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A Visit to Fairyland: Shirley Barber and the romanticisation of the English countryside

Daydreams of glittering wings and the laughter of pixies.

From a Visit to Fairyland by Shirley Barber

I was very young when I first encountered the work of Shirley Barber, prolific writer and artist of children’s books. The memories have largely been lost to time and I remember only snatches: being drawn into the orbit of a pink and purple hardback cover, tugging on my Mum’s jacket and traipsing through the parking lot on short, stubby legs, my new prized possession tucked proudly under my little arms.

I have always had a penchant for fairies, and much of this can be attributed to Barber, whose illustrations of woodland fairies, mermaids and animal footmen breathe a sense of hazy wonder into its readers. Barber ushered in a blissful age of imagining fairy houses, secret doorways in willow trees, the whisper of gossamer wings borne on an autumn breeze. Having spent her early childhood on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, much of the pastoral beauty of English woodland makes its way into her books. When she was twelve, a local paper noted: “cats, dogs and fairy stories are among Shirley’s favourite subjects for illustration.”

Since emigrating to Australia in 1965, Barber has written whole worlds into being, filled with quaint woodlands alive with magic and fairy song. Of my personal favourites is a short story titled A Visit to Fairyland, which follows the adventure of two children who slip through a small green door in the willow tree at the bottom of their garden, finding themselves in Fairyland. Reading along, I followed the cobblestone path and became enraptured with the mushroom villages, the fairy carriages drawn by butterflies and the hidden woodlands where anthropomorphised animals played jaunty tunes. Yet, the lingering wistfulness that I felt as I closed the book was for the quiet countryside cottage that the children returned to after their adventures. Barber’s fairy-filled countryside made everything come alive with possibility, like a glittering nexus between two worlds.

I had always loved the idea of the countryside, its promises of peace, the dreams of a cottage bordered by rose bushes and a hearth burning steadily within. My world by comparison was a grey one of cracked asphalt, traffic lights, the sleepy rumble of cars on the highway. But as the years pass, it is impossible to shrug off a growing decolonial consciousness because popular impressions of rurality are not accidental. 

Rather, the most popular conception of countryside is an idyllic site of white, colonial nostalgia. Growing up in Australia meant growing up in a British settler-colony, where conceptions of bushland, dry and steely, have been cheapened in favour of a Eurocentric longing for a different kind of country: sprawling Arcadian fields of wildflowers and mossy woodland. The nostalgia is at once sinister and familiar, as I find myself yearning for an imagined homeland that never existed at all, except as a faded derivative of a colonial longing for England. 

Nostalgia unchecked is dangerous. The echoes of colonial efforts to terraform stolen lands can be seen everywhere, in immaculately manicured lawns, invasive flora and fauna, the scars of mining on sacred land. I spend a great deal of time, however futile, grappling with the knowledge that Barber’s Arcadian fairylands and depictions of English pastures draw on a Eurocentric culture that is inextricable from colonialism.

I don’t like the process of unpicking joyous memories one by one, as though they were a ratty old rug. But growth is uncomfortable, and so discomfort is inevitable. When I delve into this internal conflict, it is difficult — even impossible — to reconcile the delight of Barber’s fairies with a decolonial consciousness. The questions that I ask myself now are: Can I still draw joy and peace from these memories while knowing that they perpetuate Eurocentrism, however innocuously? Does this make for bad decolonial praxis?

I don’t think it will be possible for me to ever again appreciate Barber’s magical worlds without reminding myself of its colonial roots in romanticizing the Eurocentric countryside. But this is not to say that I don’t think softly of Barber’s stories, but lovely blooms don’t always mean that the roots beneath them aren’t rotten to the core. Importantly, when it comes to the question of decolonial praxis, there is no fixed answer. Questioning our past and challenging colonialism is a quest without a foreseeable end. The immortal questions I am faced with as I attempt to reconcile childhood joy with violent histories are ones that I think I should keep asking myself as I move through the world. Colonialism isn’t easily separated from any part of the world we live in today, and it must be expected that its reach cannot be easily overcome even in the pages of a children’s storybook. It is only through a constant re-examining, the pursuit of a quest to know and unknown, that we might hope to vanquish it.

Barber’s influence remains even now. There is seldom a day that I don’t glance out my bedroom window, wondering if there might (still) be fairies living under the bougainvillea. Two years ago, I sought out a copy of Shirley Barber’s Fairy Stories and CD on eBay. It lives in a cosy nook in the back of my car, and I have it with me wherever I go. To this day I maintain that twelve bucks for a childhood relic that has since gone out of print is a bargain. 

If I could speak to Barber today, I would tell her that I don’t blame her for my internal conflicts nor do I seek to villainise her. I simply find it difficult to grapple with the immensity of the colonized world, and I don’t think it will ever get easier. Instead, I would thank Barber for her boundless imagination, the gentle soul that shines through in all of her stories, and her ever-faithful approach to the Little Folk. I would thank her for the words and illustrations that live in my heart, for daydreams of glittering wings and the laughter of pixies that I’d like to think I hear on the wind on a bustling day.

Of all the wonderful words that Barber has etched into my mind, I think I like these best: When children say they have seen fairies, Barber says that “I have no reason not to believe them.”