"What I can't accepty about spiritualism is the idea of millions of dead people (there must be standing room only on the Other Side) kept hanging about just waiting to be sent for by some old girl with a Ouija board in a Brighton boarding house, or a couple of table-tappers in Tring, for the sake of some inane conversation about the Blueness of the Infinite. I mean at least when you're dead you'll surely be spared such tedious social occasions." — John Mortimer's barrister in "Rumpole and the Dear Departed" (1981)
piritualism, the belief that the dead communicate with the living, became a fad throughout America and Europe during the 1850s. Spiritualism, which owes its beginnings to Emmanuel Swedenborg's writings on the spirit world, received additional stimulus from Anton Mesmer's experiments in what he called "animal magnetism" (hypnotism) that he believed involved the influence of celestial bodies upon terrestrial. Many Victorians, particularly those who had begun to abandon conventional religion, fervently believed in spiritualism, Elizabeth Barrett Browning among them (much to the dismay of her husband).
Reputable people reported astonishing occurrences. Sir William Crookes, an eminent physicist, said that he had seen the medium Daniel Dunglas Home (see Robert Browning's "Mr. Sludge, the Medium") "float out of an upper-story bedroom window, pass over a street seventy feet below, and reenter the house by a sitting-room window on the same story." (Irvine & Honan, The book, the ring, & the poet; a biography of Robert Browning, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974, 305) Few of the followers saw much more than table-rappings or ghostly hands laid on shoulders, however, and the movement gradually lost influence when it became clear that it could not duplicate results under scientific scrutiny. The most famous challenge was issued by the American magician Harry Houdini, who offered a substantial reward to any medium whom he could not debunk.
The most usual reason given for the rise of spiritualism, which is really little more than sophisticated superstition, is the desperation of doubting Victorians for some incontrovertible grounds for belief. Spiritualism transcends reason. As Mrs. Browning put it, "Skeptics have said, 'Let me see a table move, and I will believe anything.' Now the table moves, all Europe witnessing" (Irvine & Honan, 306).
[The contemporary novelist, A. S. Byatt, has created a particularly interesting picture of Victorian spiritualism in her novella, "The Conjugal Angel" in Angels and Insects. You might also wish to look at Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990) and her more recent The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern" (U.of Chicago Press, 2003)-- GPL]
Last modified 16 July 2007