Would you believe that just at the start of the 20th century (or very close to it, in 1895) people still believed in Changelings and they actually killed a person in Scotland suspected to be one?
What is a changeling?
The relationship between humans and the fairy world is well-documented in British folklore, with fairy folk described as a far darker, more troublesome force than their contemporary counterparts. Our ancestors found fairies suspicious and frightening, and British mythology is rich with stories of unwary humans being tricked or punished by Fey folk. You’d be hard-pushed to recognise the benign, sparkly wish-granting creatures with which we are familiar.
A changeling is the child of a supernatural being that is switched for a human baby. The changeling appears in the folklore of many European countries, and references to the changeling may be found from time to time in modern popular culture. According to legend, fairies, trolls, and other creatures desire human babies either to raise as their own or to use as servants, and they secretly steal babies and replace them with their own offspring or a bewitched inanimate object. Human parents are said to be able to recognise the changeling by its ugliness or its odd or wicked behaviour.
In medieval legend, tales of changelings are frequent. Some children were said to be particularly vulnerable: those not yet baptized, and those who were especially beautiful – often the blond-haired and blue-eyed. Male children were also said to be targeted more often. Tell-tale signs that the fairies had replaced a child with one of their own kind included: incessant crying and refusing to settle; unusual facial features or curiously distorted limbs; constant feeding at the mother’s breast, without ever seeming satisfied, and the ability to speak despite only being a few days old. Changeling babies were responsible for much ill-fortune for the poor ‘host’ family – their presence would cause fresh milk to curdle, and illness to plague the household.
There are a number of legendary precautions against changelings. Scandinavian lore suggests placing a steel item above the cradle of an unbaptised infant, while other traditions favor such practices as turning the infant’s clothes inside-out or using amulets. In many cultures, the changeling is believed to be much wiser than a human baby, so it can be driven away by surprising it into talking and thereby blowing its cover. Methods for effecting this include cooking a meal in an eggshell or brewing beer in an acorn.
There are also a number of more disturbing methods for getting rid of a changeling that involve abusing the infant in various ways. Beating, drowning, and burning in a stove or in the fireplace have all been recommended as ways to deal with a changeling. A Swedish folktale tells of a woman who refuses to maltreat a changeling and eventually is reunited with her own child; the human child is healthy, and the woman learns that the troll mother who had her child had similarly refused entreaties to abuse the baby and that kindness had broken the spell.
Folklorists have two main theories about the possible origins of changeling myths. One possibility is that changeling stories are supernatural reinterpretations of an actual occurrence; populations forced into hiding by invaders may have exchanged their own children for the healthier ones of the invaders.
The other theory holds that infants with birth defects were the origin for changeling lore. This is consistent with the legend that male babies were more often replaced with changelings, as males have a higher incidence of birth defects. The infants in some changeling stories have characteristics similar to those that result from birth defects such as autism, progeria, or a number of physical deformities. Some supposed changeling cases may also have been instances of failure to thrive, a condition in which an infant does not grow or gain weight as expected and requires extra care.
Now that I’ve given you a little bit of background information, let me tell you what Little People and Changelings have in common. The story takes place in 1865 and follows a man called Albie who after having met his out-of-town cousin once a decade ago, is informed that she died in mysterious circumstances, having been killed by her husband by burning. He decides to go into the Yorkshire town of Halfoak and investigate why his cousin Lizzie passed away and in the process find some peace from the guilt he is feeling for not having kept in touch. His wife decides to follow him and thus starts an interesting story of love, jealousy, superstitions and fairy folk.
I loved this story and the characters and the background and even the dialect of the locals which shines through so clearly you can almost hear them with their half-pronounced words.
Albie, a self-declared rational man, believes none of the nonsense he hears along the village and dismisses it all as silly superstition by country folk. The story he was greeted with was not one of murder but one of a village helping a man destroy the fairy changeling who took the face of his beloved wife and refused to return the original back home. They have tried giving the woman potions and hexes but she refused to admit she was a changeling so they burned her.
There are rumors about the house they lived in saying it was cursed, it was unlucky or had a bad aura about it. When Albie’s wife, Helen, joins her husband living in the little cottage, strange things begin to happen. Albie starts suspecting his own wife to be a changeling, because she has changed, she is more hidden, her smiles are more mysterious, her silences deafening. They clearly have a very odd relationship and even though they apparently married out of love, Albie spends more time talking about his dead cousin than seeing to his wife. Due to neglect and out of loneliness, Helen starts to act out, demand him to notice her and even tells him the reason why she came: she’s pregnant.
The attitude of the villagers is also shifty. They clearly accept and even welcome the eruption of the supernatural into their lives, yet it also drives them to dreadful ends – the murder of Lizzie, the boycott of her funeral – and to a degree they seem to have the same relationship with the modern world: Albie, arriving from London is as much an over-worldly intrusion on their centuries old way of life as the fairies are, or would be if they were real.
Albie comes across his cousin’s diary and reads bits and parts of it, trying to make sense of her life. He tries some of the local cures that were used against his cousin to check whether she was a fairy or not against his pregnant wife and the results are escalating distrust and avoidance from Helen’s part, especially after he destroys her book (Wuthering Heights) in a fit of passion.
The Hidden People is seemingly all about sexual transgressions: it frequently refers to Wuthering Heights, a ‘wild’ novel that the narrator cannot conceive of being written by a woman. Two characters, Lizzie Higgs and Essie Aikin, are both shamed for having had sex out of wedlock, and at one point Albert suspects his own wife of indiscretion. It is almost as if the author felt compelled to include these sexual themes but was reluctant to go into any great exploration of them, hence, these indiscretions are often revealed in footnotes from journals and in long, rambling speeches about duty. The Victorians were repressed, absolutely, so there is a sense in which the narrator might be a prude, but this should only serve to heighten the reader’s sense of something simmering beneath the surface. The closest we get to Albie confessing to a desire is that he admits to waking up with a feeling of ‘yearning’, but after what is unclear to the point of non-existence.
You tend to either agree with Albie that something otherworldly has taken over his wife or agree with the wife that Albie is obsessed with an old crush and feel jealous of the intrusion in the marriage of a dead woman who can’t be fought off. Remember Jane Eyre? How about Rebecca? There are underlying currents of rising feminist attitudes rebelling against the notions that the female of the household should be docile and calm in all situations.
The horror of this novel is not clearly stated. It’s mostly a haze of uneasiness that floats about. A mystery left to be unravelled in a Gothic scenery with Celtic background.
In a town where there is always summer, there is also rot and decay and murder and loss.
I do recommend this book as it’s got a good twist at the end which I shall not spoil but let me just say that I’m very, very happy I’m not living in a closed off town somewhere where the people are close-minded and superstitious.