Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Spiritualism in Neo-Victorian Fiction

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Spiritualism in Neo-Victorian Fiction

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The paper explores the theme of spiritualism in two neo-Victorian texts: In the red kitchen by Michele Roberts and "The conjugial angel" by A. S. Byatt. In recreating the Victorian setting, both writers self-consciously draw on the late nineteenth-century belief in the possibility of establishing communication between the living and the dead by means of spiritualist practice. In Roberts's novel, the presentation of spiritualism is combined with issues of gender and includes a modern perspective. While Roberts models her heroine on the historical medium Florence Cook, some of Byatt's characters are based on literary figures, which adds a metafictional dimension to the metaphysical one.

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A. S. Byatt's acclaimed novel Possession, whose contemporary plot parallels and is partly driven by the lives of two fictional Victorian poets, is preceded by an epigraph quoting a passage from Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "Mr. Sludge the Medium". In the intertextual game Byatt plays the quote relates to the book on several levels. The fictional poet R. H. Ash is clearly modelled on Robert Browning, and the novel includes an episode in which Ash, taking part in a seance, angrily questions the authenticity of the medium and violently disrupts the meeting. The monologue itself is an attack on spiritualism inspired by Browning's own experience of the phenomenon. Browning was a sworn enemy of the famous American medium Daniel Dunglas Home. Browning's account of the seance in which he took part suggests that the poet, sceptical of the medium's powers, stayed alert to expose Home's supposed tricks. As it happens, Home was never caught out and remained highly popular until his death. What intensified Browning's evident hatred of Home was his wife's credulous fascination with spiritualism. Home seemed to reciprocate her interest: at one of his seances Elizabeth Barrett Browning was persuaded into a kind of flirtation with a ghost acting through the medium (Aveni 2001: 227)--accusations of morally dubious goings-on were commonly levelled at mediumistic practices. However, although Mr. Sludge in Browning's poem has his chicanery exposed, he is allowed to present a lengthy self-defence and is eventually released, presumably free to pursue his trade. Isobel Armstrong argues that, rather than being merely an angry onslaught on spiritualism, the poem in its latter part explores questions of artistic truth and hence may be regarded as Browning's poetic self-reflection (1966: 212). The fact that the quote Byatt chose comes from the most persuasive part of the medium's apology suggests that she shares Browning's concerns. Indeed, Byatt herself may be said to practise literary spiritualism in the sense of recreating Victorian voices in her novels.

In both neo-Victorian works discussed here, Michele Roberts's In the red kitchen and Byatt's "Conjugial angel", the theme of spiritualism serves two purposes at once: on the one hand, it metafictionally legitimises the connections between the living and the dead shown in the two books, on the other--it is an integral part of the Victorian setting. An American import, spiritualism gained immediate following in mid-nineteenth-century England and flourished well into the twentieth century. The popularity of the spiritualist movement expressed the desire to accommodate the need for transcendental experiences to the empiricism of nineteenth-century science. And so, for instance, while the public responded to the discovery of magnetism and electricity with mystical awe, phenomena such as spirit-rapping were thought possible thanks to the medium being tapped into a source of as yet unknown energy (Aveni 2001: 213-214). In his article "Victorian poetry and science" Daniel Brown argues that the rapid spread of spiritualism is understandable in the context of the age when Christian beliefs were undermined by science. …

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