About The Author
Alison Littlewood is the author of A Cold Season, which was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, where it was described as 'perfect reading for a dark winter's night.' Her sequel, A Cold Silence, has recently been published. Her short stories have been picked for Best British Horror 2015, The Best Horror of the Year and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy 2013 and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10. She also won the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for Short Fiction with her story 'The Dog's Home', published in The Spectral Book of Horror Stories. Alison lives with her partner Fergus in Yorkshire in a house of creaking doors and crooked walls.
Her new novel, The Hidden People, now available in paperback, was inspired by the true story of Bridget Cleary, who was burned to death in 1895 by her husband, who believed her stolen away by the fairies and replaced by a changeling. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Sarah Watkins talked to Alison about her love of fairy tales, the joys of the unreliable narrator and the tension between magic and science.
Questions & Answers
The story pivots on a husband’s belief that his wife is a changeling. Can you tell us about your inspiration for the book?
I first started mulling over the ideas that became The Hidden People when I read about the case of Bridget Cleary. She was burned to death in 1895 by her husband, who believed her stolen away by the fairies and replaced by a changeling that only looked like her. He claimed he was merely trying to drive it out and reclaim his true wife. The case felt too real to write about directly, but it became a starting point. And changeling lore is something I’ve always found fascinating. What if the people we love aren’t who we believe them to be? The idea of something strange hiding behind a familiar face is at once disturbing and intriguing. And then of course people have hidden depths, with or without the fairies . . .
I’ve adored fairy tales since I was a child, and so this whole book was a labour of love. It dealt with things that are so close to my heart, and yet will always remain as strange as they are familiar.
As a writer, I always find myself drawn to the questions we can never really answer. Also, fears are a part of life, and it seems natural to me to explore them in my work as well as other aspects of existence. My early love of slightly strange and sometimes darkly imaginative stories has definitely persisted too. I’m too old for teeny sparkly winged fairies though, and I find the darker aspects of folklore far more interesting! I think in a way that’s also what drew me to the period. The Victorians had a love of the ‘marvellous’, and there was a sense of possibility that has been narrowed much further in our own age. This was a time when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the creator of the rational detective, Sherlock Holmes – could believe we might be able to detect fairies through scientific methods. It’s wonderful and endlessly fascinating.
The Hidden People sees a rational Victorian man negotiating a rural village community steeped in folklore. Do you see the two as opposing forces?
Absolutely. The story opens with the Great Exhibition celebrating all the scientific and industrial developments of the age, but for me there’s a certain complacency in that belief in unremitting progress. My main character, Albie, discovers a vein of rural knowledge too, when he visits a ‘wise woman’ who uses plants and flowers in her treatments for common ailments. Time itself reflects the conflict – Railway Time is homogenising everything throughout the land, but Halfoak village still has a clock showing local time, originally decided by a sundial. Naturally, Albie decides that’s the one trailing behind. And then there’s fairy time, the rather perilous fluidity of which is represented by dandelion clocks blowing on the wind.
During my research I read several times that the railways had driven out the fairies. I found that in particular a great image of industrialisation versus superstition and folk stories. And there was such a movement towards urbanisation at the time that it becomes an issue of city versus country, the future versus the past.
I learnt several new folklore traditions, such as the beastlings, that I hadn’t encountered before reading The Hidden People. Are they all historic examples, and are they regionally specific?
They are historic examples, though they’re not all regionally specific. The idea of fairies living in the hollow hills is fairly widespread, though I was delighted to find out about Pudding Pye Hill in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, which is said to be raised by the folk. I borrowed its name for a location in the book, along with the idea of a fairy hill. There are ancient Yorkshire tales about labourers stepping into a fairy ring and being stolen away for a year – it must have been a good excuse for an unexplained absence! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s treatise The Coming of the Fairies argues that the fairies supposedly photographed at Cottingley, near Bradford, were real, and he included several first-hand reports of apparent sightings. I used general fairy lore too, gathered by people like Yeats. Obviously there were rich seams in the Celtic countries, but it was lovely looking into the Yorkshire examples.
I didn’t really draw it out consciously, though I tend to think I rely too much on visual aspects, so I’m happy you said that! I did use music quite often, because fairies are very much associated with their revels and dancing. That’s reflected in the locals’ fiddles floating from their inn, and their singing of folk songs which again connects to the old stories. One of the things that very much interested me during my research, particularly in the London sections, was that the very air would have been different. It was an age dominated by coal fires and rather noisome occupations! So when a city man finds himself in the country in the heart of summer, surrounded by flowers and meadows and birdsong instead of the constant rattle of hooves and wheels, he notices those differences. Perhaps they became more prominent for me as a part of getting inside the character’s head.
Although the main character could be considered Albie, it’s hard to escape the influential roles the women play in the book. Were any of the women based on real characters you came across during your research?
Well Lizzie takes the place of Bridget Cleary, though without any of her history or other aspects of her personality. And the wise woman’s ministrations are all based on real examples of their art, albeit from different practitioners. Other than that, it was all invention. I’m glad the influence of women comes through though, because one of the things that interested me was that this was a paternalistic society, and on the surface, much of the responsibility and authority to act rests on male shoulders. And that was regardless of how strong different personalities are, or indeed how quietly influential they can be . . . the tension between those things hopefully starts to show in the book. In a way I saw this as a novel about strong women, even though the main character is male and he’s the one with the voice in society. It seemed to me to reflect something intrinsic about the time.
The book is written from Albie’s perspective, would it be fair to say that he is an unreliable narrator?
Yes, and I love playing with that aspect of a viewpoint character. I enjoy reading books where the reader knows more than the protagonist, and can see through the gaps in the text. And Albie is thrown into a situation where he is afraid that nothing is as it seems. Changelings of course look like the people we know, but are they? And the villagers aren’t exactly open to a stranger’s questions. So hopefully the reader is kept guessing alongside the main character. The unreliability of what lies on the surface is reflected in the unreliability of perceptions.
On which side do you come down: the old or the new ways, magic or science?
Oh, there’s a question! I’m really an odd combination, which I suppose must be at the root of the battle between the two in The Hidden People. A part of me is completely cynical, while the other part is still that small child in love with fairy tales, and looking for a little bit of magic in the world. I suppose the thing that resolves the two, for me, is stories. I recently heard a quote from Stephen Spielberg which said, ‘Magic and imagination are the same thing,’ and I think that’s true. Even when it gets tough, I love being a writer more than anything else; it’s like finally being home after a long journey. I get to live in a world where the little bit of magic is real.
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
I’m busy finishing off another novel set in Victorian society. It has its complement of strangeness, with asylums, mesmerism, and the start of the spiritualist ‘mania’, as well as a doctor engrossed in phrenology and more interested in patients’ skulls than their minds. I have a young physician who has recently taken up a position in a Yorkshire asylum, who is a little put out by how things are run. And he has a young and beautiful female patient – her husband says she’s mad, while she says he has dark secrets to hide. Then a fellow comes along claiming to be able to use mesmerism, that somewhat disreputable practice, for therapeutic purposes. He unleashes rather more than anyone anticipates. I’m relishing the journey through some of the odder corners of Victorian society – I’ve found the research so fascinating, I’m not ready to leave it yet!