After putting up my last post, on Arthur Conan Doyle's championship of the Cottingley fairies, I happened to come across a copy of Daniel Stashower's outstanding biography of Doyle, Teller of Tales, which I read a couple of years ago. Though plainly skeptical, Stashower does his best to present the Doyle's fascination with the paranormal in a sympathetic and positive light - but the Cottingley case proves too much for him.
The book as a whole is well worth reading, and Stashower's insights into the Cottingley episode provide a useful bookend to our earlier discussion. (All of the following quotes are from Chapter 25 of Teller of Tales, titled "Away with the Fairies.")
Stashower notes that a debate with a prominent skeptic in March of 1920 "had reinforced [Doyle's] reputation for plain speaking and common sense." But, he goes on, "[t]hat reputation evaporated in December, when the first of Conan Doyle's pronouncements on fairies appeared in The Strand [magazine]. Overnight, Conan Doyle became the spiritualist movement's greatest liability. 'Poor Sherlock Holmes,' ran one headline, 'Hopelessly Crazy?'"
Doyle, of course, was not crazy. He was however badly deluded, and Stashower presents several possible motives for his need to believe in the dubious photos. For one thing, Doyle
refused to entertain any possibility of deception on the part of the two young girls, as the very idea offended his notions of chivalry. This attitude was typical of him, as his son Adrian once learned to his sorrow. Asked by his brother Denis if he found a certain woman attractive, Adrian replied, "No, she's ugly." The statement drew a slap across the face from his father, who informed him that "no woman is ugly." One hesitates to offer criticism of such a gallant sentiment, but it could be argued, in the age of the suffragette movement, that Conan Doyle's views were naïve, if agreeably courtly. Where woman were concerned, he was blind to the possibility of deception, or indeed any base motive.
But, as Stashower notes, "Conan Doyle's actions in the Cottingley affair point to more than a gentleman's instincts.... There are two possible explanations. First, Conan Doyle had become deeply interested in the practice of spirit photography ..."
His commitment to photographs purporting to show deceased loved ones may have made him even more anxious to defend the Cottingley photos. Certainly he took the issue of spirit photography quite personally; he had quarreled vociferously with the psychic researcher Harry Price, after Price's investigation discredited spirit photographer William Hope.
"Price respected Conan Doyle's great integrity," Stashower observes,
but thought him something of a fool in psychic matters. "Setting aside for the moment his extraordinary and most lovable personal qualities," Price wrote, "the chief qualification that he possessed for the role of the investigator was his crusading zeal. Among all the notable persons attracted to spiritualism, he was perhaps the most uncritical. His extreme credulity, indeed, was the despair of his colleagues, all of whom, however, held him in the highest respect for his complete honesty. Poor, dear, lovable, credulous Doyle! He was a giant in stature with the heart of the child."
A second, far more personal motivation may also have guided Conan Doyle's actions. His own childhood had been especially rich in fairy lore. Conan Doyle's Celtic heritage was rife with tales of fairy midwives, leprechauns, brownies, and other sprites....
Conan Doyle's own family took a keen interest in fairies. His uncle Richard had been famous as an illustrator of children's books, many of which featured playful renderings of fairies. Conan Doyle's unhappy father [Charles Doyle] also drew fairies...
Charles Doyle's sketchbook offers additional evidence of his fascination with such creatures. Its pages are filled with fairies, goblins, and elves who crouch under toadstools, play upon pipes, and whisper into the ears of innocent children... On another page, Charles Doyle has scrawled: "I have known such a creature."
We are left to conclude that Charles Doyle, a man widely held to be insane, may well have believed in fairies. In some small measure, then, it is possible that his famous son regarded the Cottingley crusade as an act of redemption. If the existence of fairies could be proven, Charles Doyle could be seen as something of a visionary, rather than a broken-down drunkard.
The elder sister involved in the prank, Elsie, eventually admitted to the fraud -- but only when she was 81 years old. At that time she suggested yet another possible motive on Doyle's part.
According to Elsie, the two girls agreed to keep silent because they were "feeling sad" for Conan Doyle. "He had lost his son recently in the war," Elsie wrote..., "and I think the poor man was trying to comfort himself in these things, so I said to Frances, we are a lot younger than Conan Doyle and Mr. Gardner, so we will wait till they die of old age and then we will tell."
Edward Gardner [a Theosophist who first brought the fairies to Doyle's attention] lived to be one hundred years old, leaving the girls to maintain their silence well into their declining years.
Whatever unconscious motives may have driven him, Doyle paid a considerable price for his credulousness. Stashower reports that Doyle's book The Coming of the Fairies, first published in 1922 (and "surely one of the most remarkable volumes ever written," he notes dryly), received mostly negative reviews studded with terms like "easily duped" and "sad spectacle." But the ridicule extended far beyond the newspaper pages.
A popular wisecrack suggested that at the crisis of the play Peter Pan, when Peter exhorts the audience to revive the dying Tinkerbell, the loudest shouts of "I do believe in fairies!" would be Conan Doyle's.
All but a few of his spiritualist allies deserted him. Conan Doyle had hoped that the episode would invite belief in spiritualism. But if anything it seemed to have the opposite result....
In time, the flood of scorn would subside, but Conan Doyle never lost hope that his faith in the two girls would one day be borne out.... In an addendum to his autobiography, written shortly before his death, he expressed a hope that the incident would "be recognized some day as opening a new vista of knowledge for the human race."
Needless to say, that new vista has yet to open, and the fairy episode has done more than any other to annihilate whatever reputation Conan Doyle might have had as a sober-minded investigator into the unknown.
More than 80 years after the publication of The Coming of the Fairies, Doyle's self-inflicted damage to his reputation has yet to be repaired.