Spiritualism, and the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Britain

Richard Noakes

Richard Noakes

In December 1861, a few months after he published the first instalment of his supernatural masterpiece, ‘A Strange Story’, the distinguished novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton told his friend John Forster that he wished to make philosophers inquire into [spirit manifestations] as I think Bacon, Newton, and Davy would have inquired. There must be a natural cause for them — if they are not purely imposture. Even if that natural cause be the admission of a spirit world around us, which is the extreme point. But if so, it is a most impartial revelation in Nature.

Lytton thus expressed the dilemma of many people in mid-Victorian Britain who had experienced the manifestations of spiritualism, undoubtedly one of the most controversial aspects of Victorian culture that was reaching new heights of popularity in the 1860s.

His remark implicitly represents the Victorian association of spiritualism with the supernatural but it also problematises that association by identifying the Victorian quest for order behind phenomena purporting to come from the other world — the “naturalization of the supernatural” as it was called by one early historian of Victorian psychical research.

While some firmly believed that manifestations were opposed to every known natural law and by definition supernatural, others upheld the possibility that such manifestations might derive from “natural causes”, whether well-known mental mechanisms, new forces associated with the body, or intelligences from the spirit world.

Historians and literary scholars have long puzzled over the resurgence of interest in the supernatural in the Victorian period. This period has been called the “age of science”, a period of increasing belief that the cosmos was governed by immutable natural laws rather than capricious supernatural agencies or divine whim, and when supernatural beliefs were increasingly dismissed as superstition.

It was a period in which a wide range of phenomena were brought under the realm of empirically-grounded law, and one witnessing a proliferation of laws constructed in diverse areas of scientific enquiry, including physics, chemistry, physiology, and psychology.

The formulation of laws was widely regarded as the highest goals of scientific endeavour, and those monuments of ordering physical phenomena — the laws of celestial mechanics — were upheld by Victorian scientists as the ideal to which all scientific enterprises should aspire.

Moreover, since natural laws were widely regarded as authoritative accounts of the natural world, scientific practitioners, whose empirical evidence underpinned such laws, were generally seen as the supreme authorities on the natural world.

As this article will show, it was precisely because the sciences were recognised as the most reliable means of discerning regularities beneath phenomena, that Victorian spiritualists sought to achieve the authority of scientific laws for their claims regarding the manifestations of the séance. However, these struggles occurred in a period when spirit manifestations were being blankly dismissed because of their allegedly supernatural status and moreover, when the sciences were being defined to exclude spiritualism.

The apparently lawless phenomena of the séance and the interpretations of such phenomena promulgated by spiritualists had to be banished because they threatened the rapid progress of science and the stable natural order on which scientific professionalisers based their claims for cultural authority.

George Carey Foster, an evangelist for the new Victorian cultures of laboratory physics teaching, spoke for many who had devoted their lives to building the intellectual and architectural spaces of the sciences, when, in 1894, he warned the psychical researcher Oliver Lodge that “is not the whole progress of physics based on the assumption that these [spiritualistic] things do not happen?”.

In articles in mass mass-circulation periodicals, textbooks, public lectures, and in classroom teaching, Victorian professionalisers and popularisers of science enforced the contrast between science and spiritualism, and helped represent spiritualism as beyond the domain of legitimate science and supernatural qua beyond the domain of natural enquiry.

As historians have argued, however, since the Victorian period witnessed such fierce scientific, intellectual, and theological debates over the boundaries between science and spiritualism, science and pseudo-science, we cannot take such boundaries for granted in our historical analyses. These boundaries are the explanans, not the explanandum.

One of the most important benefits of this approach is that it draws attention to the complexity of the debates out of which these boundaries emerged.

Recent scholarship has demonstrated, for example, that controversies over spiritualism were not, as traditional historiography suggests, struggles between proponents of “science” and “pseudo-science”, but fights between individuals who passionately believed in science and that their particular approach to the spirit world was scientific and the most legitimate.

The new historiography of the occult sciences also challenges the use of natural and supernatural as unproblematic categories for analysing disputes over spiritualism, and prompts us to understand how boundaries between natural and supernatural emerged from disputes over spirit manifestations.

Contemporary literature on the supernatural, however, testifies to the continuing usefulness and persuasiveness of classifying spiritualism as “supernatural”. While such classification respects the categories used by historical characters, it is not sensitive to the provisional, contradictory, or other uses to which “supernatural” was put in Victorian Britain. Neither does it represent the complex natural interpretations of spiritualistic manifestations.

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