The Medium in the Attic

Dinah Birch

  • The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England by Alex Owen
    Virago, 307 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 86068 567 5

Given the contemporary standing of spiritualism, you might suppose that only the gullible or feeble-minded among Victorian seekers after truth would have had any truck with its activities. But you’d be wrong. Some of the most sober luminaries of the age (Gladstone, Ruskin, even Queen Victoria) were prepared to accept, or at least to explore, the possibility of traffic with the dead. You wouldn’t, however, always guess as much from the biographies and memoirs that cluster round such eminent lives. The intellectual status of spiritualism was once appreciable, but it has long since dwindled to a point that diminishes the prestige of anyone known to have been drawn to its doctrines. One consequence of this fall from grace is that the story of spiritualism has commonly been bundled out of sight, like a batty old aunt at a family gathering.

In a sense, of course, it always was. Though it seemed at first that spiritualists might expect to be vindicated by scientific enquiry, it soon became evident that their convictions could not be reconciled with the kind of hard science that gained authority throughout the 19th century, and confirmed its mastery in the 20th. But the image of an omnivalent science, grounded in a Victorian faith in progressive materialism, has now begun to look a good deal less stable than it once did. Feminism takes first place among the many movements that have created a newly sceptical context for its prevalence. Feminists have shown how the conceptual framework of modern science, with its assumed basis in cool objectivity, specialised expertise, and the denial of personality and emotion, is intimately bound up with socially-constructed notions of maleness. Alex Owen’s solid and compelling new book makes it clear that the tenets of science’s disreputable sister, spiritualism, became just as entangled with ideas of gender. Spiritualism may be understood as an elaborated expression of Victorian thinking about what it is to be female. In its early origins and growth, and its later humiliations and submersion, Owen has found a pattern for a searching critique of the means by which Victorian women were imagined and controlled, by themselves and by men.

It isn’t hard to see how the idea of an invisible spirit realm, dark and irrational, could be associated with familiar types of womanhood. The idea of a spiritual existence, offering a shadowy, exalted or threatening commentary on the daylight bustle of common sense, easily slides into a version of the universal ‘other’ which underwrites our existence, and with which the feminine has always been readily identified. The point of contact between this impression of an occult ‘other’ and the world of the everyday was the medium. Many celebrated mediums were women; those who were not seem to have acquired ambivalent sexual characteristics (‘hysteric, hybrid half-and-halfs’, as Browning put it in ‘Mr Sludge, “The Medium” ’, his vicious attack on the spiritualism that had claimed his wife’s allegiance). Again, it’s easy enough to see how the processes of mediumship could seem an expression of what women were thought to represent. The essential characteristic of the effective medium is passiveness. Emptying her mind and abrogating her will, she gives herself as the vehicle for utterances which are not her own. The higher spiritual nature which was thought to be part and parcel of womanliness here found a bizarre kind of apotheosis: the ultimate self-sacrifice.

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