The Cultural Supernatural In Mid-Victorian Britain

Richard Noakes
Richard Noakes

In June 1853 the Illustrated London News regretted that the “matter-of-fact people of the nineteenth-century” were “plunged all at once into the bottomless deep of spiritualism.” This popular weekly newspaper believed it had good reason to lament the state of the public mind. “Railroads, steam, and electricity,” it continued, and the indubitable wonders which they have wrought, have not proved powerful enough to supersede and destroy that strong innate love of the supernatural which seems implanted in the human mind. Thousands of people in Dollarspe and America are turning tables, and obstinately refusing to believe that physical and mechanical means are in any way connected in the process. Hats, too, are turned, as well as the heads that wear them.

Thousands of people seemed to be exploring the table-turning and spiritualistic phenomena that had arrived in England from America and the Continent in late 1852. In a country already weakened by recent outbreaks of mortal diseases, the “epidemic” of table-turning and spiritualism had seized “not only the ignorant and the vulgar, but the educated and the refined” like a “grippe or the cholera-morbus1.”

The Illustrated London News was not alone in comparing spiritualism to a recrudescence of the supernatural in an apparently enlightened age. Throughout the mid-to late Victorian period, spiritualistic phenomena were associated with a wide range of contemporary and ancient supernatural phenomena, including Christian miracles, witchcraft and sorcery, apparitions of the living and dead, haunted houses, fairies, and second sight. Neither was the Illustrated London News alone in likening spiritualism to a disease or something similarly despised, and throughout its Victorian heydey, spiritualism was condemned as the work of Satan, a sordid commercial “business,” an “epidemic delusion,” a “wretched superstition,” “filth,” and humbug2. The vehemence and frequency with which hateful remarks were levelled at spiritualism reflect its popularity in mid-Victorian Britain. By the 1860s spiritualism had become conspicuous, and to many, an unfortunate part of Victorian cultural life, with its mediums, its specialist newspapers, pamphlets, treatises, and societies, and its private and public séances3. Its rapid spread had numerous causes, but it indeed owed much to widespread and long-established preoccupations about the afterlife and the immortality of the soul, as well as pre-existing cultures of religious nonconformity and mesmerism (from which spiritualists borrowed such notions as the magnetic fluids by which disembodied intelligence was supposedly transmitted). Its growing presence in Victorian culture also owed much to the fact that it could serve a wide range of religious, intellectual, emotional, and social interests: for example, spirit manifestations furnished powerful empirical proof of Scriptural miracles for those Christians whose faith had been undermined by Higher Biblical Criticism and startling new biological and geological evidence for human origins. Manifestations were also used by anti-clerical plebeian spiritualists for building democratic alternatives to Christianity and furnished rich sources for scientific research into abstruse physical, psychological, and physiological phenomena4.

It was in the private séance, typically in the presence of a spiritualist medium, where most people gained their experiences of spiritualistic manifestations. Those attending séances in Britain during the early 1850s could expect to experience such remarkable phenomena as clairvoyance, tables rapping out coded messages from professed spirits of the dead, and the levitation of objects by “spirits.” By the early 1870s, however, the mediumistic repertoire had been vastly enriched with such feats as mediums who levitated around the séance, direct and mediated “spirit” writing, and most spectacular of all, the materialisation of fully-formed spirits. The most controversial aspect of spiritualism was undoubtedly the interpretation of such manifestations, whether the higher “mental” or, the cruder “physical” phenomena. Most spiritualists insisted that manifestations furnished proof of one or more of the following claims: the independence of spirit and matter, the survival and immortality of the spirit following bodily death, the eternal progress of all in the other world, and the possibility that under certain conditions spirits of the dead could manifest themselves to the living. For many enquirers, assent to these interpretations was based on an elimination of trickery, self-delusion, and other “physical” mechanisms as plausible hypotheses: although intellectually more difficult to accept, the “spiritual” theory was simply better at explaining the “facts” of the séance5.

While there were many Victorians who used spiritualism to support Christianity, and to combat atheism, agnosticism, materialism, and rationalism, many other Christians believed spiritualist activities threatened cherished Protestant beliefs. They lambasted spiritualists’ abolition of the boundary between this world and the next, their rejection of eternal damnation, their exchanges with spirits who were most likely to be evil, their use of crude mediums and vulgar spirits in matters of pure faith, and their subversion of Scriptural and clerical authority, as morally perilous and unholy.

It was the presence of the notoriously tricky and avaricious mediums, the questionable reliability of witnesses, and other contingencies of the séance that many enquiries into spiritualism believed threatened the objective reality of spirit manifestations. The Saturday Review spoke for many Victorians when in 1871 it criticised the way in which spiritualistic manifestations only occurred “in the most capricious manner” rather than appearing on demand and, five years later, it argued that spirit manifestations could not be reduced to a “true law of nature” because they were “never performed in a straightforward, open way, like an honest experiment. They are either done in the dark, or only before known believers and confederates, or within a specially prepared place; and even when they are done in the daylight, the operator is full of tricks to distract attention, and to produce mysterious bewilderment6.”

For many séance-goers, the only circumstances under which manifestations appeared were those that mitigated against the very idea of a rational scientific enquiry. Henry Dircks, an eminent civil engineer and the co-inventor of the popular theatrical illusion, “Pepper’s Ghost,” neatly expressed this in letters to The Times in 1872, correspondence that developed a long-established distinction between the regularity, utility, and sanitised wonder of enlightened scientific enquiry with the caprice, gratuitousness and dangerous spectacle of early modern preternatural philosophy7. He contrasted science, which “always brings its miracles to the light of day,” which concerns reproducible and useful “wonders,” and which relates to “certain laws of nature,” with spiritualism, which not only “shrouds itself in dark chambers, has its special mediums, and shuns the light,” but has not led to any “practical results,” contains “an amazing amount of childish jugglery,” and “relates to the supernatural, and is opposed to every known natural law8.”

The views of Henry Dircks and, as we have seen, Lytton, illustrate the centrality of questions of natural and supernatural in debates over spiritualism. In many ways, these debates intersected with the much wider intellectual and theological controversies over the meanings of the terms supernatural and natural law, the plausibility of Biblical miracles, and the bearing of the claims of “modern science” on other Christian teachings. Nevertheless, a survey of books, pamphlets, and articles on spiritualism from the mid-Victorian period underlines the lack of consensus on the provenance of spiritualistic manifestations. With works upholding a range of natural and supernatural explanations including evil spirits, angels, conscious acts of trickery, unconscious psychological and physiological mechanisms, or hitherto unknown forces associated with the human body. A sense of the complexity of the debate is evident in an 1859 work on natural law and revelation by Baden Powell, an eminent Oxford mathematician and “Broad Church” clergyman. Anticipating the remarks of Henry Dircks quoted earlier, Baden Powell insisted that “In so far as [spiritual phenomena] are alleged to be of a supernatural kind, not referable to some physical laws, they must be absolutely discarded from all philosophical enquiry9.” However, having allowed for the possibility that spirits might be miraculous, Baden Powell was confident that “‘spirit-rapping,’ table-turning and the like” would “be ultimately found perfectly conformable to some great determinate laws, which the science of the future will elicit10.”

Although Baden Powell was hostile to spiritualism and favoured the physiological theories of “spirits” advanced by mid-Victorian medical practitioners, his naturalistic interpretation of spirits closely resembles the positions adopted by British and American spiritualists to defend their activities from the kinds of criticism represented by the Saturday Review and Henry Dircks11. The views of Robert Dale Owen, Alfred Russel Wallace, and William Henry Harrison powerfully illustrate how leading Victorian spiritualists argued for the ultimately law-like nature of manifestations, and therefore sought to persuade sceptical Victorian audiences that spiritualism was a subject fit for what Powell called “philosophical enquiry.”

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