The Fashionable Science of Parlour Magic / British Library, Public Domain
Challenging the idea of the 19th century as one of secularisation, exploring the popularity of mesmerism, spiritualism and ‘true’ ghost stories in the period.
The 19th century is routinely thought about as the era of secularisation, a period when the disciplines and institutions of modern science were founded and cultural authority shifted from traditional authority of religion to explanation through the scientific exposition of natural laws. The sociologist Max Weber spoke about this process as the disenchantment of the world.
The emblematic figure in this narrative is Charles Darwin, the anxious amateur biologist who held off publishing his theory of evolution by natural selection for years for fear of the religious and social disturbance it might produce. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) did indeed result in a crisis of faith for many in the 1860s, before his ideas became embedded in British intellectual life in the last decades of the century.
While we might still accept the broad brush strokes of this story, the Victorian period is also of course a period of deep and sustained religious revival. There was an evangelical revival in the Christian church but also a host of dissenting, heterodox and millenarian cults. It was a golden age of belief in supernatural forces and energies, ghost stories, weird transmissions and spooky phenomena. For a long time historians ignored these beliefs as embarrassing errors or eccentricities, signs of the perturbations produced by the speed of cultural change.
In fact, it is much easier to grasp the religious and scientific strands of the century as closely intertwined. Every scientific and technological advance encouraged a kind of magical thinking and was accompanied by a shadow discourse of the occult. For every disenchantment there was an active re-enchantment of the world. Because the advances in science were so rapid, the natural and the supernatural often became blurred in popular thinking, at least for a time. And no area of the literary culture of the Victorians was left untouched by this interplay of science and magic.
The Fashionable Science of Parlour Magic: This pamphlet promises to teach its middle class readers how to perform magic tricks. It is testament to the Victorians’s fascination with magic, science and the supernatural. Estimated 1855. / British Library, Public Domain
We can chart this effect through the century in the rise and fall of various movements that emerged in this interval between science and belief. In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, there was a craze for Mesmerism, in which miraculous medical cures could be affected by manipulating the invisible flows of ‘animal magnetism’ that passed through and between bodies. The Mesmerist would throw his subject into a trance, allowing the passage of energy into the weaker body of his patient, as if literally recharging their battery. This had been first theorized by Franz Anton Mesmer in the feverish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Paris, and although discredited by a team of Academy scientists (who privately expressed alarm about the risk of sexual exploitation too) it became a popular medical treatment. Associated with trance were spectacular supernatural powers: gifts of cure, visions of the future, heightened senses, and a merging of minds typical of the rapport. In London, the leading medic Professor John Elliotson was a passionate convert, but was fired from his post at University College Hospital. One of Elliotson’s biggest defenders was Charles Dickens: the writer believed himself an expert Mesmerist.
A Key to Physic, and the Occult Sciences: Illustration of a woman held in a Mesmerist trance, from A Key to Physic, and the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, estimated 1800. / British Library, Public Domain
Spiritualism and Mediums
In the turbulent, revolutionary year of 1848, a new religious movement emerged from the melting pot of upstate New York. The young Fox sisters had claimed to have come into contact with the unquiet spirit of a murdered man in their house, who communicated with them by loud knocks on wood. This very local sensation (later shown to be a fraud) was the origin point for the Spiritualist movement, which elaborated a method of communicating with the dead in séances through mediums. Mediums were often women because they were deemed to have more delicate, sensitive nervous systems than men. Men who were mediums – such as the famous D D Home who so enraged Robert Browning that he was the source for his poem ‘Mr Sludge’ – were often abjected and despised. Although communication with spirits was strictly forbidden in the Bible, this became a popular form of dissenting belief, a ‘proof’ of the survival of bodily death in an era that demanded empirical testing and experiment. The spirits would exchange banal but comforting messages with loved ones; some would elaborate extensively on the social and political institutions of the afterlife, called Summerland by some.
In 1852, the American medium Mrs Hayden came to London to conduct séances with many of the great and good of London society: this was one of the bridge-heads for the spread of Spiritualism to England. It found particular favour in the industrial north of England, where dissenting religion was already strong. Importantly, Spiritualism contested doctrines of eternal damnation for a much more liberal conception of the afterlife. Many men of science were also converts, most famously the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, partly because Spiritualism was consistently figured in terms of new magical technologies like the telegraph or telephone.
Pamphlet about table-moving, a Spiritualist craze from the Victorian period, estimated 1853 / British Library, Public Domain
Spiritualism in Literature
Spiritualism saturates Victorian literary culture, and not just through its most famous converts, such as Arthur Conan Doyle. It is the background for the obsession with ghost stories, gentler returns than the histrionics of the Gothic. Catherine Crowe’s best-selling book, The Night-Side of Nature (1848) collected anecdotes and stories that hovered somewhere between truth and thrilling tale. Although Dickens ridiculed Spiritualism (Mesmerism was much more scientific), his popular journals helped establish the Christmas ghost story, a tradition that was sustained as a ritual as late as the Edwardian M. R. James. Female sensitivity to the spirit-world also helped establish the supernatural tale as the reserve of women writers, including fine contributions from Margaret Oliphant to Vernon Lee and Edith Wharton.
First edition of A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) was a phenomenal success in the 19th century and is still closely associated with the author. / British Library, Public Domain
The Society for Psychical Research
In 1882, a group of earnest intellectuals founded the Society for Psychical Research. They aimed to investigate the claims of Mesmerism, Spiritualism and authenticated ‘true’ ghost stories. They did so by developing an extraordinary jargon of ‘psychical research’ that fused the latest advances in the physical and psychological sciences with their hopes for proof of a supermondane world. The Society called haunted houses ‘phantasmogenetic centres’ and theorised mediumship as the result of ‘telepathy’ or ‘subliminal uprushes’ from unknown psychical faculties. Although marginal, this group also had a big influence on the late Victorian Gothic revival. Henry James’s late ghost stories are thoroughly psychical, not least because his brother, William James, was a leading light of the Society. Writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood have also been read in the context of the SPR.
The 1880s swirled with other, more overtly mystical societies and a magical revival. London became the home of Madame Blavatsky, the medium for dictations from the Mahatmas, who provided the basis for her Theosophical Society. Those in pursuit of Hermetic secrets, the lost wisdom of the ancients, could join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Their top secret initiation rites were fought over by the poet and magus, William Butler Yeats and the evil genius Aleister Crowley, poet and provocateur and self-proclaimed Antichrist.
W T Stead
One of the greatest influences on the spread of supernatural theories very late in the century was the journalist W T Stead. Stead, who edited the Pall Mall Gazette and founded the Review of Reviews, was an ardent believer in new communication technologies, which included everything from new printing presses and telephones in the office to communicating with the dead and interviewing politicians telepathically. Between 1893 and 1897 he published Borderland, perhaps the most eccentric journal of the century, in which news about ghosts, spirit séances, astrological predictions, psychical research findings, book reviews on anything occult, and news of breakthroughs in physics and chemistry were mixed together in a potent cocktail of weirdness. For a man obsessed with new technology, it was inevitable he wanted to travel on the Titanic in 1912. Equally, it was inevitable that Spiritualists claimed that the first news of the catastrophe that night was beamed across the ocean by the spirit of Stead, who had passed over but still wanted to be first to deliver the great story.