The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

Hello all.

I read two corking vacation books – both were long, involved, and wonderful.

The first, The Cottingley Secret is a rather clever fictional take on the famous true story of the Cottingley fairies. Back in 1917, when photography was still fairly basic and people were less cynical, two young girls took photos of fairies they claimed played at the bottom of their garden.  The public was fascinated and divided on whether the photos were real or a hoax.

The novel opens in  2017 with Olivia who works as a bookbinder in London and is engaged to a man she knows is not right for her. After her mother died when Olivia was young, she was raised by her grandparents in Ireland where her grandfather owned a secondhand bookshop.  Now her beloved grandfather has died, leaving her the family cottage and his beloved shop.  She heads back to Ireland to see to the bookshop and check on her grandmother, who’s living in an assisted living home, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Just before her grandfather died, he sent her a manuscript — ‘Notes On a Fairy Tale’  by Frances Griffiths — a family heirloom that’s been handed down to the women in her family over the years.  Olivia pulls it out to take with her to Ireland and begins reading.

Via the manuscript, we go back in time and learn about nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and her mother—both newly arrived in the UK from South Africa in 1917.  They are staying with Frances’ aunt and 16 year old cousin Elise in the village of Cottingley in West Yorkshire, while Frances’ father is fighting in WWI.

The cousins played together beside the beck (stream) at the bottom of the garden, much to both mother’s annoyance, because they often came back with muddy feet and wet clothes. Frances and Elsie said they only went to the beck to see the fairies:

I know that the best time to see them is in that perfect hour before sunset when the sun sinks low on the horizon like a ripe peach and sends shafts of gold bursting through the trees. The ‘in between.’ I call it. No longer day, not yet night; some other place and time when magic hangs in the air and the light plays tricks on the eye. You might easily miss the flash of violet and emerald, but I see their misty forms among the flowers and leaves. I know my patience will be rewarded if I watch and listen. If I believe.

To try an prove their story, Elsie borrows her father’s camera.  The resulting photographs allegedly captured images of fairies and the girls think the matter settled within the family.  But a few years later, the photos come to the attention of author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who featured the story in a 1920 issue of  ‘The Strand Magazine’.  Because the renowned Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced that the photographs were proof that fairies existed, the story gained wide coverage and interest.   The girls are thrust into the limelight and the photos are scrutinized and tested  — experts hoping to prove a hoax.

Meanwhile we follow Olivia as she starts to appreciate the slower pace of the seaside village and begins to feel at home. The bookshop has brought back wonderful memories and she is rediscovers her love of reading books, not just binding them.  The manuscript has given her a magical piece of history that connects the Cottingley fairy photographs to the mother she lost when she was young – possibly with a hint of fairy magic.  She begins to reassess her life and decides to stay and manage the bookstore, unable to bring herself to sell it — also she has made friends with a widow and his young daughter — who happily believes in fairies.   Olivia herself is experiencing some strange occurrences with fairies appearing in her dreams and unexplained flowers being left by her bed.

I won’t give away any more of the plot but I have since done a few Google searches on the Cottingley fairies. It’s an amazing story that captured the public’s imagination for decades.  After years of Frances and Elsie sticking to their story of the fairy photographs being real, they finally revealed in the 1970’s that the photos were faked — they used cut out paintings of fairies drawn by Elsie and used hat pins to pin them to the ground.  All except for the last photo which they’ve claimed was the only real photograph out of all of the pictures they took over the years.

Here are the original photographs from 1917:


And the one photo claimed to be of real fairies.


With today’s photo-shopped images it is hard to believe that once people saw photos as truth.. But then again, this was a time right after WWI when people wanted desperately to believe in the possibility of fairies and spirits

The Cottingley Secret is a book of imagination and make-believe made even more fascinating because it’s based on the true tale behind two young girls and their fairy friends.  At the end of the book, Ms. Gaynor shows us the actual photos with her own author narrative and there’s even a letter from Frances Griffiths’ daughter – delightful.

I finished this book with a smile on my face.

I’ll close with my favorite quote from the book:

“There is more to every photograph than what we see-more to the story than the one the camera captures on the plate. You have to look behind the picture to discover the truth.”


Advanced readers copy provided by Harper Collins via LibraryThing.

Thank you

1 Comment

  1. sally allinger
    Aug 13, 2019

    Very lovely, can’t wait to read about the second “corking’ book!

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