Posted by: simmo22hmtholyokeedu | December 17, 2018

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mysticism

In my midterm paper for this class, I discussed the ways in which Irene Adler’s photograph in A Scandal in Bohemia retains an aura, despite technically being a reproducible object. As I was looking around on the internet, I found that a Benjaminian aura wasn’t the only power that Arthur Conan Doyle believed a photograph could hold. In fact, he believed that photography could capture images of folkloric beings like fairies, brownies, and other creatures.

Almost since its very inception, photography has been used to ‘prove’ the existence of the supernatural. Death, psychic, and spirit photographs are just a few examples of this phenomenon. This is because to many Victorian minds, photography embodied the liminal space between science and magic. It is at once a highly scientific process, and yet captures something ephemeral. Furthermore, increased availability of photography to the general public coincided with a rise of mysticism in British culture, thus leading many to combine the two. Therefore, the idea that fairies could be photographed would not have been completely alien to British audiences during the late Victorian era and at the turn of the century.

In 1920, rumors began to circulate about the existence of images taken by two young girls named Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths that appeared to show the girls sitting next to a few dancing fairies. I won’t go more in depth into the photographs themselves, as there are a few other posts on this blog about them (I recommend reading those as well!). Instead, what I was interested in was how the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, in which the titular character is highly logical, analytical, and pragmatic, was so swept up in these fairy photographs.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone believed Frances and Elsie’s claims that the photographs really were images of fairies in the wild. Arthur Conan Doyle likewise faced major backlash in the press, with a famous cartoon showing him being looked down upon by a scowling Sherlock Holmes (which unfortunately I couldn’t find on the internet).

I just thought this anecdote was pretty interesting, given that Arthur Conan Doyle’s legacy is so tied to Sherlock Holmes’s deduction and rationalism. It’s funny to think that, even in 1920 when photography had been around for over eighty years, it’s exact powers were still being debated, even by public figures like Conan Doyle.



McGillis, Roderick, Review of Fairies in Nineteenth Century Art and Literature, by Nicola Brown, Victorian Studies, 45.3 (2003), pp. 571-573.

Owen, Alex. ‘Borderland Forms: Arthur Conan Doyle, Albion’s Daughters, and the Politics of the Cottingley Fairies’, History Workshop, 38 (1994), pp. 48-55.

Sanderson, S. F.,  ‘The Cottingley Fairy Photographs: A Reappraisal of the Evidence’, Folklore, 84.2 (1973), pp. 89-103.


  1. This is so fascinating! I have heard about Conan Doyle being susceptible to the supernatural, so I am both surprised and unsurprised by his interest in fairies in photography. This speaks volumes to the power that photography holds over making a truth claim, and how sometimes people can be persuaded to believe that a photograph depicts a kind of truth, even against their better judgement. I don’t even know that his critics were so warranted, when photography was being accepted across the nation as a form of state surveillance, used by police and in courtrooms, how could a photograph not always hold truth when they were being used as evidence. And it’s not as if this kind of thing doesn’t exist today, with photographs of Bigfoot and Nessie and UFOs which delight so many, and while we “know” they must be staged or false, doesn’t still cause so many to wonder, or even to believe in something that seems impossible. (or highly improbable). I do agree that it is funny to think that the creator of the cold hard machine of logic and reason that is Sherlock Holmes, would believe in fairies.

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