Philomene was an English girl who felt she lived in a commonplace house with a commonplace back garden where, for the longest time, nothing interesting ever happened. Her mother had died when Philomene was just a baby, and her father was a busy doctor who worked long hours. The nurse that cared for her, and the teacher who came and taught in the home’s schoolroom, were dull practical ladies who didn’t know a thing about fairy tales. Philomene loved to read about fairies, mermen and leprechauns, but it seemed that none of the wonderful storybook adventures ever took place when you lived in a plain old everyday house.
The girl had a beautiful godmother named Isolde, who’d been her mother’s dearest friend, and Isolde was sympathetic towards girls with strong imaginations who liked to ask lots of questions. Godmother was responsible for putting green ribbons on Philomene’s christianizing gown, which turned out to be an important fashion choice. Philomene had a canary, who’d flown into the bedroom window soon after her first canary had flown away and never returned. She also had a white cat that had shown up on the doorstep one bitterly cold Christmas morning. But Godmother was a busy lady who couldn’t always be with her godchild, and a girl couldn’t have a true conversation with pets, so Philomene often felt lonely.
One day Philomene noticed that a brick garden wall had a keyhole where there appeared to be no door, and the girl often watched the wall to see if anyone ever came by with a key to fit the lock. One day when Philomene was working in her garden a fairy named Sweet William came along, pulled out a key, unlocked a stone door, and invited her to come inside his home. The girl was told that only lonely children who wore green ribbons when they were christened are able to see fairies. (It is a fairy’s business to look after lonely children, but I never learned what the significance of green ribbons are. Perhaps magical little people need to keep some rules secret, so they can’t be told in books.)
Sweet William was a garden fairy, tasked with looking out for all the plants, animals and insects that dwell within his assigned garden. He was a kind and polite fairy, but he did mention the fault of children complaining about living in perfectly good houses that they consider to be commonplace. Philomene was told a story, and then was asked if she could come back the next day and take an examination about fairies and fairyland. If she achieved a score of 75 percent or greater she would receive a prize of a latchkey, so that she could enter Sweet William’s home even when he was away.
The next morning Philomene had a hard time concentrating on her regular schoolroom lessons, for she kept thinking of her very special examination she’d be taking in the afternoon. At last she was free to go to Sweet William’s home, where she sat on a toadstool and used a mushroom for a table. (It was never explained whether or not the girl shrank to get inside of the room inside of the garden wall.) She had to write down the answers to a great many questions, which required knowledge gained from reading lots of old and new fairytale books, as well as Shakespeare’s Tempest. Fortunately Philomene had read the right books, so she did well enough to win her latchkey, plus she earned the privilege of hearing fairytales from an actual fairy, who was much more knowledgeable than mere mortals who attempt to write such stories.
Philomene was told many fairytales, and reading what she was told taught me a great deal of fairy lore. For example, fairies hate the sound of church bells, for it “reminds them of a power that is stronger than their strongest magic.” Fairies don’t have souls and, though they have special powers, and can live for hundreds of years, they can’t ever go to heaven. If you were christened while wearing green ribbons, and are lonely enough to see fairies, it is polite to not mention Bible stories or church services around them.
I also learned that every hundred years fairies have to spend a year and a day as an animal. If you ever had a very special pet who one day ran off and was never seen again, it could have been because your pet went back to being a fairy.
Philomene learned that both of her canaries were fairies spending their year and a day with her, and her current canary, Master Mustardseed, could tell stories – but only if the nurse or schoolteacher aren’t around to cause the magic to not work. The girl spent much of her summer at Godmother’s country home, and Sweet William gave her a letter of introduction to give to the garden fairy who lived there. (He didn’t know that garden fairy, but knew there had to be one.) Because she spent so much time with her godmother she didn’t have a great deal of time to spend with fairies, there happened to be twin sisters in charge of that garden, but she did get to hear a few more stories. And I got to learn a bit more fairy lore.
One thing I learned is that if a child were to be told of happy plans that meant the child would no longer be lonely much of the day, that would be the end of talking with fairies. That’s a fairy rule, whether you like it or not.
The Fairy Latchkey was first published in 1909, and I found it an enjoyable read. There were a few sections that had a bit too much explaining and not enough action, and not all of the fairytales had what I would call a happy ending, for fairies and other magical creatures have long lives, but not always happy ones. But, for the most part, the novel kept my interest, and provided me with pleasant hours of waiting to see what happens next. And since I read it in these modern days, when I learned that fairies don’t like the sound of church bells I thought that this must be a good time for fairies, since most new churches don’t have a large outside bell!
If you would like to read The Fairy Latchkey it can be downloaded, free of charge at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/63535