Cottingley by Alison Littlewood

NewCon Press, 99 pages

Review by Marija Smits


Part folk horror, part historical fiction, Alison Cottingley’s page-turning novella – one of a series published by respected indie press NewCon – is a reworking, or rather reimagining, of the story of the Cottingley fairies.

The novella, written in epistolary form, immediately intrigues:

Dear Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,

Forgive the impertinence of my writing to you as a stranger and without introduction. I have lately exchanged correspondence with Mr Edward L. Gardner, and he would have been pleased to be our intermediary; but I felt that in view of your current endeavours, I should not delay in setting before you the wonders it has been my lot to discover…

…I hold within my hand something that will be of the utmost interest to you, if not the crowning exhibit in the proofs it may be your pleasure to unleash upon the disbelieving world.


Lawrence H. Fairclough is the author of the letters which (mostly) back-and-forth between him and Edward Gardner, an associate of Arthur Conan Doyle. The “crowning exhibit” of which he writes is a fairy corpse, which he and his granddaughter, Harriet, happen upon when going in search of fairies in Cottingley Glen – the same place that Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths (apparently) discovered and photographed real fairies.

Fairclough, along with Harriet, returns home to his daughter-in-law, Charlotte, with the corpse, and this is the trigger for a series of rapidly unsettling occurrences which we, the readers, understand to have been brought about by the malevolent fairies who are nothing like the gentle beings that Elsie and Frances supposedly encountered.

Littlewood adeptly handles the rather mannered and formal tone of Fairclough’s letters, as we would expect for the time in which they were meant to have been written – the 1920s. Fairclough is a likeable narrator, his reaction to the events that unfold convincing; the single point of view successfully drives the narrative forward. The pace is also spot-on, with the initial uneasy atmosphere in Fairclough’s home growing more and more unsettling, the story culminating in a deeply chilling climax.


As a lover of fairy and folk tales I particularly appreciated Littlewood’s attention to folkloric detail and how she wove changelings, beestings (the cow equivalent to colostrum) and domestic upset into the novella. But what else is commendable is the way in which Littlewood draws Arthur Conan Doyle himself into the story, by way of Fairclough directing his anger at him for failing to include Fairclough’s strong evidence for the existence of fairies into his book The Coming of the Fairies. Indeed, Fairclough believes that Conan Doyle perfectly understands the true nature of fairies – that they are evil – and that by only publishing proof of their existence which is obviously fake he is, in fact, trying to keep the public from believing in fairies since he is so averse to his idea of fairies as inherently “good” being incorrect.

At 74 pages long, Littlewood’s book is brief, as is to be expected from a novella, yet it makes for a gripping read. No doubt the rather open-ended conclusion will dismay some readers, who may well appreciate knowing more about the fate of Fairclough and his family, yet this very inconclusiveness somehow fits with the slight-of-hand actions of the fairies, which we, as mere humans, cannot begin to fathom. In short, if you like your fairies much more dark than light this novella is well worth a read.