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A Tale of Two Changelings

Who can say why a particular theme or narrative trope might suddenly find favour with writers, how similar stories appear to proliferate at a particular time? The beginning of the decade saw a spate of books about circuses, with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Kim Lakin Smith’s Cyber Circus, and Genevieve Valentine’s Tales of the Circus Tresaulti all being published in the same year. More recently there has been a resurgence of writerly interest in fairy lore, with recent fairy-themed novels including Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. These past twelve months have seen the release of Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People and Hannah Kent’s The Good People, with the publication of two such thematically similar novels so close together making it all but impossible not to consider them as a pair.

Both novels are inspired by the idea of an invisible realm separate from yet analogous with the human world, and specifically by a belief in fairy changelings. We should also note that their stories are based around true events: The Hidden People on the case of Bridget Cleary, who was burned to death by her husband in Tipperary in 1896, and The Good People on the case of Anne Roche, who together with Nora Leahy was put on trial for the murder of Leahy’s grandson Micheál Kelliher in Tralee in 1826. That Hannah Kent knew of the Cleary case cannot be in doubt as she references it in her author’s Afterword. Whether Littlewood knew of the Roche case is not made explicit, though given the mysterious coincidences that seem in play here I would not be surprised.

In Littlewood’s The Hidden People, Albie Mirralls meets his “northern cousin” Lizzie Thurlston when her father brings her south to London to see the Great Exhibition. In just a couple of hours, Albie finds himself smitten with the young woman, who is spontaneous and curious-minded and unlike the other girls he has so far encountered. Above all, he falls in love with her voice, which is of exceptional beauty and for which he gives her the nickname Linnet. Albie’s father makes no secret of his displeasure at the idea of a match, though—Lizzie is poor and uneducated—and the two cousins part without any likelihood of seeing each other again.

A decade later, Albie learns that Lizzie has been murdered, burned alive under suspicion of being a changeling. The murderer is her own husband, Jeremy Higgs, currently residing in gaol and facing a death sentence. Albie is recently married, committed to a life in London, but the news of his cousin’s death fills him with such horror that he feels compelled to travel north to Yorkshire, to discover the truth behind Lizzie’s murder and to see justice done.

What Albie finds is part idyll, part nightmare. Halfoak—tellingly, when Lizzie first tells him the name of her home village, Albie mishears it as “our folk”—seems lost in time, primitive even by the standards of the day. Half the villagers are eager to confirm that the real Lizzie has indeed been abducted by fairies, the other half seem unwilling to tell Albie anything at all. A Mrs Gomersal seems particularly knowledgeable on the subject of changelings. She arranges for Albie to view the horrifically charred body of his cousin and later takes him to see Mother Draycross, a local wise woman who is purported to have “the sight,” and who may even be part fairy herself.

The story becomes further complicated when Albie’s wife, Helena, arrives in the village, determined to stand at her husband’s side as he makes his enquiries. Helena is unimpressed by the basic living conditions at the Three Horseshoes Inn and insists they find alternative accommodation. Where else is there to go, other than the cottage on Pudding Pye Hill where Lizzie met her gruesome end? Pudding Pye Hill, as the local constable reminds them, has “a somewhat evil reputation,” and is where the fairies are said to dance on Midsummer Eve.

For Albie, such legends are nothing but superstition, nonsense put about by the ignorant and uneducated. As the days pass though, and Helena’s behaviour veers between stark depression and mocking jealousy, Albie finds himself becoming seduced by these ancient mythologies. He begins increasingly to wonder if the villagers’ talk of fairy enchantment is more than just talk.

Littlewood builds her narrative with care, with the landscape writing in particular granting an insight into the author’s personal feelings of connectedness to isolated places. Littlewood is equally concerned with the historical context of the tale she is telling. The Hidden People is not just a horror story, or even a fairy story, but is underpinned by a strong feminist subtext. In her journal, Lizzie shows herself to be more resilient and resourceful than Albie would have us believe. In her private pages, we see a woman under siege, a woman isolated by her own perceptiveness, a woman with a sense of humour in matters that some in the village do not find funny:

Things that make you a fairy. There’s plenty of them, round here, if you believe them all. Not making the butter come right. Burning the joint and spilling milk and not clearing it up right. Having your chickens die. Not being what they want you to be. Not having a baby. They say changelings are barren, as if it’s a fact and they know them personal. Having the wrong baby. Don’t make me laugh, I said to Jem when he told us that. Half the village would be fairies at that. (p. 189)

The way in which both Lizzie and Helena are seen by their husbands as “sensible females” whose sudden defiance is so inexplicable it can only be explained as supernatural is a comment upon the position of women of all classes in Victorian society: women should be pliable, pleasant, unobtrusive. They should look to their husbands and other male kinsfolk for guidance and support. Albie’s confiscation of Helena’s chosen reading material—Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which he deems “unsuitable”—comes as a key moment in the disintegration of relations between them. On catching sight of some words in Lizzie’s journal that seem to refer to him, Albie finds himself overwhelmed with nostalgia and the sense that “at least here had been one who had looked up to me.” Albie’s longtime crush on Lizzie is thus revealed for what it is: a sense of superiority in the presence of one who happened to see him as he desired to be seen.

The novel also makes a knowing nod towards classic Victorian gothic novels in having its supernatural goings-on finally unmasked as human mischief. This plot line is skilfully worked, with the coda leaving The Hidden People’s ultimate resolution satisfyingly open-ended.

In Hannah Kent’s The Good People, Honora Leahy is an honest country woman beset by misfortune. When her only daughter, Johanna, dies, Nóra and her husband Martin are left to care for her infant son, Micheál, brought back to the village in an open basket by Johanna’s grieving husband, Talgh. Micheál is four years old but seems poorly developed. In contrast with the lively, curious little boy Nóra encountered when she visited her daughter two years before, this Micheál can neither stand nor speak and appears to have little understanding of what is going on around him. The couple do their best for the boy, even going to the considerable expense of calling in a doctor, but when Martin dies suddenly and without warning, Nóra finds the burden of Micheál’s care becoming too much for her. She engages the services of a pauper girl, Mary Clifford, to help with the yard work and to have charge of the boy. As a tide of minor misfortunes envelops the valley, Nóra becomes ever more convinced that Micheál is not a human child, but a fairy changeling:

Nóra saw the boy as Nance saw him then. A wild, crabbed child no heavier than the weight of snow upon a branch. A clutch of bones rippling with the movement of wind on water. Thistle-headed. Fierce-chinned. Small fingers clutching in front of him as though the air were filled with wonders and not the smoke of the fire and their own stale breath. (p. 153)

Unable to afford a second consultation with the doctor, she turns instead to Nance Roche, an elderly “handy woman” who is said to have knowledge of the fair folk and their contrary ways. Condemned by the new priest for paganism and witchery, Nance has not only become ostracised from the community but also cut off from her usual means of making a living. Lonely and desperate, Nance believes that if she can only banish the fairy and restore the true Micheál Kelliher to his grandmother, then the villagers’ faith in her will likewise be renewed.

What follows is a distressing tale of hardship, misfortune, and escalating cruelty as the unfortunate Micheál is subjected to ever more dangerous “cures,” culminating in his forced immersion in a freezing river. When their crime is inevitably discovered, Nance and Nóra are taken in chains to the Tralee assizes to stand trial for murder. Fourteen-year-old Mary Clifford is offered her life and her freedom in exchange for bearing witness. The priest believes her testimony will see the two women hanged.

In its unsentimental portrayal of the landscape of rural Ireland, the harsh texture of daily life among the villagers, The Good People evokes the social inequalities experienced by rural families as a daily reality. In an act of almost miraculous imagining, Kent ties the belief systems and mythologies that govern the lives of the valley’s inhabitants to the land they live on, the often precarious balance between the mysterious and the known:

No one would come for her today, Nance knew. The valley folk would be swarming the house of the Leahys to pay their respects to the dead, and besides, people did not often come to her at a time like this. She reminded them too much of their own mortality.

The keener. The handy woman. Nance opened her mouth and people thought of the way things went wrong, the way one thing became another. They looked at her white hair and saw twilight. She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors, and sent them into the dark.

Nance knew the only reason they allowed her this damp cabin between mountain and wood and river for twenty-odd years was because she stood in for that which was not and could not be understood. She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of stars. She was a pagan chorus, the older song. (p. 28)

Through the power of Kent’s writing, Nance, Nóra, and Mary are brought to life in a way that feels true for the time, and yet that also has weight and resonance for a modern audience. Indeed it is in its incipient modernity that The Good People has its greatest impact. As we read of the ignorance that surrounds Micheál’s condition, the lack of understanding or help offered to the family by those in authority—the doctor, the priest—we cannot help thinking of the cases of abuse and mistreatment of disabled children in social care that continue to come to light on a weekly basis. As Nóra and Nance languish in gaol, we remember the more recent deaths of women in prison who should not even be there.

If The Good People has a fault, it lies in its tendency to repeat itself—I lost count of the number of times we are reminded that Micheál seemed well when he was younger, or that Nance Roche has been denounced as a pagan by the officious new broom of a priest. The book could have been fifty pages lighter just by editing out these unnecessary reiterations and would have become a tighter, more propulsive narrative as a result. On balance though, this is a minor flaw in a novel of genuine power and considerable ambition.

The Hidden People’s problems at a textual level are more insidious, having mainly to do with an overly strong attachment to generic convention. Though Littlewood frequently deploys genre elements to great effect—the passages dealing with Albie’s unveiling of Lizzie’s burned body are not easily forgettable and for all the right reasons—the overall tone tends towards the formulaic, with characters never entirely earning independence from their preordained story arcs. Like many an unwary horror protagonist before him, Albie is told on more than one occasion to “go home, before it is too late,” just as the pubs fall predictably silent as soon as he enters. By contrast with the sensitively characterised Nance Roche in The Good People, Littlewood’s cunning woman Mother Draycross seems straight out of central casting: with her baleful pronouncements and stinking rags she is a parody of knowingness, the wise woman from Blackadder. Similarly, rather than the subtly textured evocation of a rural environment that forms the outstanding feature of Kent’s narrative, Littlewood too often finds herself falling back upon the over-familiar “enlightened city folk versus superstitious yokels” trope beloved of so many indifferent horror movies:

I looked down at the smuts that had irreversibly smeared my coat. Such was the province of the city. I could smell the taint of coal smoke even now entering my lungs. But here, all was rational. The people about me were engaged in the solid and practical requirements of business. Here, men believed only in what was true; what they could see and touch and prove; and as the church bells chimed the hour, I felt glad to be standing within it … Everything was ordered and in its place, and it acted as a salve upon my heart. (p. 218)

Had Littlewood played up her narrative’s inherent ironies to greater effect—notice how Albie is standing outside a church when he makes his pronouncement about city people living industriously by the light of reason—we might have had a much meatier text on our hands. Again and again, the easier, more expected narrative road is taken, and an opportunity is missed.

In the end, all historical fictions are necessarily a compromise between what we know and what we are accustomed to imagine. As with any form of speculative literature, the key to effective storytelling lies in a writer’s skill in suspending a reader’s disbelief. Such a suspension must begin with the most ordinary of miracles: speech that comes across as believable rather than costume-drama pastiche, emotions and thought processes that mirror our own rather than seeming to belong to a simpler, more credulous time. There is no such thing as a simpler time, and for a reader to believe in the fair folk, a writer must write as if they—very possibly—might believe in them, too.

Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her novel The Rift won the BSFA Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle, and her novelette “The Art of Space Travel” was a finalist for the Hugo Award. Her essays and reviews have appeared in a wide variety of venues including the Guardian, The Quietus and the TLS. Her most recent novel is Conquest, published in May 2023 by Riverrun/Quercus. Nina lives and works on the Isle of Bute, off the west coast of Scotland.
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