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.

The dynamics of the seance might seem no more than further dismal evidence of woman’s docile submission to an artificial feminine ideal. But things are, as Owen abundantly demonstrates, a good deal more complicated than that. Barred from spiritual ministry in the church, women found that the medium’s powers conferred spiritual authority of a kind that was available in no other way. The medium’s gifts could become a source of status and independence; in some cases they could also supply an income. Looking at the careers of a number of mediums, Owen traces a common pattern. Female mediums were usually from upper working-class or middle-class families with social ambitions of the kind that pressurised girls to become ladies. There was frequently a history of ill health and unhappiness of the undefined variety termed ‘nervous’. Such illnesses now look very like oblique expressions of frustration and repression. Spiritualism could provide a more fulfilling means of absconding from a stifling life. It was, indeed, an escape that might take dramatic forms. Once the spiritualist thesis is accepted, a medium under the command of a spirit power cannot be held responsible for the social decorum of her words or actions. Owen provides some gratifying anecdotes of seances in which gentility was overturned in conspicuously unladylike ways. Spiritualism was built on sanctioned qualities of feminine passivity: but it could allow women to behave in a fashion that would have been outrageous in any other setting.

Owen’s tales of lively goings-on at seances inevitably raise the question of what was actually happening. Here, she is understandably circumspect, ruling out neither the agency of fraud (which seems to have been practised on a fairly substantial scale), nor the intervention of forces outside our current understanding of the natural world. But her most suggestive hypothesis is that a high proportion of mediums were driven by submerged motives and desires released by the condition of the spiritualist trance. Neither deceitful nor possessed, mediums found in the seance a channel of expression for voices silenced by the constricting conventions of gender. Wild, incoherent, ostensibly nonsensical, these were voices which reached an attentive audience in the respectable devotees of spiritualist circles.

Some spiritualist circles, unsurprisingly, were more respectable than others. The most genteel dissociated themselves from open display, depending on private mediums who worked without payment. Public mediums, performing for money, had routinely to supply spectacular phenomena for the consumption of their curious patrons. Their trade was a strenuous one, fusing show business with spiritual aspiration in a peculiar compound which often ended in exposure and decline. The beliefs of spiritualists differed as widely as their behaviour. Working-class groups tended to repudiate Christianity, while the more moneyed were likely to incorporate Christian principles (particularly of an Evangelical stamp) into their idiosyncratic beliefs. Spiritualists of all kinds, however, seem to have been prompted by some degree of antiauthoritarianism. Nothing amounting to a political motivation can really be said to emerge from Owen’s account of their fragmented-operations: nevertheless, there are intriguing links with reforming movements like the Labour Party, the Fabians, the Social Democratic Federation. A surprising number of spiritualists seem to have found that acquaintance with the next world did not incline them to any degree of contentment with this one.

No branch of the establishment had reason to take kindly to spiritualism, and as the movement grew in scope and confidence in the 1860s and 1870s, it met with an increasingly hostile response from powerfully – instituted forces. Female mediums were vulnerable. Scientific investigations of their powers became progressively more unsympathetic and intrusive. Elements of sexual aggression made an unmistakable appearance in methods of examination, as the clothes and bodies of practitioners were painstakingly searched for evidence of trickery. It became an accepted practice to bind mediums hand and foot in their booths to prevent any possibility of cheating. Under such circumstances spirits often failed to manifest themselves: according to scientists, because they had never been anything more than fakes in the first place; according to spiritualists, because the antagonistic conditions of these trials precluded successful mediumship. Nothing was proved or disproved to anyone’s satisfaction.

Worsening relations between male scientists and female mediums came to a head in the field of medicine. Spiritualism was closely associated with the development of methods of healing, often practised by women, that conflicted with the growingly exclusive science of orthodox medicine. Male doctors, having just established their intellectual and financial control over the care of the sick, were not prepared to see women coming in through the back door. Such women were a real threat to their interests. Influential medical pundits began to contend that spiritualism was a corrupt and dangerous farrago of delusions, and that the nature of women (hysterical, emotional, weak-minded) rendered them particularly prone to be damaged by its inveiglements. Spiritualism, they argued, was likely to cause madness: mediums, especially, were liable to lunacy.

The late 19th century saw psychiatry, a relatively new branch of medicine, claim new kinds of recognition and power for itself. The history of the professionalisation of psychiatry has (like the story of most professionalisations) a murky side, and it is clear that unconventional women, including spiritualists, suffered from its ministrations. A deep fear of madness ran throughout the period, and often found a focus in attempts to regulate or subdue the femaleness that seemed to embody a malaise threatening the precariously rational social fabric. At the root of the enmity towards the entry of women into medicine at anything other than a menial level lay the belief that women could not be healers because they could not be healthy. Disease and femininity became almost synonymous in the popular imagination, and this was particularly true of mental illness.

As far as mediums were concerned, the consequences of these repressive anxieties could be alarming in the most immediate and practical way. Mediums had much to fear from doctors specialising in madness. If disapproving families and friends found their activities eccentric enough to suggest insanity, and managed to persuade two doctors to agree, they could be confined in lunatic asylums from which it was extremely difficult to get out. Owen gives detailed accounts of the protracted struggles to keep clear of the asylum undergone by a number of practising spiritualists. It seems that the madwoman in the attic might often have been a medium.

Alex Owen is a feminist, and this is a book that makes no pretence to detachment. One of the features that makes her work engaging is a forthright belief that we might learn something from what spiritualists have to say. Her argument has a coherent theoretical basis, but its most impressive development lies in the spiritualist narratives embedded in her exposition. In order to excavate these stories, she has dug deeply into the forgotten archives of spiritualist history. The diversity of evidence she has come up with is extraordinary.

It was often the death of a child, or of children, that initiated interest in spiritualism – another factor that tended to attract women into its circles. Owen gives a full and particular account of one family’s long relationship with spiritualism – the story of the Theobalds – that reveals much about the circumstances that characteristically led to participation in the movement. Prosperous and secure, the Theobalds were, like many who became involved in spiritualism, Nonconformists. They were down-to-earth and hard-working. But they were haunted by loss, for out of 11 children, only four had survived. Grief was what first impelled Mrs Theobald to the practice of spiritualism. A potential medium was ready to hand, for Mr Theobald’s sister Florence, unmarried, bright, afflicted by an unspecified ‘spinal weakness’, was known to be ‘sensitive’. Here were model beginnings: a bereaved mother looking for comfort, a leisured gentlewoman eager to be the means of giving it. Through Florence’s tentative experiments as a medium, the entire family gradually became absorbed into the search for contact with a spiritual world. Their dedicated endeavours were rewarded – first through passive writing, in which unseen hands directed the pen of the medium, finally through the longed-for sound of lost children speaking:

We were almost startled by a piercing child-voice, one evidently delighted to speak for the first time. ‘Mama – DEAR mama and papa! I’m here too! Louisa.’ That was the voice of our first still-born daughter, who has since developed into such a beautiful and powerful spirit, and who frequently manifests herself by direct writing, and by many physical phenomena. Our parental hearts were welling over with joy, but they were not filled to the full. Three more little voices one after another delightedly told us, ‘I’m here.’

What were the Theobalds hearing? Was it mass wish-fulfilment? Charlatanism? Impossible, now, to say. Though the intensity of the moment burns through the ungainly writing, whatever gave rise to it cannot be known.

Though the Theobalds’ social station protected them from the kind of harassment experienced by more public spiritualist circles, they, too, came to find their newly-discovered beliefs problematic. Their spiritualism had implications that were more than metaphysical. Clearly, the class distinctions on which a snug way of life depended did not extend to the spirit world – an awkward fact remarked on by many Victorian spiritualists. When a servant was discovered to have psychic powers, was it right to deny her admittance into the family circle? The Theobalds thought not, and their spiritualist cook was promoted from kitchen to parlour. Was she duping them, or were they duping themselves? Publishing their experiences brought sour wrangles over the question of authenticity. Nevertheless, the Theobalds stubbornly kept faith. Spiritualism had transfigured their lives: no amount of social scorn would induce them to give it up.

The story of the Theobalds’ engagement with spiritualism is presented with the exacting attention to detail that is evident throughout Owen’s book. But there is never any doubt about where our sympathies are directed. Without accepting their claims at face value, Alex Owen is unequivocally on the side of the spiritualists. Meticulous research can’t always live with vigorous commitment. When it does, the conjunction may be exhilarating. This is confident and far-reaching scholarship, moving with assurance among differing methods and approaches, constantly proffering new perceptions and fresh facts. Owen has been prepared to take a chance. The advent of feminism has not transformed the academic world to an extent that makes a book championing Victorian lady mediums look like the safest way of securing a reputation as a historian. The risks have paid off.