“One important and often overlooked aspect of Victorian mediumship is that it could be enormous fun,” says Alex Owen in The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. This is the picture that emerges when one looks particularly at the “star mediums” of the 1870’s, who were known for performing theatrical, full-body materializations for eager audiences.
In a dim seance room, the medium would enter a closed cabinet wherein she would tap the mysterious psychical forces that would allow her to manifest one of her spirit familiars. This familiar would then emerge to from behind the curtain to entertain the assembled sitters. Each medium had her own repertoire of otherworldly entitles at her command, each with his or her own distinct personality, speech patterns, favored tricks and antics. They could be gallant, flirtatious, aggressive, or playful, as suited them.
Florence Cook’s child spirit Pocha “stole money and trinkets from the sitters, climbed on the laps of gentlemen, stroked their whiskers, and allowed herself to be kissed and cuddled.” Annie Fairlamb’s male familiar Sam repeatedly boxed a sitter on the side of the head until the man guessed his name right. Elizabeth d’Esperance manifested Yolande, a sensual, oriental girl who kissed and caressed her sitters, and made gifts of exotic flowers that she materialized into the room.
These encounters often took on highly sexual overtones. Clad in loose-fitting garments, liberated from extraneous corsets and underwear, spirits sometimes invited sitters to explore their corporeal forms and prove to themselves just how very real they were. Florence Cook was famously purported to have carried on an affair with one of her investigators, whom she allowed to enter the materialization cabinet with her. The seance room was a liminal space where participants were afford greater license to transgress the ordinary norms of Victorian society.
Based upon photographs, these spirits seem to have borne an uncanny resemblance to their mediums, and yet sitters came away wholly convinced that they had conversed with men, children, or dark-skinned foreigners; a fact which attests to the theatrical talents of the mediums themselves, as well as the power of suggestion. Not everyone, however, was convinced, and as a result mediums often found themselves tied up and bound inside their manifestation cabinets, or otherwise subjected to innumerable test conditions that forced them to perform Houdini tricks in order to carry out their seances (as Houdini himself was fond of pointing out). In some cases, purported spirits were grabbed and exposed by hostile sitters.
In reading accounts of Victorian seances, however, one is led to wonder less that people believed in the supernatural powers of these celebrity mediums, but that anyone would want to spoil the fun. Spiritualism was more than a game, of course; it was a serious religion that was concerned with investigating the afterlife. However, one could argue that it was in its very ability to inspire playful, transgressive interactions between participants of varying class and gender that Victorian spiritualism was able to evoke the best in people.
This idea comes across well in Owen’s chapter on domestic mediumship, with its touching account of the Theobald family. The Theobalds were a middle-class family in which all members came to see spirits or engage in mediumship on some level, and for whom spiritualism served a source of comfort and mutual support that reunited the clan with its many deceased sons and daughters; the so-called “spirit children.” Communicating through the passive writing of their paternal aunt Florence, the departed children assuaged their parents’ guilt over their deaths, and described the afterlife in terms of English gardens, spirit ponies and endless summer days. The living children of the family, for their part, overjoyed Aunt Florence when they claimed to perceive the spirit of her mother visiting on Christmas day.
When a new cook, Mary, began to display psychic gifts, the family—after a period of sensible skepticism—embraced her as one of their own. By doing so, Morell Theobald (the father) was obliged to accept the resignation of his other servants, and place his own middle-class reputation on the line. In consequence, perhaps, the spirits rose early to light fires, set tables, and float jugs of warm water up to Morell’s bedroom. By setting the stage for this sort of playful trickery and otherworldly expression of family unity, spiritualism fostered an environment of genuine warmth and domestic harmony that most readers would envy.
Owen is a feminist scholar, and her focus in The Darkened Room is upon spiritualism as it related to the construction of gendered identity in late Victorian England. This turns out to be something of a paradox. Because they were passive, women were thought to be more receptive to the spirit world, and to make better mediums than men. Likewise, because they operated within the wholesome, domestic sphere, they were consequently thought to be more trustworthy than their enterprising male counterparts when they did manifest gifts. Spiritualism created a space where women could speak with authority and explore new identities by acting within the confines of the very same, traditional gender roles that they were inadvertently subverting. It should be no surprise, then, that Spiritualism’s decline coincided with the advent of new opportunities for women to enter the professions, take on better roles in the theatre, and openly exercise authority without recourse to otherworldly sponsors.
Though Owen does not make this comparison, Victorian spiritualism seems to have much in common with the psychedelic movement of the 20th century. Both sought mystical insights in altered states that were attended by transgressive play and ego dissolution, entertained “free love” (which, in the Victorian era, had less to do with promiscuity than the freedom to be with the one you loved), anticipated a coming new age when traditional social arrangements would be overthrown, and were denounced by their respective medical communities as practicing a form of self-abuse that could lead to insanity. Victorian mystics may not have running naked through Hyde Park, but they shared a kindred spirituality that was as subversive as it was fun.