Spiritualism and women's writing
by Tom Ruffles
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Tatiana Kontou links 19th century Spiritualism and psychical research to a range of novels by (mostly) women writers with plots which utilise Spiritualism as a theme. In the process she has useful things to say about a wide range of fiction, familiar and obscure. The first chapter examines the relationship between the theatrical stage and mediumship, focusing in particular on Florence Marryat's My Sister the Actress (1881) and Henry James's 'Nona Vincent' (1894). Subsequent chapter examine works by particular authors: May Sinclair's Mary Oliver: A Life (1919) and Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage (1915-67); Michèle Robert's In the Red Kitchen (1990); AS Byatt's Angels and Insects (1992); Victoria Glendenning's Electricity (1995); and Sarah Waters' Affinity (1999).
To set the scene, Kontou borrows Iain Sinclair's observation that in a sense authors are mediums, with texts as materialised spirits (one also frequently applied to early cinema, the uncanny mingling of living and dead). This does not apply only to women authors, nor even only to novels that feature mediums, but it makes a convenient unifying structure to link a range of writings from the late 19th century to the present. She uses the twin poles of mediumship/authorship and history/fiction as a critical framework with which to examine the mutual interpenetration of Victorian mediumship and a number of 'neo-Victorian' novels, how Spiritualism informs these novels, and how they in turn affect the way we regard 19th century Spiritualism. Kontou sees these novels illuminating the past, which in turn reflects back to give insights into the present in a kind of spectral dialectic.
As well as Spiritualism as performance, she looks at it as a form of resistance, for example discussing Susan Willis Fletcher's Twelve Months in an English Prison (1884) and its use by Waters in Affinity. She argues that this subversion is not invented but, as she puts it, "coaxed out of hiding", though one has to ask whether this radicalism was ever really in hiding, bearing in mind that the movement was never as monolithic as a single label might suggest, and much recent scholarship has inspected mediumship for signs of subversion. Kontou queries the accuracy of transcriptions in a variety of settings - mediumship, authorship, history - but there is a danger that too much is read into the practices of the past and its culture is distorted. The question is whether the preoccupations of the present lead to a misrepresentation of the past.
Kontou argues that it would be simple for writers to utilise Victorian Spiritualism as an exotic mysterious backdrop for their plots, providing easy atmospherics (and doubtless some do), but that for her authors the process is more significant. There is merit in this viewpoint certainly, but one sometimes feels that the novels are not so much casting fresh light on the times but rehearsing the prejudices of previous commentators. For example Michèle Roberts' In the Red Kitchen "depicts William Crookes, the brilliant chemist and one-time president of the SPR, as a dishonourable character caught between the imperatives of objective research and his sexual desires." This approach to Crookes' life is straight from Trevor Hall's 1962 book The Spiritualists (present in Kontou's bibliography but not much touched on in the text), so it is hardly shedding new light, and it would be argued by Hall's most vociferous critics that it sheds no light at all.
Despite the book's title, in addition to Spiritualism, psychical research is referenced extensively, but with the unfortunate effect of eliding them and not sufficiently acknowledging their differences (which within the SPR manifested in the fault line that developed in the mid-1880s over the mediumship of William Eglinton). Kontou is stronger on Spiritualism, despite referring to psychical research as a "key historical reference point" and "a rich critical/metaphorical network" through which to read the novels under consideration. The Objects of the Society, as printed at the beginning of the first volume of the SPR's Proceedings are transcribed, and along with a couple of minor errors of wording is a significant one in the fifth Object which should read: "An inquiry into the various physical phenomena commonly called Spiritualistic."
Kontou, however, has substituted "psychical" for "physical" which makes it read oddly given that she has already quoted the SPR's mission statement, in the Objects' first paragraph, which was to "attempt to investigate that large group [not "body" as Kontou has written] of debatable [Kontou has this as "debateable" and added "(sic)"] phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical, and Spiritualistic." (Unfortunately she has taken this wording from Alan Gauld's slightly inaccurate version in his 1968 The Founders of Psychical Research, rather than from the original, though Gauld does correctly write "physical" in the fifth Object.) Given that psychical and Spiritualistic were demarcated, as in "mesmeric, psychical and Spiritualistic", it is then curious to refer to Spiritualistic phenomena as "psychical", and hints at a methodological confusion.
She believes that "the SPR's work... is now largely forgotten", but to give a single example that contradicts this generalisation, Kelly et al's Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, published in 2006, builds on the theorizing of one of the SPR's founders, FWH Myers, and shows its relevance for a modern theory of mind. By then stating, somewhat patronisingly, that the work of the early SPR "is not simply a charmingly strange footnote to Victorian life, but a vibrant, dynamic body of thought with far-reaching repercussions", the implication is conveyed that this vibrancy and dynamism is buried and needs to be excavated in books like this, and recent texts examining the wider context in which the SPR began life, such as those by Pamela Thurschwell and Roger Luckhurst. But this body of thought is not buried, it is easily accessible, and is of enduring importance.
Nor was the distinction between psychology and psychical research in the late 19th century one between an established and an emerging science, as Kontou maintains. Psychology too was establishing itself, which is why the SPR had such an impact on the early international psychological congresses, but was then marginalised when psychology's institutional boundaries hardened: as Trevor Hamilton puts it in his 2009 biography of Frederic Myers, "The 1900 congress was the last at which there was any significant consideration of such issues and this reflected the growing professionalism of psychology and the increasing predominance of physiological and laboratory-based approaches."
Kontou's book began as a DPhil, and exhibits some of the cloying tendencies inherent in that process, including the genre's fondness for generalisations. One also comes away with the impression that the interest is more in the novels than either psychical research or Spiritualism. There are frequent traces of this weakness, such as the contention that mental medium Leonora Piper was "a middle-aged mother of two". She was of course at some point -after all, she lived until 1950 -but she was born in 1857 and made her first visit to England in 1889, so it seems unfeminist to classify her as "middle-aged" at that point. Kontou also repeats an error that is resistant to correction: Phantasms of the Living contains 701 cases, not 702; Number 209 is missing. She seems to believe that the cross-correspondences and the Palm Sunday case are the same thing, whereas the scope of the cross-correspondences is somewhat broader than just the Palm Sunday case, which relates to Arthur Balfour and his alleged love for Mary Lyttelton, who had died in 1875.
Other queries are raised but not satisfactorily answered: The parallel between the shift from an exaggerated melodramatic acting style using female stereotypes to one that was naturalistic and psychological, and the shift from physical to mental mediumship, away from the body and into the head, is an intriguing one, though it is unclear what the significance of this shift in acting style is, given that it was not confined to women (the result otherwise would be like Tod Slaughter appearing in Ibsen). A parallel between a woman owning notebooks with a peacock feather pattern and her restricted position in society is spoilt by the contention that the peacock is a flightless bird. It's a surprising thing to see, but they do fly. In any case, it is hard to fathom how a male bird's alleged flightlessness relates to the situation of women in Victorian society (and peahens can fly as well).
The chapter on Affinity does not include a discussion of Rosario Arias Doblas' 2005 article 'Talking with the dead: revisiting the Victorian past and the occult in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and Sarah Waters' Affinity', which examines Waters' novel in similar terms to Kontou, and would seem to deserve a mention. Rosario Arais, who is on the editorial board of the electronic journal 'Neo-Victorian Studies', was also co-convenor of a seminar in London in 2006 with the title 'Revenants and Hauntings in Neo-Victorian Fiction', at which Agnieszka Golda-Derejczyk gave a paper on In the Red Kitchen. It is surprising that neither researcher is mentioned here at all.
That we are given a literary version of Spiritualism (and Kontou acknowledges that she uses mediumship both historically and metaphorically), not necessarily the sort familiar to specialists who research the field, is indicated by the claim that "What Sinclair calls the 'generosity' of the medium means that there is no filtering of messages during the séance." That is, there is no control over who appears to the sitters, all spirits have equal status. No evidence for this contention is offered, and one wonders how Kontou is able to tell that filtering was not happening (it was certainly generally acknowledged that it did in mental mediumship), but said assertively it sounds dramatic and original. With such statements, the reader is left thinking that there is a grain of truth there, but the situation is probably more complicated. Kontou has read a limited range of novels with minute attention to detail, producing a valuable analysis of them, but despite the balance implied by the title, this is a book that is going to be used much more by literature students than historians of either psychical research or Spiritualism.