Behind the Veil

Richard Altick

  • The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England 1850-1914 by Janet Oppenheim
    Cambridge, 503 pp, £25.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 521 26505 3

The need was pressing, and the answer promptly came, trailing clouds of ectoplasm. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, an instant best-seller in 1850, won him the laureateship largely because its long sequence of troubled, plaintive lyrics, written over a span of 17 years, told a story and described a situation that struck home to countless readers: the sudden death of a beloved friend and the questions it raised about the immortality of the soul and the possibility of spiritual communion now and physical reunion in the hereafter. ‘O for thy voice to soothe and bless!’ cried Tennyson, addressing the deceased Arthur Hallam. ‘What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil.’

At this very moment, the mid-point of the century, spiritualism, an import from America where it had first taken the form of ghostly rappings, offered itself as a means of piercing behind the veil – an alternative to the religious faith that no longer provided the certainty for which Tennyson and his host of readers yearned. In 1855 an American medium, Daniel Dunglas Home, caused a sensation in Britain and on the Continent with a succession of séances, two or three of which were attended by Elizabeth and Robert Browning. On the first occasion, an unseen hand lowered a clematis wreath (laurel was hard to come by) on Elizabeth’s brow. She believed in spiritual manifestations, but Robert, though he shared her dislike of institutionalised religion, flatly rejected them. It was one of the several subjects on which the couple agreed to disagree. Browning’s fury at what he regarded as Home’s downright fraudulence survived his wife’s death. In 1864 he published a long, intemperate poem, not one of his best efforts, titled ‘Mr Sludge, “The Medium”,’ in which an American medium, having been caught in an egregious deception, spins out a slippery, logic-chopping apologia to his erstwhile dupe, one Hiram P. Horsefall. Unfortunately Browning was not present at Ashley House four years later, when, according to several witnesses, Home levitated out of a window overlooking Victoria Street and re-entered through the window of an adjacent room.

Home’s feats were more theatrical than emotionally satisfying to the men and women who suffered an unmet need for proof of personal survival beyond the grave. But they were the most dramatic episodes in the history of a movement that was to be studded with every kind of venture into the occult that the Victorians, with their powerful desire to believe in something, however bizarre, could conceive or invent: clairvoyance, crystal gazing, spirit rapping, table tilting, trances, materialisations of whole spectral bodies, apparitions of the dying, thought transference, personal messages from the dead, ethereal music, eerie glowings in the dark, mysterious fragrances ... In the first decades especially, mediumship was virtually a small cottage industry, practised by middle-aged housewives who suddenly found themselves inexplicably visited with supranormal powers. Spiritualism became, in time, a respectable variety of counter-culture, pursued with the utmost seriousness by a loosely organised community in which a number of Victorian and Edwardian England’s most respected philosophers and scientists quite comfortably rubbed elbows with half-cracked zealots. Like most counter-cultures, it also attracted a motley crowd of exploitative charlatans whose well-publicised exposure from time to time freshly discredited it in the public mind.

In her exhaustively researched and coolly detached account of English spiritualism, Janet Oppenheim is less interested in those who came to scoff than in those who remained to subscribe. She estimates that from its beginnings in the 1850s down to the First World War, spiritualism attracted, at the very most, a hundred thousand men and women. In the opinion of the proper Victorians who either deplored or ridiculed the movement, it belonged on the lunatic fringe of contemporary society. Today we are inclined to regard it a bit more indulgently, as just one more bee in the capacious Victorian bonnet which also harboured such deviations from accepted thought and practice as millenarianism, homeopathy, teetotalism, anti-vivisectionism and vegetarianism. Two other heterodoxies, the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and mesmerism – which, under the name of hypnotism, acquired a certain scientific respectability – had considerable bearing on the beliefs and practices of spiritualism. But Browning’s dismissal of mediumship as an imposition on public credulity was, as events proved, simplistic and short-sighted. It had an importance disproportionate to the numbers directly involved. In The Other World, Oppenheim moves spiritualism from the periphery of Victorian culture and treats it as the soft centre, sometimes farcical, usually earnest, and always controversial, of a whole cluster of major intellectual concerns.

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