The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

A young girl named Frances is relocated to her mother’s hometown in England during the first world war. Little does she realize, this event will change her life and affect her entire country. Frances loves playing by the stream in the woods behind her aunt’s house, sometimes with her older cousin Elsie, but typically alone. Chastised for returning so often and muddying her clothes, Frances adamantly insists she visits the beck to see the fairies. The adults don’t believe her, and challenge her to take a photograph as evidence. So Elsie creates delicately drawn and colored cut outs that they secretly use in the photos. But soon, word spreads that fairies and hope can be found in the woods near Cottingley, and reporters and even the famous Arthur Conan Doyle wishes to know and see more. A country in despair seeks the hope these two girls unknowingly offered, and a neighbor whose daughter was lost finds peace in this magical story of the Cottingley fairies.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Frances didn’t like photographs or trust what was required to make them, and especially despised the serious-looking photo she kept of her father. How is this ironic, considering what made her and her cousin famous? Do you think she ever grew to like photographs?
  2. Frances’ teacher, Mrs. Hogan believed that make believe “keeps us going at times like this. We have to believe in the possibility of happy endings.” Was she speaking for herself, or the nation? What did she believe in?
  3. Cormac told Olivia that taking care of her grandmother with her dementia was “like doing a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces kept changing shape. You have to keep trying every piece until you find the one that fits.” How did he and Olivia each have to adapt to the changes that came with her memory loss?
  4. How did Olivia think Jack would react to her diagnosis of “premature ovarian failure”? Why did she delay so long in telling him about it, or that she no longer desired to marry him?
  5. Why was Elsie the sister Frances never had, and why did Frances need someone like her? Should all girls have a sister, or a close friend like one? Was Olivia’s lack of family part of why she was so lonely, and perhaps why she stayed with Jack despite their incompatibility?
  6. Why did something as childish as fairies give Arthur Conan Doyle and others “something to believe in, something to give us hope and to remind us how remarkable the world may be”? What other things do people choose to believe in or look for to give them hope?
  7. When Frances was weeping at her father having to return to the war after his furlough, Elsie told her “it’s all right to be sad…you have to let the sadness out.” What did she say that releasing sadness makes room for? Did Frances understand that yet? Were there any sadnesses Olivia had to remove in order to make room for other things, or people?
  8. Olivia’s mother had told her that a lie told often enough can become its own truth/ How does this happen? What lies did the main characters in this book believe? Why do people choose to believe these lies?
  9. Who sent Olivia a present like her grandfather would have, Peter Pan in Kensington gardens? What promises had he made?
  10. What tragedy happened to Conan Doyle to make him want to believe in good in the world? Why did he blame himself?

The Recipe:

Mrs. Hogan offered tea brack to Frances when she visited the cottage next door where her teacher lived. Tea brack is a spiced cake or loaf that usually consists of hot brewed tea poured over dried fruits such as raisins, currants, or dates to allow them to rehydrate. It can also contain walnuts or other nuts.

Spiced “Tea Brack” Tea Cakes with Orange Spiced Frosting

Spiced Tea Cake with Orange Spice Frosting



  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup vanilla bean whole milk Greek yogurt, at room temperature
  • 1 cup brewed Irish Breakfast black tea
  • 1 cup dried fruit blend, (cranberries, raisins, cherries, blueberries, goji berries)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon orange baking emulsion
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon pie spice
  • 5 tablespoons orange marmalade, or zest of one large orange


  1. Soak the cup of dried fruit in one cup of brewed Irish breakfast tea for one hour. Then preheat oven to 350° F. In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-low speed, combine one stick (one half cup) of salted butter at room temperature with the cup of brown sugar for about 2 minutes. In a separate bowl, combine the all-purpose flour, baking powder, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon allspice, ⅛ teaspoon of ground cloves, and baking soda. To the mixer, add the eggs, one at a time, and the greek yogurt, stopping to scrape down the insides of the bowl with a rubber spatula if needed.
  2. Add the flour mixture in 3 increments to the mixer while it is on the lowest speed. Then carefully add the liquid from the dried fruit, but not the fruit. Once the liquid is incorporated, turn off the mixer and remove the bowl. Add the fruit and fold in gently with a spatula until evenly distributed. Scoop into two paper-lined muffin tins, about two-thirds full. Bake for 16-18 minutes. Allow to cool for at least 15-20 minutes on a cooling rack before frosting.
  3. For the frosting, in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed, whip together two sticks (one cup) of salted butter for a minute. Then add the pie spice, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and two cups of powdered sugar. When those are combined, add the orange juice, marmalade (or zest of a large orange), orange baking emulsion, and the rest of the powdered sugar.
  4. When those are combined, fill a piping bag with the frosting, making sure to use a large or XL round tip, so the marmalade doesn’t clog the spout. Pipe onto cooled cupcakes. Garnish with extra zest or a bit of marmalade if desired. And don’t forget to set out an offering for the fairies!

Similar Reads

Other books by Hazel Gaynor are The Girl Who Came HomeA Memory of VioletsThe Girl From the SavoyFall of Poppies, and her new release, Last Christmas in Paris.

For more books about the Cottingley Fairies, you can read The Case of the Cottingley Fairies, The Fairy Ring, Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies by the actual Frances Griffiths, or The Coming of the Fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, The Land of Heart’s Desire by W. B. Yeats, and The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley were also mentioned in this novel.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton is about another young girl who arrives in a strange place—Australia—with a book of fairy tales, which enables her granddaughter, decades later, to understand old family secrets.

The Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan is about a girl like Olivia who relocates to a new life in a flat above a bakery, and The Bookshop Around the Corner about a woman who drives a book-filled van bookstore.


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