edward Clodd over ‘Psycho-folklore’ a strand of the discipline which aimed to connect folklore with psychical research. Even in the early 1920s FLS members continued to view contemporary supernatural accounts as problematic resulting in the Society surprisingly ignoring the famous Cottingley fairy photographs and theosophical fairy beliefs. The FLS’ work during this period deprived the fairies of their magical potency, as they were bizarrely called upon as evidence in the dry discussions of anthropological folklore. Nevertheless, by the 1920s the fairies increasingly vanished from folkloric studies; the tiny winged creatures associated with children's picture books were too embarrassing for serious science.

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Not Entirely Flattering: Revealing Mr Simonelli’s Fairy Nature

Susanna Clarke’s first follow-up to hugely successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a lavishly illustrated volume of short stories, some of which intertwined with the world of the novel. ‘Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower’ features characters mentioned in the novel, expanding the scope of this already rich alternate history. In the course of the story the titular figure transforms from arrogant scholar to agonized suitor and finally to true fairy. While the information supplied by the fairy John Hollyshoes reveals the truth of his inheritance, Simonelli discovers that he has been performing as fairy all along. What he considered to be a difference of temperament, fueled by his recognition of class difference within the hallowed halls of Cambridge, turns out instead to be part of his non-human nature. Is his performance as human or fairy more convincing? Which is ‘truer’? Almost nothing in the story is what it seems to be, but when truth is uncovered, it is Simonelli’s turn to tell lies, half-truths and misdirect others. In the Butlerian sense, he seizes ‘the reiterative power of discourse’ to sway the narrative and characters to his will. However, revelation of his ‘true’ nature does not entirely switch his orientation from the human to the fairy. He works to save human women from the predations of his relation Hollyshoes—even going so far in later years, we are told, to work for the education of women generally—a sharp contrast to his earlier dismissive misogyny. As Sara Ahmed argues, ‘If orientations point us to the future, to what we are moving toward, then they also keep open the possibility of changing directions, of finding other paths’ (569). Perhaps fairy orientation need not live up to Norrell’s dismissal of the ‘race’ as ‘poisonous’ and ‘inimical to England’ and all human life.

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