“Is there anybody there?” :Examining Victorian Responses to Spiritualism and the Occult

The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth Century Spiritualism and the Occult, by Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn (eds.), Surrey: Ashgate, 2012, v + 436 pages, illustrated, £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-7546-6912-8

The Theology of Dracula: Reading the Book of Stoker as a Sacred Text, by Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac, London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012, v +234 pages, illustrated, $40 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-7864-6499-9

Reviewed by Dr Clare Horrocks (Liverpool John Moores University)


As the dust jacket of the Ashgate Companion notes, there has been a significant rise in interest in the Victorian supernatural over the last twenty-five years.  What is refreshing about this volume by Kontou and Willburn is that it not only synthesises existing research from many of the top scholars in the field, but it also introduces new areas for study. At a costly £85 a volume, scholars will be glad to hear that it is also available from Ashgate as an e-book (ISBN 978-0-7546-9626-1), which I hope will encourage more people to consider using the text as it covers a vast range of topics that have the potential to enthuse new students as well as informing on-going research in the field.

The detailed introduction to the volume begins by attempting to establish the parameters that define the terms ‘spiritualism’ and the ‘occult’. It is argued that both spiritual and occult practices were crucial cultural forces, holding a central place among other Victorian cultural formations such as family, friendship and social organizations (2).  Whilst in broad terms interest in the spiritual world was about making things visible, making relationships between the living and the dead more transparent, the occult, in contrast, was about darkness, secrecy and magic.  However, as the editors note, all too often those people who felt threatened by spiritualistic practices, such as the séance, actually saw it as a form of occult worship, particularly during the 1850s and 1860s when there was comparatively limited understanding of such practices.  It is the intention of the Companion therefore to both elucidate the relationship between the two at the same time as to challenge their definition through considering a range of ephemera and source material previously unstudied. What is examined is “a range of spiritual and material practices dedicated to erasing or crossing the boundary between the living and the dead, and sometimes, also, analogous boundaries, such as between the present and the historical past, or between the physical and the metaphysical” (4).

There are three thematic sections to the Companion.  The first, entitled ‘Haunted Laboratories and Ghosts in the Machine: Spiritualism, Science and Technology’ examines early fascination with the subject of spiritualism and its role in rising debates about technology and cultural change.  The five essays included in this section seek to elucidate the networks that existed between science and spiritualism and the conflicts that arose.  Richard Noakes’s essay on ‘The Science of Spiritualism in Victorian Britain: Possibilities and Problems’ provides an interesting perspective on the Victorian periodical press’s role in shaping public perceptions.  He argues that mass circulation spiritualist periodicals played a formative role in people coming to see spiritualism as a form of popular science. Taking a chronological view of the rhetoric of spiritualism, Noakes charts how the ‘science’ of the movement was at first one of indifference, changing in the 1860s to one of critical engagement and by the end of the century one that borrowed much from “those startling new discoveries within established science that were congruent with and appeared to confirm their own science” (28).  The second thematic section, ‘Occultture: Sex, Politics, Philosophy and Poetics’ considers how the rise of occult practices, along with the growth of magical societies and spiritualist beliefs, shaped and informed the literature, culture and philosophy of the fin-de-siècle across both Britain and France.  Across the five essays included in this section there are studies of the work of Bulwer-Lytton, W. B. Yeats, William Morris and Edward Carpenter amongst others.

The final section is perhaps the most exciting, breaking new boundaries for research into the topic.  ‘Staging the Victorian Afterlife: From Magic Shows to Dinner Parties’ contains seven essays which demonstrate the true breadth of cultural practices that were informed, and indeed created, by the rhetoric of spiritualism. It opens with Tatiana Kontou’s analysis of Florence Marryat’s novels and her engagement with the ‘spirit world’ before moving on to a particularly fascinating account of the relationship between spiritualism and professional magic by Erika White Dyson.  There was a rivalry about whose ‘profession’ was the most legitimate and authentic, she argues, resulting in many public disputes from the law courts to the music halls as each sought to assert their authority in direct opposition to the other.  Drawing on examples from both the UK and the US Dyson draws on a wealth of material and primary sources though surprisingly – and this is true of the volume as a whole – there is little engagement with the wealth of information on spiritualists and entertainers on the Adam Matthew Digital site Victorian Popular Culture; a site which has arguably contributed to the rise in fascination with the subject in recent years. Further studies of fictions include Bridget Bennett’s chapter on Henry James, alongside more visual analysis with Rachel Oberter’s chapter on Anna Mary Howitt’s ‘automatic drawings’ and Sarah Willburn’s chapter on Victorian spirit photography. Two of the more challenging chapters which exemplify the reach and influence of spiritualistic practices are those by Mackenzie Bartlett on laughter in the séance room and Marlene Tromp’s chapter on food and Victorian spiritualism in which she argues that food enabled women to “gain spiritual control and authority while successfully operating under the aegis of womanly propriety” (285). The Companion is accompanied by a very comprehensive and impressive bibliography which I believe supports the editors’ aim to create a text that will generate new avenues for research, though, as stated earlier, I would have liked a more direct engagement with the range of digital archives and resources that are now emerging on the topic.

Though there is no detailed study of the popular novel of 1897 Dracula, the Companion provides an interesting context for studying another new text that has recently been published, The Theology of Dracula: Reading the Book of Stoker as Sacred Text by Noel Montague-Etienne Rarignac.  Written by an author who describes himself as “a musician, filmmaker, video artist, traveling fellow for an art museum, and composer (Dust jacket) this is not a traditional academic monograph.  However, it is thoroughly researched with an excellent supporting bibliography and provides a fresh and original perspective on what could be considered a ‘saturated’ subject.  It is the contention of Rarignac that by analysing the origins of the Vampire Tale, how they are recycled and reworked by Stoker, that we see in Dracula a novel that is in itself a form of spiritual meditation (1). In considering the spiritual unease of Stoker’s society, Rarignac believe that the figure of the Vampire “prescribes a spiritual remedy” which is why the novel has enjoyed enduring success (3).   For he argues, there can be no coincidence that Stoker’s success emerged in a period of “mounting interest in folklore, Neolithic fertility rites, archaeological and anthropological exploration, Christian symbolism, theosophical syncretism, and the Frazer-elaborated sacral king/dying god mythologem (4).  Rarignac examines each of these themes through a close-text analysis of the novel, cross referenced with supporting passages from the Bible.  Drawing extensively on the notes made by Stoker himself in the preparation of the novel, he believes that the true impact of text can only be understood when read in conjunction with the earlier texts that it can clearly be seen to have been influenced by.  Read alongside the Companion by Kontou and Willburn researchers will find an exciting new field of study emerging.  Both texts elucidate a complex and challenging relationship between science, religion and ‘the other side’ that certainly merits further research and analysis.

Clare Horrocks is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture, Communication at Liverpool John Moores University.  She has published widely on Punch and the Victorian Periodical Press, including an article with Gary Simons for Victorians Journal (2011) “From Paris to Punch: William Makepeace Thackeray and a New Era in Social Satire”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *