The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor


1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.

One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?”

-Synopsis from Goodreads


Cover image from StoryGraph

I wasn’t sure initially how I would feel about this book since I know nothing about the topic, but as it turns out, the story was very intriguing and it kept my interest the entire time. I ended up loving it! I shouldn’t be surprised, since I have loved everything Hazel Gaynor has written so far.

The story starts with Frances Griffiths in 1917 and Olivia Kavanagh in 2017, both about to embark on new chapters in their lives. Frances is moving from Cape Town, South Africa to Yorkshire, England and Olivia is returning home to Ireland after the death of her grandfather.

The early 1900s is a time period I will never get tired of reading about. As Frances is adjusting to living with her extended family, she finds comfort in the solace of nature, particularly the beck behind her new home. As the synopsis alludes, this is where Frances first sees the fairies on a warm summer day.

She is overjoyed and shares this secret with her older cousin, Elsie Wright. It quickly snowballs and the two of them end up taking fake photographs of fairies as a joke for their family. They expect their family to be intrigued and admit the girls were right about there being fairies and for the whole thing to sort of blow over, which of course is not what happens.

“Cottingley’s a small village, and small villages can’t keep secrets. They’ve a funny way of setting them free, and who knows where they’ll end up?”

Frances is conflicted about this whole thing from the beginning, as soon as the photos are taken. The fairies were her personal secret and once that was let out into the world, it was no longer hers. Over the years, even after moving away, every time she hoped the story would blow over, it only gained more interest from the public.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about the photograph. My conscience nagged at me like an itch I couldn’t scratch, more noticeable somehow in the quiet darkness of nighttime. Were we wrong to play the trick, even if it was done with the best of intentions, and only to stop me getting into trouble? Should I have told Mummy the truth? I tumbled her words around in my mind – ‘If we can believe in fairies, perhaps we can believe in anything’ – and the more I repeated them, the more I felt that perhaps believing in fairies was more important than seeing them. In belief, there is hope and wonder. In seeing, there is often question and doubt.”

No matter how much Frances wishes people would just forget about the fairies, the world is intent on keeping the story alive as it gives everyone something to believe in during the hard times of war. This is a very powerful thing and again drives home the point to Frances that the fairies no longer “belong” to her.

The story spans those pivotal years in Frances’s life as well as the summer in Olivia’s life when everything changes for her. Taking on ownership of her family’s bookshop, living in a new place, reevaluating the relationships in her life. Through it all she pores over Frances’s story and discovers connections to her own life that she has to piece together for herself.

This was a very light, enjoyable read. I loved the afterward, which included Hazel Gaynor’s thoughts on the story of the Cottingley fairies not to mention the actual photographs mentioned throughout the book. There is also a small piece written by Christine Lynch, the real granddaughter of Frances Griffiths, who first discovered the fairies. The reader is left to wonder what was and wasn’t real, and whether or not seeing is believing or if believing in something is enough to make it so.

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