Interview on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Cottingley Fairies

Frances Griffiths with some of the “Cottingley Fairies” in a photograph taken by her cousin Elsie Wright.In Part 1 of our coverage of Mary Losure’s new book, The Fairy Ring, we explained how two girls from a tiny village fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Their clever use of arts and photographs fooled Sir Arthur so completely that he bet his career on the truth of the girls’ photos. That was a bittersweet detour in the life of the author who millions know as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. As we indicated in Part 1, Mary Losure is not ridiculing Sir Arthur. In fact, she compassionately explains his eagerness to find invisible realms. However, the focus of this new book actually is not on Sir Arthur; it’s on the girls who produced the photographs. They were cousins: Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths.
Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Mary Losure in …


DAVID: You and I are veteran journalists, so let’s start with the truth. And, I know that this point is important to you, because you’ve set up a page on your website stressing that “the book is not fictionalized in any way. It’s not ‘based on’ a true story. It is a true story.” This is historically accurate in all details. Tell us a little bit about your background as a journalist.

MARY: My main career in journalism is that I worked for almost 20 years for Minnesota Public Radio, covering first farming and then later the environment. I also did pieces for National Public Radio. In my career, I’ve also done international reporting. This book, The Fairy Ring, is narrative non-fiction.

DAVID: Candlewick is most famous for producing picture books. We have reviewed a number of those new titles, most recently King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson. Why didn’t you and your editors at Candlewick make this a picture book?

MARY: Again, I wanted everything in this book to be real. The photos that do appear in this book are the real photographs. Also, I didn’t want pictures to dominate this text. I wanted children to envision the story for themselves as they read it.


A photograph of Elsie with a fairy is on the book’s cover. (Click this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page.)DAVID: I have followed the Cottingley Fairies story in recent decades, particularly the various ways that the truth finally was confirmed: The girls faked the photos. But your book is different than what I’ve seen before. You aren’t so focused on the de-bunking of the photos. This book is about the girls themselves.

MARY: That’s right. I want to write true stories that have real children as the heroes. Those stories are very hard to find. Children do not leave many traces in the historical record. I got started with this book when I was in a bookstore one day and I saw a copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, The Coming of the Fairies. It had the famous picture of Elsie holding her hand out to a gnome. Seeing that book, I thought: Perhaps I should write a book about what happened from the children’s point of view. The whole point of this new book is seeing what happened from the perspective of the children at the center of it. These two girls took photographs that bamboozled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the rest of the world.

One of the things that Frances kept saying throughout her life was: No one has ever listened to what I have to say. There’s a lot of truth in that. Frances actually believed she saw fairies and believed it to her dying day. In newspapers, she was called a hoaxster and a liar. But, the truth is: The only thing she lied about was that the photographs showed real fairies.

DAVID: So, they were at the middle of this international news story, but really weren’t allowed to say much?

MARY: You have to remember that Frances was this little girl with a big bow in her hair. Nobody thought she had anything worthwhile to say. Elsie hoped to become an artist. That’s what Elsie really cared about, but people dismissed her art. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle told the world that she couldn’t possibly have drawn those fairies and couldn’t possibly have taken those pictures because she was just a simple little working class child from a little village. But, in fact, she was a very bright girl. Elsie started this wild ride and took Frances along with her. All the past accounts I’ve read of the Cottingley Fairies never approached the story from the girls’ point of view.


DAVID: Today, even young readers of this book may be shocked that people a hundred years ago did not leap to the conclusion that the photos were faked. Today, you can manipulate photos on your iPhone before sending to your friends. But, people had different assumptions about photos a century ago, right?

MARY: That’s Right. People thought that it was possible for cameras to photograph things that humans couldn’t perceive. In the late 1800s, people were making X-ray images that could see the bones inside your hand. So, somehow it was possible for images to be made that went beyond the power of the naked human eye. That’s how people thought about it.

DAVID: And, around that time in the late 1800s, the telegraph system was moving to wireless telegraphs and early radio transmissions. So, there was this wonderment about invisible messages in the world around us—like radio waves—that we couldn’t perceive through our normal senses.

MARY: Conan Doyle thought it was possible for cameras to capture images of things we couldn’t normally see. Afterward, many people thought this was a shameful episode in his life. A lot of biographers act as though it was ludicrous that he ever believed in these fairies. But I admire him for standing up for what he believed in. He believed there were other worlds we can’t perceive with our everyday senses. He believed in spiritualism and he took a lot of grief for that.

He did come to believe that the fairies heralded a new era in world history. He wanted to believe in this so much. Somewhere, I recall, he wrote a passage that expressed how wonderful it would be if it was possible to look out over a little glen and see a couple of fairies hovering. If the world is no more than what we can see, he argued, then the world is as bleak a landscape as the moon.

DAVID: As we already have told readers, this book is absolutely wonderful. As a journalist, I admire the depth of your research. Please, come back to ReadTheSpirit when your next book for young readers is ready. I’m sure our readers will welcome that news!

You can order The Fairy Ring: Or, Elsie and Frances Fool the World from Amazon.

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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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