I'm all crunchy and irritated with this book, and I think I have to sit down and be bitter for a bit before it comes clear. It's been calling to me in the children's section of the local used book store, with it's funny sight-gags and hand-written calligraphy. Written by Terry Jones! Art by Brian Froud! Monty Python was sweet; the art is lovely and the art direction pretty good. The book itself looks like an old journal, leather-bound, with water stains and foxing. Cool. Never cheap enough, until recently, when a somewhat tatty edition showed up for under five bucks. Yay! I thought, pressed fairy fun for me!
Now, I love me some sight gags. I've been watching Marx Bothers movies with the boy, and they could really pull off the sight gag: the ducks and people emerging from under the table, the suddenness and odd expectations. (Also, some excellent one-liners.) It's a little unfair to talk about Marx Bros sight gags when talking about books, because the sense of timing is completely different when reading. This book is entirely one-note; if you've read the title, then you know what the gag is, and you might as well stop there. Or just look it over in the store, and leave it at that.
Then there's the story, if you can call it that. The introduction claims that this is the reprint of the journal of Lady Cottington, clearly modeled after the people and events of the Cottingley Fairies hoax. You know the one? Where the Edwardian girls took pictures of themselves in a garden with cardboard cut-outs of fairies held up by hat pins, and Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle and several other spiritualists of the day were completely taken in, raving about proof of the other world and whatnot? Photos were published in the Strand and everyone went nuts? The girls later confessed to the hat-pin trick, at least in regards to the first four photos, which are undoubtedly the most famous. They always did claim to have seen fairies though.
The events of the actual hoax are quite interesting. Did you know that the girls used the same darkroom to develop the fairies where one worked for her father combining photos of soldiers killed in WWI with photos of their families? Can you imagine how awful it would be, creating an image of a family in unity, out of pieces of memory of something that would never be put back together? I'd get me to the garden and take pictures of lovely naturalistic creatures, after watching the mangled bodies and muddy trenches ghost into the paper in the developing trays, those visual relics of the engines of war overstepping the social systems to deal with them. That those bastions of Victorian spiritualism were grasping at a shimmering meaning in the world makes total sense: the anti-science edge of Modernism that rejected the mechanistic nihilism of the trenches taken in by girls affected in their own way by the grim war. Too bad it kind of made them look like assholes. I found this great quote by one of the girl's father, who was surprise that Conan Doyle was taken in "by our Elsie, and her at the bottom of the class!"
Oh, and then let's just pull back from the whole WWI-Modernism thing and look at fairies and where they stand with the construction of girl-hood and all that. I have a bloody brilliant picture book that was mine when I was a kid, entitled simply Fairies
. The book is by Froud and Alan Lee, of LOTR fame, and if you dig fairies and don't have this book, then break your neck running out the door to get it. (Or not. Slow and steady and all that.) The paintings are beautiful, disturbing, blurring the line between human and animal or human and vegetable, in ways that are sometimes terrifying, sometimes lovely. The fairies are cataloged and described, and the old folklore about the Seelie and Unseelie courts, the pacts with the Devil, the changelings and floating islands, Tir na Nog, and fairy rings is explained with a strangely unsentimental naturalism. This book was like catnip for me, intoxicating in its allusion to other worlds of danger and beauty, as inexplicable as the adult world that I was flitting around the edges of. Froud's work here is reminiscent of this earlier work of his, but it's been prettied up a bit, cleaned up, and sexed up, the colors pastel and jewel-toned, instead of earthy and shaded. I still really like his drawings, though. Beautiful and strange.
I don't know when the cultural overlords pulled the wings off of fairies (metaphorically, natch) and made them into Disney's Tinkerbell, with her sassy can-do Yankeeism, but it totally sucks. Fairies have been sanitized, sometimes, along with childhood, even while childhood remains the same confusing and lumpy thing. Especially when the child is at that terrible cusp of adolescence, and could use some kickin' metaphors for things that are not quite one thing or the other, invisible courts of air whose leaders are in congress with terrible purposes. That fairies continue to be attractive to girls probably says the whole idea hadn't been completely defanged. I have to say, part of the reason I'm so twitterpated by this book is that it tantalized that girl in me who loves fairies, and then gave me a sight-gag and crap story.
Oh, and I haven't even gotten to the story! So, here's the journal of a girl, who is a sort of composite of the girls from the hoax, who likes to snap fairies into her flower book. Of course, the blanking publishers spend plenty of time telling us they're only psychic
impressions, and that no fairies were actually killed. Thanks, jerks. Why don't you remind us that the story is fiction, and that there is no Lady Cottington, and if there were, then we should probably sit you down and let you know that she's been dead for some time. There was very little pain. Also, there's no Santa, and you, the reader, are probably not real either. (I really need to calm down.) I've always liked Terry Jones. Who doesn't want to see him naked, playing the piano? I thought Starship Titanic
was just fine. I remember a children's book of his about tigers and seven-league books, but poorly. I think it was okay.
The story wends through Lady Cottington's life, at about three year increments: she finds some doggerel that allows her to see fairies, she sees fairies, she snaps them in her book, there are some shenanigans losing and finding the book again, then she gets propositioned by every man she knows. The fairies love this, act out coupling and other unmentionable things. They get themselves snapped in a book for their trouble. Once, she finds a copy of Arabian Nights, which is apparently in a kind of pillow book style, and grows increasingly repulsed. Drat these fairies and their subliminal sexuality! Lady Cottington, of course, never marries, and ends up in some sort of upper class looney farm, although I'm sure they use a less American euphemism.
In one extremely disturbing interlude, she is forced to have sex, twice, when the fairies intervene on the behalf of Sir Somebody or other, the fairies putting words in her mouth, tickling her to respond to his advances, responding with her voice. A bishop pulls her top off, after she tells him the secret of her fairy-pressing, whispering to her, “It's only natural! Let yourself go! Follow the fairies! …They torment me too!” Wtf? Okay, we've now made fairies into some sort of externalized female desire, but blow me, isn't that a mind-job? I get that there's a whole sex-farce comedy aspect of the deal, and understand that maybe Benny Hill style antics, the fairies climbing in her ears, her nose, while not to my taste, don't constitute the mother-loving will of the patriarchy or something. (And before someone accuses me of being a joyless feminist, I'd like to tell a joke: Q. How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A. That's not funny.)
I get that Jones is also trying to make jokes about British social classes and stuff: at one point it is noted that all of her suitors are either “hereditary peers or men of the cloth.” I have the fuzziest idea of what a hereditary peer is: I assume people with titles that pass down, instead of knights et&c, which doesn't. So, okay, I guess I know what
they are, but I don't have an intimate enough working knowledge of the signifiers and symbols of the British caste system, to understand what's going on here. I'm not sure this use of rape, or sort of rape, with the desire by the women externalized into heavy-bosomed fairies, is the best way to go about lampooning the upper class twit of the year. (Maybe have the twits have a race to shoot themselves in the head? Everyone wins.) I mean, I'm down with fairies being a part of the whole secret garden/vaginal enclosure/cusp of womanhood/disturbing new body hair thing, but I'm not pumped about divorcing women from their desire, to have it flit above their heads, get snapped in books and fondled by bishops. The fairies made me do it; can I still wear my purity ring, Daddy?
I know I just complained about fairies getting defanged, but maybe I'm just looking around for fangs I like better, ones that don't pinch my late-model feminist ass so much. I know I'm also totally worked up about a children's book, but I'm not sure that just because a book has pictures in it, that makes it a children's book. Porn, right? Read for the articles, hey? I'm pretty sure the book is aimed at someone like me, who remembers fairies with a frowzy, dreamy sense of danger and gardens, but hasn't really gone through the motions of unpacking the trunk of defended sexuality and cultivated purity that lurks in the garden bed. I just wish it had been unpacked a little differently, instead of strewing my underthings into a heap with British social feudalism, repressed clergy and jiggling fairy t & a.