Between 1840 and 1870, historians have dubbed this period of time the “Golden Age of Fairies.” It is where former leading British Victorian Art Historian, Christopher Wood, begins his reference book with glimpses into what inspired a society to turn to the fantastic both with real-world examples and literary examples such as the societal fascination with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Tempest. Other literary inspirations are attributed to the works of William Blake and Henry Fuseli.
In the 18th century, the world of literature expanded. For the first time in Europe, books were written specifically for children. All manner of creatures, both good and evil, were pulled from various mythologies to be adapted to suit children stories. Fairies took on a new form they became guardians and guides, relentless moralists and featured characters such as the classic fairy godmother.
The new illustrators were predominately women, including Beatrix Potter, authoress of The Tale of Peter Rabbit which was published in 1901. Other influential figures included Mabel Lucie Attwell, whose doll-like portrayals of children were displayed in many nurseries and bathrooms up until the 1950’s. Much of her work is still seen in cards, posters and calendars.
The Folk Tale Fairy did not have a single, fixed appearance. They could be as small as the Flower Fairy or as big as the Giant of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ but they usually seek or show the path of virtue.
Flower Fairies were the gentle spirits of the earth. Above all, the tiny Flower Fairy was said to be gentle and generous. They were thought to exist wherever nature flourished. They lived in the hills and the mountains, the lakes and the oceans, and they would flit from flower to flower in every garden.
Those humans who left a bit of food or drink for them at night earned their love. They were said to wander the physical realm at night, collecting the last bit of grain from the field, the last fruit off the tree, and the last drop of milk from the pail. They also enjoyed a bit of wine, but Flower Fairies never became intoxicated.
In the 18th century Europe, including Ireland, superstition was still very much a part of daily life. Common knowledge of the era held that the blessings of the Flower Fairy could be brought into a household with a few simple actions.
Those households wishing to draw the Flower Fairies into their homes were advised not to sit up too late, as the fairies might wish to come into their home after dark. They would leave some food or milk for the fairies to dine, and a vessel of clear water for them to bathe.
Those who made the effort to provide the fairies with these small comforts were said to be rewarded quite richly in the form of luck and protection.