Spiritualism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction

Joseph Good

Joseph Good

Belief in communication between the living and the dead did not originate with Spiritualism. In ‘Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History’ (2000), Philip Jenkins asserts that Mesmerism and Swedenborgianism were “well-established by the 1830s: these contributed to the new Spiritualist movement, which emerged following the accounts of supernatural visitations in Hydesville, New York state, in 1848.” In ‘The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England’ (1989), Alex Owen explains that Spiritualism was built on earlier religious practices such as “Wesleyan theories of social equality [which] had enabled women to argue for female spiritual authority and the right to teach.” In her groundbreaking work ‘The Other World’ (1988), Janet Oppenheim defines Spiritualism as a religious movement that began in 1848 as a result of the so-called “Rochester Rappings” in upstate New York, in the United States of America. Janet Oppenheim explains that Spiritualists “believed firmly […] in human survival after death and in the possible activity of disembodied human spirits.” Accordingly, Spiritualists did not hesitate to “assert the reality of communication with the dead and to accept as genuine most of the phenomena they witnessed at séances.”

Though David Punter and Glennis Byron correctly assert that the Victorian era’s “interest in Spiritualism and the occult” was “prompted by the publication of numerous stories of supposedly true” spiritual manifestations such as the Rochester Rappings involving Kate Fox and Margaret Fox, belief in communication between the living and the dead has existed for millennia, as evidenced by the tale of the ‘Witch of Endor’ in the ‘Book of Samuel.’ The Spiritualist movement materialised from the proselytising activities of the Fox sisters, a pair of young farm girls who lived outside of Rochester, New York, in a rural farmhouse. The Rochester Rappings, in which the Fox sisters claimed they had contacted the spirit of a dead tinker buried in the basement of their farmhouse, became a widely publicised sensation in 1848 and were described as a religious “breakthrough” by the contemporary press. Kate Fox and Maggie Fox became overnight celebrities, and “the new religion of Spiritualism was officially born.” The Spiritualist movement founded by the Fox sisters in 1848 was built on two core tenets: the belief in an afterlife, and the belief that the dead who inhabit the afterlife can communicate with the living through a psychic intermediary known as a medium. Spiritualism was “a maverick faith that combined the traditional Christian tenet of the soul’s post-life survival with a modern empiricism.”

The Rochester Rappings ignited a craze for séances and table-turning that even attracted the attention of Karl Marx. Karl Marx states in ‘Das Kapital’ that “A table […] not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to other commodities, stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.” This is a reference to the Spiritualist practice of table-turning, which involved a table supposedly being turned around and shaken by a spirit the medium had contacted. Interestingly, this trick was accomplished by fraudulent mediums inserting a rod up their sleeve and, in the dark circle of the séance room, slipping it into a groove underneath the tabletop.

However, Spiritualism was more than just a media phenomenon. As other articles will further prove, Spiritualism tapped into some of the most problematic aspects of Victorian society, emerging from the period’s complex cultural matrix of social and political pressures. Marlene Tromp contends that the Spiritualist movement allowed a context for Victorians to reconsider “ideas about gender, race, and class.” In further articles,, I will discuss how Spiritualism “gave a voice to the silenced ― to women.”

As one may argue, the Spiritualist movement and the Women’s Rights movement were essentially born at the same time in the same place. This will lead to a broader discussion of how Marryat and Phelps depict Spiritualism as a vehicle for enacting social reform. In ‘Radical Spirits’ (1989), Ann Braude asserts that “Spiritualism reached deep into the ranks of radical reform.” The Spiritualist movement provided “a religious alternative that supported individualist social and political views of […] radicals” including “the early women’s rights movement and […] the abolition of slavery.” Spiritualist mediumship had been one of the few forms of work available to lower and middle-class women throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Practicing mediums came from all walks of life; there were plebeian Spiritualists whose audiences were drawn from the lower and working classes, and celebrity Spiritualists such as Daniel Dunglas Home, who performed for international royalty.

According to Loggie Barrow, Spiritualism was a phenomenon that transcended class. Loogie Barrow argues that Spiritualism “lay at an intersection between many currents of varying depths and compatibility.” It was this “resistance to organization [which] contributed to the decline of the movement.” Spiritualism declined in the 1880s and never recovered its mass popularity. Frank Podmore, one of the founding members of the Society for Psychical Research, confessed in his 1897 study of Spiritualism that “twenty years ago, the number of [Spiritualist] believers was much greater […] the number of avowed Spiritualists in [the United Kingdom and the United States of America] at the time might be reckoned probably by tens of thousands: some Spiritualists writers claimed millions.” As the movement lost public credibility, Spiritualism became fodder for fin-de-siècle Gothic authors, who depicted Spiritualism as a symptom of a society undergoing moral and spiritual decay.

The Fox sisters died at the turn of the century, and at that point Spiritualism virtually disappeared from the literary landscape of America and Great Britain. There remained a number of practising professional mediums on both sides of the Atlantic, but Spiritualism, which had always resisted centralisation and organisation, was relegated to the status of a Victorian curiosity, like other forms of Victorian occultism such as Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and the Order of the Golden Dawn. This remained the case until the First World War when interest in Spiritualism was temporarily revived by the vast scale of carnage. The elimination of an entire generation of young men renewed interest in grieving parents who were desperate for solace. Jenny Hazelgrove explores this phenomenon in ‘Spiritualism and British Society Between the Wars’ (2000), a groundbreaking work which examines the last gasp of the Spiritualist movement. However, Jenny Hazelgrove points out that the renewed interest in Spiritualism gradually gave way to other forms of mysticism which were more fashionable at the time and more suited for a generation of writers working in the shadow of the catastrophic Great War. Jenny Hazelgrove states that in modernist literature, “the dominant movement was towards myth, towards the revival of the cultic, the mythical, the sacrificial, the sacramental, and the universally significant.” Victorian Spiritualism never addressed these issues, and it is therefore unsurprising that Spiritualism virtually disappears from the literary scene during the modernist period.

A surprising exception to modernist literature’s lack of interest in Spiritualism is found in the work of Hilda Doolittle, the avant-garde American poet and novelist who experimented with Spiritualism and briefly alludes to Spiritualism in some of her novels. Although this dissertation focuses on Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature, future scholars of Hilda Doolittle and modernism may wish to pursue this line of inquiry further. The connection between Hilda Doolittle and Spiritualism has only come to light since the publication of the unexpurgated versions of Hilda Doolittle’s novels by the University of Florida Press in 2009. Previous versions of Hilda Doolittle’s novels, including the editions published by New Directions Press in 1972, were heavily edited, and the content was discussing Spiritualism was removed entirely. However, the editions released by the University of Florida Press consist of Hilda Doolittle’s original manuscripts in their entirety. The press has also released the previously unpublished Hilda Doolittle novel ‘Magic Ring,’ much of which was written during Magic Ring’s sessions with Sigmund Freud and contains explicit discussions of Magic Ring’s use of Spiritualism as a source of material for her novels. According to Demetres Tryphonopoulos’ introduction to the restored edition of Hilda Doolittle’s ‘Magic Ring,’ “Hilda Doolittle found respite in Spiritualist activities” and “gathered and transcribed her séances when she joined the Society for Psychical Research and began to participate in séance circles there.”

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John Abbott
John Abbott
September 9, 2020 02:29

Spiritualism virtually disappeared from the literary landscape of America and Great Britain” at the turn of the century. We should, however, remember prior to that Hawthorne (The Blithedale Romance, 1852), Browning (Mr Sludge The Medium (1864), Henry James (The Bostonians, 1885), and then later Boleslaw Prus (Pharaoh, 1895), H G Wells (Love and Mr Lewisham, 1902) and Hamlin Garland (The Tyranny of the Dark, 1905).

Catarina Elvira
Catarina Elvira
Reply to  John Abbott
November 8, 2020 10:53

A valid point which we truly appreciate the overall sharing of your insights and you stand correct. ‘The Bostonians’ however, the satirical novel by Henry James which was initially published in Century Illustrated Magazine (which ceased to exist during 1930) in 1885 and later released as a book in 1886, it is something we surely need to take a closer look since most of the works you mentioned, already have been featured in our pages. We appreciate the fact you took your time to share some light regarding this article, and please, do not hesitate to leave any feedback this… Read more »



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