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.

Here the contrary waves of credulity and scepticism were constantly colliding. On the one hand, spiritualism was not free of the superstition that had always been a part of society’s perennial attempt to pierce beyond physical nature, and some of its performances were nothing more than conjuring acts, akin to the illusionistic feats that kept the magician-showmen Maskelyne and Cooke in business at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, for many years. Spiritualism also had affinities with Theosophy (and the ineffable Madame Blavatsky, into whose arcane orbit a handful of spiritualists wandered, only to be violently repelled). On the other hand, an outgrowth of early spiritualism was the Society for Psychical Research, which – with the British Association and the Royal Society displaying no interest in the matter – counterbalanced extravagance with circumspection in a continual effort to subject the various alleged manifestations of supernatural forces to scientific examination. Among its officers and members were Tennyson, Gladstone, Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, William James, Henri Bergson, and scores of other persons with unimpeachable intellectual and social credentials.

In the 18th century, the foundations of received Christian faith, undermined by deism, had been shored up for some time by the physico-theology of Bishop Joseph Butler, later assisted by the Rev. William Paley’s Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. According to Paley, the infinite presence, wisdom and benevolence of God were attested to by all living things, from the minutest details of the human organism to euphoric young shrimp whose cavorting on the beach at low tide was a sign that even they partook of the holy spirit. But this brand of teleology had lost its appeal in the Victorian years as empirical science asserted its dominion over the British mind. Neither the old supernaturalism nor modern materialism supported the premises and promises of Christianity – the supremacy of mind and spirit over matter and the guarantee of life after death.

Into this intolerable vacuum rushed spiritualism, whose manifestations seemed providentially to restore the belief in the miraculous which had always formed a basis of faith. It offered a shelter to incompletely converted agnostics whose renunciation of that faith had left them with nothing to cling to but the ultimately unsatisfactory conclusions of the unaided intellect; they were, as Oppenheim says, ‘more deeply marked than they realised by the Christianity imbibed in their youth and could not permanently shake themselves free of a religious outlook.’ To the sterner breed of agnostics and atheists it seemed to supply definitive support for their contention that, pace the Church, the world beyond contained no such territory as hell. Spiritualism also opportunely appealed to those within the Church who required fresh assurances of immortality. Utterly lacking in potentially divisive doctrine once one accepted the assumption that a world existed beyond the ken of the senses and the reasoning mind, spiritualism was promoted as the religion of the future, a universal Church that would embrace all faiths and render them forever secure against the malign powers of secularism. It had something for everybody.

At the same time that spiritualism undertook to repair the ravages caused by science’s impact on religion, it seized the very weapons science was employing and put them to its own use. The existence of realms and forces beyond nature need not be postulated on the mere say-so of speculative philosophers, for what were the demonstrations occurring in darkened séance rooms but a form of empirical evidence, as accessible to the plain senses as the results of observation and measurements in brightly lit laboratories? The fallacy is so glaring as to require no comment. But the point is that spiritualists, who were, after all, products of their time, shared with their mainstream contemporaries a healthy respect for the trappings if not the underlying principles of empirical inquiry. They sought to close the crucial gap between themselves and the scientists by redefining science on their own terms, enlarging the prevailing definition of nature and natural laws to include a reality beyond matter.

It is here that some of the most eminent scientists of the day enter the story. No preceding historian of Victorian thought has, I think, realised as Janet Oppenheim does the extent to which spiritualism and psychical research drew the attention of men who were, in their various disciplines, helping to develop our modern concepts of mind and the physical universe. It is easy to look upon them merely as the humanly frail victims of aberration, of private needs that overruled the dictates of the intellect. But every case was different, and some were complex. For each of the philosophers and scientists who had extended relations with spiritualism, as well as the less obscure among the many working-and lower-middle-class participants, Oppenheim has compiled a dossier in the form of a history of the man’s intellectual sympathies as embodied in his published and unpublished writings. These capsule biographies go a good way toward explaining the particular nature of spiritualism’s appeal for the former class, at least. They contain as much as we are likely ever to know about the pertinent events of their private and professional lives, their mental bent as it bore on the possible existence of a reality beyond nature, and their personalities.

There was Henry Sidgwick, for instance, perhaps the most engaging figure of the lot. Having migrated from Christianity to agnosticism according to the standard pattern, he acquired a well-deserved fame as a moral philosopher and academic reformer. John Maynard Keynes’s jibe – ‘He never did anything but wonder whether Christianity was true and prove that it wasn’t and hope that it was’ – did scant justice to the seriousness of his purpose as he searched for the missing keystone in a universal system of ethics. If spiritualism could prove that human personality survived physical dissolution and that an altruistic life in this world would be chalked up to one’s credit in the next, men would have a foolproof guide to conduct: nothing short of a guarantee that what they sacrificed in the flesh could later be enjoyed in the spirit. In the interests of such a revelation Sidgwick, first president of the Society for Psychical Research, spent thousands of hours at the séance table, but the revelation never came, and to the very end his was ‘an attitude of sceptical neutrality’.

In contrast there was F.W.H. Myers, co-founder of the society, who had the eagerness of a Sidgwick but none of his caution. Drawn to spiritualism by his special interest in the phenomena of hypnotism and telepathy, his indomitable will to believe in the supernatural reduced his scientific loyalties to mere lip service. ‘His mind,’ says Janet Oppenheim, ‘may have imagined itself at home in a scientist’s laboratory, but Myers’s heart always yearned for a church.’

Alfred Russel Wallace also was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, but he was even less affected by its scientific slant despite the keenly inquiring and original mind that had led him, working independently of Darwin, to formulate the theory of natural selection. Like many whose comfortable world view was shattered by the first impact of evolution, Wallace was incapable of believing that it had absolutely universal application: an exception had to be made to provide for a more acceptable account of man’s mental growth. Evolution therefore had to be conceived of as proceeding on two separate tracks, the non-human and the human, and spiritualism seemed to promise proof that the second was as real as the first. Wallace’s need for such assurance led him to accept uncritically the whole mixed bag of ‘evidence’ that the manifestations of mediumship supplied.

It is tempting to say that of all the scientists who heard the siren song, Wallace was not only the most innocent but the one who most thoroughly abrogated his claim to be a scientist at all. But that questionable distinction probably belongs to Sir Oliver Lodge, a physicist of solid accomplishments who became one of the two public figures the present-day memory most readily associates with spiritualism. The other is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was active in the movement as early as 1893 but surprisingly rates only a glancing mention in this book.

Like his fellow physicists-turned-spiritualists, William Barrett and William Crookes, Lodge was conscious of being an outsider in his profession, the more so as he aged and found himself less and less in sympathy with the trend that was taking physics away from mechanical models into the abstraction of mathematical formulas. But even he did not significantly lose caste in his profession. It says much for the spirit of fair play in the British scientific establishment of the time that none of the men who had won recognition as biologists, psychologists or physicists suffered any kind of professional disgrace, such as expulsion from learned societies or the withholding of honours rightfully theirs, as a consequence of their involvement with spiritualism. But the intellectual and emotional turmoil which the most sensitive experienced must have been more harrowing than the record shows. Against the blandishments of spiritualism, with its scientific window-dressing and purported ability to extend the frontiers of the knowable, they had to weigh the fact that they were invited to tolerate an instrument of learning, clumsily employed and without the customary safeguards, ‘which threatened to reintroduce into modern science those links with the magic and the occult from which it had only recently broken free’. The inescapable fact was that they could not serve two mistresses, the science of the natural and the pseudoscience of the supernatural.

None of them left any autobiographical documents that compare, in depth of self-revelation, with those of the less reticent and more literary Victorians who searched their souls as the higher criticism of the Bible, the geological theories that reduced Genesis to a bundle of myths, and scientific materialism, wrought havoc with their religious faith. And so Janet Oppenheim’s dossiers are necessarily incomplete: illuminating though they are on intellectual motives, they fail to suggest the subconscious forces that were also at work. Lodge’s belief in personal immortality and the possibility of communicating with the dead was strengthened by the shock of his son’s death in battle, but it had originated long before that. What drove him, and other equally intelligent men, to spiritualism despite the imperatives of scientific rationalism remains a mystery. Oppenheim wisely avoids speculation even in the case of the priests and priestesses of the new occultism, the mediums themselves. The frequency with which suburban housewives and adolescent girls in particular seemed to be endowed with supranormal gifts may be glibly explained as the result of sexual repression, but Freudian principles are of little help in accounting for the irrational side of the appeal spiritualism held for larger minds.

As the uncritical enthusiasm of true believers like Myers and Wallace proves, largeness of mind was not necessarily a defence against deception. Some frauds were exposed with ease – a ‘spirit’ photographer in 1872 turned out to be producing his crude effects with double exposures and fancy-dress ghost costumes. A full-form materialisation allegedly produced by a celebrated teenage medium from Hackney lost a certain measure of credibility at a séance when Sir George Sitwell, spotting hints of a corset and stays beneath the spirit gown, breached etiquette and grabbed her: she fell palpably short of being a wraith. But the powers of some forms of hypnotism and extra-sensory perception demonstrated by Victorian spiritualists still defy complete explanation even as the products of sophisticated techniques of suggestibility and illusion. Some of Home’s mediumistic feats are still unexplained. So is the puzzle of the so-called ‘Palm Sunday letters’, some three thousand communications from the spirit world received over a period of thirty years by four automatists who were totally unacquainted with one another, and one of whom, Rudyard Kipling’s sister, lived half-way around the real world, in India. Despite these obstacles to collaboration, the themes of the messages were amazingly consistent. They centred on the efforts of Mary Catherine Lyttelton, who died on Palm Sunday 1875, to convince Arthur Balfour of her continuing love for him. They had actually been secretly in love, but the four automatists were unaware of that fact, as were most of Balfour’s family. It is no wonder that Balfour, who maintained a deep interest in psychical research throughout his political career, found his belief in the immortality of the soul confirmed when he finally learned, in 1916, of Mary Lyttelton’s tireless attempts to communicate with him across the void. Janet Oppenheim confesses herself baffled by this extraordinary affair: ‘It is possible that collusion, fraud, and self-delusion played their part in the Palm Sunday case, as in so many other incidents in psychical research, but, for once, it is highly improbable, given the number of people, the sheer volume of the material, and the span of time involved.’ She considers several possible scenarios – the details of the strange ‘cross-correspondence’ were first printed as recently as 1960 – but rejects them all.

The Other World ends in 1914, when spiritualism was about to enter a new and vigorous phase as the casualty lists of the next four years extended into hundreds of thousands of bereaved families the old hunger for positive intimations of immortality. Subsequently the activities of Sir Oliver Lodge and Conan Doyle made good copy for the press from time to time. Now those last celebrated believers have passed beyond the veil, but the popular fascination with phenomena which scientists cannot explain persists. Harry Houdini, a practising magician who was an inveterate enemy of (spiritualistic) deception, has not yet kept any of the earthly appointments he arranged before his death, in case he was wrong after all. Poltergeists still haunt best-selling books and money-making films. In the past year, in an unremarkable American house not many miles away from where these words are written, the conjunction of silently moving pieces of furniture and a teenage girl with reputed occult powers attracted reporters, television crews, and a professional ghost-buster from another State. Parapsychology, the so-called science of extra-sensory perception, continues to be studied in the laboratories of a respected American university. And the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain, like an aged but still sprightly dowager, shares with diplomats and savants the dignity of an address in Belgrave Square.