The following essay was written in connection with: The Pre-Raphaelites in the Spirit World: an annotated critical edition of William Michael Rossetti’s Séance Diary, 1865-1868, edited by J.B. Bullen, Rosalind White and Lenore A. Beaky and published in 2021 by the Peter Lang Group, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, and Oxford. It first appeared in the Journal of the Pre-Raphaelite Society and appears here by kind permission. The illustrations are the same as those in the journal, but are here taken from our own website. Please click on them for more information about them. — Jacqueline Banerjee
The lights are dimmed. The candles flicker. William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ask some questions of Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Rossetti's wife. The exchange involves a picture that the artist had just sent to a wealthy patron in Birkenhead, George Rae.
William: Did you consider that picture which Gabriel sent away the other day one of his very best?
William: Do you know to whom it has gone?
William: Give initial of surname?
Elizabeth: R [correct for Rae]
William: Do you know in what room of Rae's house that picture is now placed?
William: Drawing room?
William: How many in the whole house?
After my asking the total number of works by Gabriel at Rae's, a pause of some 15 minutes ensued within which no answers were obtained. I therefore asked: During that pause were you absent looking into Rae's house?
William: Can you give me any idea of the process by which you pass from one place to another?
The questions are strange, the responses monosyllabic but accurate. The most extraordinary aspect of this exchange, however, is that it took place in February 1866, four years after the death of Elizabeth Siddal.
This, of course, is the record of a spiritualist séance, though the participants are unexpected. The Pre-Raphaelites are not renowned for their spiritualist activity and very little is known about the way in which they participated in the Victorian cult that swept Britain in the mid nineteenth century. But the evidence of that participation is lodged in the Rare Books Collection of the University of British Columbia. It takes the form of a remarkable diary kept by William Michael Rossetti in which he meticulously recorded twenty spiritualist séances that took place between 1865 and 1868, and which involved a number of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their friends, all attempting to make contact with the spirit world. Additionally the collection contains a long letter written in 1856 by Dante Rossetti's friend, Anna Mary Howitt, about her personal spiritualist experiences.
By 1865 spiritualism was practised widely throughout Britain and permeated all levels of society. It was driven by the high mortality rate because Victorian Britain was no stranger to death. By the late nineteenth century over 177,000 people had contracted fatal infections such as cholera, smallpox and scarlatina. Wave after wave of typhoid swept over the population where cause, diagnosis and cure were all equally uncertain. It brought down the rich and the poor. In Bleak House (1853) Dickens recorded 'fever' deaths in the slums of London, but the most prominent victim was Albert the Prince Consort, diagnosed with the disease by William Jenner and dead soon after in December 1861.
Meanwhile comfort was at hand. In 1848 in Rochester, New York two sisters claimed to have received messages from the spirit of a long dead inhabitant of their house, and their conversation with him fired the imagination of America. Soon 'table-rapping' swept the American continent, modern spiritualism was born and in the early 1850s it crossed the Atlantic. Séances began to take place in the parlours and dining rooms of France, Germany, Italy and Britain. It produced a crop of passionate believers including the poet Elizabeth Browning, the social reformer Robert Owen, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and the novelist Conan Doyle. Gladstone, Tennyson, Ruskin and the painter G. F. Watts were all members of the Society for Psychical Research, a badge of belief in spirit activity, and it was even rumoured that Queen Victoria received messages from Prince Albert via a psychic teenage boy named Robert James Lees. Mediums became celebrities. The most famous was D. D. Home. Before he came to Britain from America in 1855 Thackeray had met him and, convinced of his authenticity, used the pages of his journal, The Cornhill Magazine, to promote Home's career. In Britain itself, the most famous mediums were Mary Marshall and Elizabeth Guppy, who had risen to prominence in the late 1850s and both of whom presided over a number of séances recorded in William Michael's diary.
"Home, Great Home!" Punch, August 18, 1860, p. 63. The most famous of the medium "celebrities" was D. D. Home.
But dealing with the dead created as many opponents as it had adherents. The novelist George Eliot and her partner G. H. Lewes turned to the press to denounce spiritualism as a sham; Robert Browning fell out badly on the subject with his wife (who hugely admired Home) and wrote a long poem, 'Mr Sludge the Medium' exposing what he felt was Home's duplicity; while the popular journal Once a Week described Mary Marshall, poor, vulgar but hugely eminent as the 'washerwoman medium', condemning 'the abominable profanity and wickedness' of her séances (18 August 1860, p. 215). The satirical journal Punch was quick to seize on the comic potential of the new vogue. Weekly cartoons appeared, humorous dialogues with the dead were published and it was claimed that Mr Punch himself
Wanted to know what on earth are the merits
That make Mrs. Marshall affected by 'sperrits!
'Wanted to know why respectable dead Come back to life at five shillings a head.' 
The most consistent war on spiritualism, however, was waged by the powerful voice of Charles Dickens. He was outraged by D. D. Home. He denounced Home's autobiography as 'odious' written by a 'ruffian' and a 'scoundrel' and agreed with George Eliot that Home was 'an object of moral disgust' ("The Martyr Medium,' 135; Eliot to Harriet Beecher Stowe, 8 March, 1872). As for Mary Marshall and her daughter, he said they possessed the 'duplicity and legerdemain of … two illiterate conjurors' playing on 'the holiest and deepest feelings of their audience' (All the Year Round, 28 July 1860, 373).
While the debate about the authenticity of spiritualist experience raged, séances, both public and private, took place throughout the country. Some were spectacular displays of showmanship involving large audiences; some were intimate, devout gatherings while others took the form of after-dinner entertainments. The social, anthropological and religious role of spiritualism in Victorian culture has been much debated, but one important factor drove people to the darkened room of the medium – the need to contact a dead loved-one. It was this motive that lay behind Elizabeth Barrett Browning's desire to communicate with her brothers both of whom died in 1840; the death in 1845 of Alfred Russel Wallace's brother opened the way for a career in support of spiritualism, and the death of Conan Doyle's son, Kingsley, strengthened a life-long belief in the occult. Death also lay behind the séances in William Michael Rossetti's diary, since many of them were driven by his brother's desire to reach out to the spirit of his dead wife.
Rossetti's fascination with the occult went back to his early experiences of the poetry of Dante Alighieri and the scholarly work of his father Gabriele. Gabriele came to Britain from Italy as a political exile in 1824 and set himself up as a Dante scholar and teacher of Italian. Though his work was controversial he obtained a chair in Italian at King's College, London writing a number of interpretative commentaries. In the course of this work Gabriele frequently invoked the authority of the Swedish mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg. Around 1744 Swedenborg began to have visionary experiences of the afterlife. He claimed not only communication with angels and demons but spoke of how he had been admitted into the spirit world, returning to the terrestrial sphere to tell the story. His extensive writings deal with many facets of life beyond death as an extension (rather than a contradiction) of Christian orthodoxy. He had become a 'seer', he said, by God's command to explain the correspondences between life on earth and life in heaven. One of those correspondences involved human sexuality, which according to Swedenborg, did not pass away after death but actually intensified. Swedenborg had a considerable influence on William Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Michael Rossetti, his brother Dante Gabriel and many others.
By 1856 the long letter from Anna Mary Howitt included in this volume shows that Rossetti was familiar with spiritualist practices. Anna Mary, a friend of Rossetti's youth and fellow artist turned, after a traumatic encounter with John Ruskin, from the conventional art world and became renowned as a drawing medium. The record of her conversion to spiritualism in her correspondence with Rossetti is truly remarkable, the documentation of a series of psychic states expressed partly in consecutive prose and partly in visions. Both she and her father, William Howitt, became eminent in the world of Victorian spiritualism. He as a historian and theoretical advocate, she as an active writer and drawing medium. Rossetti knew the whole family and watched, if at a distance, their growing involvement in the world of spiritualism. Then around 1858 Rossetti, according to the testimony of friends like Thomas Woolner, began to take part in his first séances. But in 1862 things changed as he turned to spiritualism with a new urgency after the death of Elizabeth Siddal. She had been suffering from post-natal depression after the stillbirth of her child and, driven to despair by Rossetti's long-term infidelity and neglect, took an overdose of laudanum. Immediately, Rossetti was consumed by guilt and filled with remorse, and as some kind of recompense, he buried the manuscript of his unpublished poems in her coffin. But no sooner had she been placed in the earth than he began to have nightly visions of her in his bedroom. At that point he decided to try and find her in the afterlife. In October 1862 abandoning the lodgings they had shared he took up residence beside the Thames, at Tudor House, where he began séances with his new friend the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Many years later Whistler spoke of the 'strange things that happened when he went to séances at Rossetti's …' since, according to William Michael's daughter, Rossetti was 'anxious to get some message' from Lizzie (Pennell, I: 115; Angeli).
How They Met Themselves, c.1850,
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
During this period both Rossetti and Whistler created pictures with an occult significance. Rossetti's drawing How They Met Themselves was a doppelganger image of a young couple meeting their ghostly doubles in a dense wood. Its first version was completed during his honeymoon in 1860 and it was reworked as a coloured version in 1864. Writing of what Dante Rossetti called his 'bogie picture', William said: 'To meet one's wraith is ominous of death, and to figure Lizzie as meeting her wraith might well have struck her bridegroom as uncanny in a high degree. In less than two years the weird was woefully fulfilled' (Dante Gabriel Rossetti: his family letters I: 207). Then in 1863 both Whistler and Rossetti embarked on paintings with links to other spiritualist experiences. Whistler's Symphony in White No. 2: The Little White Girl has a contemporary setting but like How they met Themselves it is also a doppelganger work. In it, Jo Hiffernan, Whistler's mistress, and her reflected image gaze down towards a lacquered Japanese box which Whistler often employed in séances. Swinburne's lines, 'Art thou the ghost, my sister,/ sister there,/ Am I the ghost, who knows?' were attached to the frame.
Symphony in White, No 2: The Little White Girl, 1864,
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
Rossetti's Beata Beatrix was begun at about the same time. Its original title was Beatrice in a Death Trance, a Dantean image which linked the death of Beatrice Porntinari beside the Arno with Lizzie Siddal's death beside the Thames. The painting was based on an unfinished portrait of Lizzie and depicts the moment of her palingenesis or passage from life into death. The picture came to the notice of the prominent spiritualists William and Georgina Cowper-Temple. William Cowper-Temple was President of the Board of Trade and he and Georgina presided over séances in their family home, Broadlands with the most famous mediums of the day. In September 1865 they began to take an interest in Rossetti's work. They frequently visited his studio where he was working on the painting and offered to buy it as a genuine spiritualist work. It was beneath this picture and in the very same studio that Rossetti was trying to conjure up the spirit of Lizzie Siddal.
By the time William Rossetti began his Séance Diary in 1865 he was already a firm believer in spiritualist communications. Back in 1857 he had read Swedenborg 'with delight and wonder' and had been convinced by the authenticity of his brother's recent successful contacts with Elizabeth Siddal (letter dated 5 Dec. 1857, Peattie 91). Yet by no means all the séances involved Lizzie Siddal.
Beata Beatrix c.1864-70, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
The richest and most dynamic ones took place under the mediumship of the aforementioned two professionals, Mary Marshall and Elizabeth Guppy. In one of the first of these at the home of Mary Marshall, William Rossetti was accompanied by his artist friend, William Bell Scott. The two men, who were certain that the Marshalls had no personal knowledge of them, discussed the idea of trying to make contact with the recently deceased brother of Bell-Scott's mistress, Spencer Boyd. The information that emerged from this séance was striking. The spirit of Spencer Boyd was summoned and stated, correctly, that he had died in Scott's home (providing the address) together with the date on which he had passed away. He also correctly told the group that he heard of but never met, William in person. More startlingly, however, was a communication with individuals of whom nobody present had any prior knowledge whatsoever, yet whose accounts have been subsequently confirmed by our own archival research. In February 1866, for example, a New Zealand chief calling himself 'Hemi' appeared out of the dark. He claimed to have met William Michael three years previously in Newcastle when the chief was touring Britain exhibiting Maori dances. Information gathered from historians in New Zealand and our own research in the archives of local newspapers confirmed that in the week beginning September 14, 1863 a group of 'Maori chiefs' had indeed played to audiences in Newcastle. On that same day Dante Rossetti wrote a letter to a friend saying, in passing, that his brother was about to leave on a visit to Newcastle!
On other occasions what were called 'aports' materialized. Eau-de-cologne and water showered out of nowhere, books were thrown from the bookcases and in one incident flowers, roses, ferns and jonquils were requested by the participants and, to their amazement, dropped on the table in front of them or onto their laps. Dante Rossetti invited Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris to two of these séances where she saw unexpected lights and cold draughts of air passed over her hands.
The most moving and dramatic séances, however, were those that featured the spirit of Elizabeth Siddal. In the second séance recorded by William, his brother spoke to her with clear reference to the past. 'You used to give me clear & significant answers,' he said, 'but of late the reverse: can you tell me why?' (Memorandum by Himself, Séance no. 2). She had no answer. In a later séance she confessed that she knew William Bell Scott and thought that William Rossetti had been a very affectionate brother to Dante Gabriel; later at the home of Thomas Keightley, historian, mythographer and folklorists, she told the participants that she knew William Morris, and correctly told them his London address (see Rossetti's Memorandum by Himself, Séance no. 5).
The most intensive cross-questioning of Lizzie's spirit took place in the very last séance on Friday 14 August 1868 at 2.am. In this the spirit was asked about the Rossetti's father Gabriele in the afterlife, about the nature of Christ, and about the nature of the manifestations that they had recently witnessed at another séance. The most touching exchange came between Dante Gabriel and Lizzie.
Gabriel: 'Are you my wife?
Gabriel: Are you now happy?
Gabriel: Happier than on earth?
Gabriel: If I were now to join you, should I be happy?
Gabriel: Should I see you at once?
Gabriel: Quite soon?
Though communication with the dead was not always successful the huge mortality rate in Victorian Britain encouraged large numbers to seek the support of mediums. Similarly, around 1918, the carnage of the First World War and the waves of Spanish Flu created a new interest in spiritualism. But what of the present? An article in The Times on 26 January 2021 suggests that once again people are turning to the Ouija board. Entitled 'How the Covid-19 pandemic is driving a revival in spiritualism' it contains the startling claim by the spiritualists' National Union that in the very first month of lockdown its membership increased by 325 per cent.
Note: The Pre-Raphaelites in the Spirit World (see headnote) comprises an introduction, and the hitherto unpublished text of the Séance Diary of William Michael Rossetti with commentary and explanatory notes.
Dickens, Charles. All the Year Round. 28 July 1860.
_____. 'The Martyr Medium', All the Year Round. 4 April 1863.
Once a Week. 18 August 1860.
Peattie, Roger, ed. Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti (1990, letter dated 5 Dec. 1857).
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph Pennell. The Life of James McNeill Whistler (1908), I.
Punch. 11 December 1869.
Rossetti, Angeli Helen. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, His Friends and Enemies. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949.
Rossetti, William Michael. 'Memorandum by Himself [Diary of Séances]', 1865-1868. In: Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Library Rare Books and Special Collections. Séance no. 2. 12 November 1867, fol.7.
_____. 'Memorandum by Himself' (as above). Séance no. 5. 25 November 1865, fol. 13.
Created 8 March 2023