The Hum, the Shiver, and The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke

When I began writing the book that ultimately became The Hum and the Shiver – read an extended excerpt here – I had a pile of unrelated influences I wanted to incorporate. (Like many writers, where I start with an idea and where it finishes are often very, very far apart.) One was the history of the Melungeons, which eventually morphed into the Tufa of my book. Another was the importance of music: not just listening, but also playing and singing for reasons that have nothing to do with fame and fortune. And one was the strangest painting I’ve ever run across: The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, painted by Richard Dadd and finished in 1864.

We all know artists can be a little crazy, but Dadd was certifiable. In fact, he was certified after murdering his father because he believed the man was secretly the devil. Subsequently he was confined to the Bethlem Memorial Hospital in London, a.k.a the notorious “Bedlam.” It was there that he began this work. The painting is now held in London’s Tate Gallery, not (alas) where I have it: in the fictional town of Cricket, TN.

The painting depicts the fairy feller (as in someone who fells things like trees) about to split a chestnut that will be used to create a new carriage for Queen Maab. The various fairy figures are scattered among blades of grass and flowers, giving them scale. He began the tiny painting (it’s only 22 inches by 15 inches) in 1855 and worked on it for nine years, adding layers of paint so that it becomes almost three-dimensional. Oddly, Dadd then reproduced it in watercolor, and wrote a poem (“Elimination of a picture and its subject — the fairy feller’s master stroke”) that was his attempt at explaining it. Here’s an excerpt, describing a figure along the image’s middle top:

The tinker next with barrow trig.
Knows every wandering gypsy rig
Where does he lodge? T’is hard to say
Whether a house or stack of hay
Serves the pooroutcast for his rest
He’s butt howe’er for many a zest
Lives in a world of netherpose
Mysterious obscure, your senses lose
Or cast aside as nothing worth
Norlength it has nor breadth or girth

And that’s just part of his explanation for one of the painting’s dozens of characters. It concludes, much as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with an admonition that it ultimately means nothing:

But whether it be or be not so
You can afford to let this go
Fornought as nothing it explains
And nothing from nothing nothing gains.

If an artist who was already a little squeewonky in the head became convinced of the reality of the Tufa, he might express it this way. And if those same Tufa knew of it, they might claim it for their own, and keep it safe and snug in a tiny little Appalachian library. And in The Hum and the Shiver, that’s exactly what they do…

Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and the forthcoming Dark Jenny), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver.


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