Fairies and Chimneys; or, How Santa Got Stuck

Activity: Disseminating Research Presentation


In 1918 the English writer (and failed opera singer) Rose Fyleman published a collection of children’s poems entitled Fairies and Chimneys. The opening line—“There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!”—announced an approachable, quasi-domesticated magic full of fairy musicking: in the opening poem the arrival of monarchy is met with song; in the title poem “the noise the wind makes” is revealed to be fairies singing in the chimney. The harmless fun of Fyleman’s verse is typical of a process that scholars of nineteenth-century fairy literature have observed whereby a once threatening prospect of supernatural encounter was gradually miniaturised and infantilised. This is particularly apposite to Fyleman’s collection since, for earlier generations, the practice of “shovelling” suspected changelings (creatures left by malicious fairies in place of abducted humans) involved holding the body over a hearth so that they might exit via the chimney. Fyleman’s placement of fairies “at the bottom of our garden” also aligns with a parallel historical trend that saw fairyland increasingly defined against industry and urbanisation. Despite appearances, the fluttery population of early twentieth century children’s literature had, for at least a century and a half, been adapting or succumbing to habitat loss. According to this logic, the resonant space of the chimney is a threshold beyond which fairy life is hard to sustain. Taking Fyleman’s chimneys as a point of departure, my contribution to this conference draws together work in literary studies on fairy tales and the Anthropocene with musicological accounts of “microscopic listening” and the orchestration of fairyscapes. My contention is that the locations and locutions of fairy musicality in the long nineteenth century merit closer investigation, not as direct barometers of environmental or geological change, but as case studies in the conceptualisation of human interactions with more than human neighbours.
Period20 May 2022
Event titleMusic Studies and the Anthropocene: Ruptures and Convergences
Event typeConference
LocationBerkeley, United States, CaliforniaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational