Kontou, Tatiana and Sarah Willburn, Eds.: The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

By Hansen, Regina | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring-Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Kontou, Tatiana and Sarah Willburn, Eds.: The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult


Hansen, Regina, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Kontou, Tatiana and Sarah Willburn, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult. Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2012. 436 pp. Cloth. ISBN 9780754669128. $149.95.

Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn have edited a thoughtful and informative volume of essays, The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult. This wide-ranging anthology reveals the numerous ways that both spiritualism and the occult informed, and were informed by, the social and political movements of the nineteenth century, all of which continue to resonate in today's world. The essays go a long way toward proving Kontou and Wilburn's opening claim that spiritualism and the occult were "culturally central for many Victorians" (1) as well as the idea that the ordinary concerns of the Victorians are "made extraordinary" when viewed through the lens of these supposedly marginal mystical pursuits.

With 17 chapters and an introduction, Kontou and Willburn's book is Comprehensive--almost sprawling--in scope, and often exceeds the editors' attempts to contain its message. Although the introduction endeavors to pull together all the strands of Victorian mysticism, the book is appealing not in spite of but because of its imperfect expansiveness. After setting up the difference between spiritualism and the occult, the introduction acknowledges the overwhelming nature of its topic and Victorian mysticism's relationship with subjects as varied as literary criticism, socialism, feminism, and even food studies. We are told, "Placing death beside life, as spiritualism and the occult did, produces a modern aesthetic that insists on commensurability between disparate people and things as well as the virtual immediacy enabled by many much more recent technical media"(l). While this is true, the book is at its best when the authors do not insist upon the subjects' relevance to the present.

Divided into three sections, the book's range of essays shows what the authors call the "flexibility" of the subject matter. While some of the contributors seem to want to construct a sort of apologetics for spiritualism and the occult--or at least their study of them--the essays are far more interesting than that idea implies. Section One is "Haunted Laboratories and Ghosts in the Machine: Spiritualism, Science and Technology." Its five chapters are the most interrelated, exploring the ways in which spiritualism intersected with the new inventions and scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. Christine Ferguson's survey, "Recent Scholarship on Spiritualism and Science," shows the ways in which recent scholarship has "challenged the supremacy of the crisis of faith hypothesis hitherto used to account for the popularity of seances and mysticism" (19). Ferguson also introduces an important caveat for Tantou and Willburn's readers, asking us not to get carried away with the idea that spiritualism was fully aligned with the progressive social movements of its time. Extending on Ferguson, Richard Noakes's "The Sciences and Spiritualism in Victorian Britain" uses a study of spiritualist practice, and its appropriation of scientific language and practice, to show the correlations between "popular" and hard science. Noakes analyses how the terms and practices of science were brought to bear on non-scientific phenomena.

The next three chapters focus on the relationship between spiritualism and the practice of writing, especially the parallels between new writing technologies like the typewriter and the work of spiritual mediums as transmitters of messages from the supernatural world. The chapters complement each other, each offering a fascinating and easy to follow argument. In "The Undead Author: Spiritualism, Technology and Authorship," Anthony Enns parallels the work of mediums to that of typists, noting that the two occupations emerged at the same time in history. …

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