Victorians have a reputation for wrecking the fairy brand, during powerful, not-to-be-trifled with beings into cutsey winged children. And yeah, they kind of did that. But the relationship between fairies and the Victorians is a bit more complex.
Exhibit A: The Tipperary Horror.
In the 1890s, Bridget Cleary was tortured for days and eventually murdered by her husband, several neighbors, and six family members. Why? They were all convinced she was a fairy changeling, that the real Bridget had been spirited away and a defective fairy resembling Bridget left in her place. This fantasy was no doubt facilitated by the fairy mound on the Cleary farm.
Her husband consulted with a “fairy doctor” who recommended various courses of treatment to get the real Bridget back. After days of beatings and forced administration of vile concoctions, Bridget’s husband doused her with lamp oil, set her ablaze, and went out the fairy mound to await the return of his wife.
She didn’t come.
Eventually, word of Bridget’s death got out and all involved were arrested and charged with… manslaughter. This tells us two things. First, the authorities were convinced that those involved truly believed Bridget was a fairy changeling. Second, they didn’t believe in cutsey, childlike fairies. These fairies were ruthless kidnappers.
At heart, this represents the tension between folktales and fairy tales. While folktales are traditional beliefs and stories passed down through the generations, fairy tales are replete with modern sensibilities. I’ve seen this in my own lifetime with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty films. Compare the original cartoon with Malificent, and you can see the reflection of societal ideals.
During the Victorian era, we can see this as well. For example, the original Grimm’s fairy tales published in 1812 were really a collection of folktales. And they’re dark. In the original Snow White and Hansel and Gretel stories, the heroes are persecuted not by wicked step-mothers, but by their real mothers. Later versions were amended because motherhood was considered sacred. But the psychology of the folktale — the mother jealous of her daughter and envious enough to kill — is much deeper and in many ways more true. It’s as if folktales are the id and fairy tales the societal ego.
While we’re flooded with examples of sweetness and light Victorian fairies — in advertising, theater, and even children’s science books of that era — they stand side-by-side with the darker, folk fairies. We see this in Victorian fairy art that represents fairies torturing animals or kidnapping humans. We see this in the poetry of Irish nationalist WB Yeats. And we see this in the actions of the Clearys and people like them. The Bridget Cleary story was not a common one, neither was it unheard of. One can find other reports of children dying from exposure, for example, after being left out for the fairies to take back.
And so we see an odd tension during the Victorian period between the fairies of folklore, who are terrifying and destructive, and the fairies of fairy tales, who are non-threatening to the status quo.
Want to learn more? Come visit my workshop on Fairies and the Victorians at this month’s Clockwork Alchemy!
About the Author
Other books in the Riga Hayworth series of urban fantasies include: The Metaphysical Detective, The Alchemical Detective, The Shamanic Detective, The Infernal Detective and The Elemental Detective. Kirsten is also the author of Steam and Sensibility and Of Mice and Mechanicals, steampunk novels of magick and suspense.
Find her at http://kirstenweiss.com and @KirstenWeiss