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Science, ghosts, and Victorian spiritualism…

March 10, 2013

I’m off topic so haven’t thought this through too much, but there are a few New Zealand novels I have enjoyed recently that have ghosts or spirits in them and I wonder how this essay by Justin Sausman (quoted below) might be relevant….

The Circus of Ghosts - Barbara Ewing

“Where are the dead? This is the question asked by Victoria Glendinning’s Electricity (1995), a novel that explores a central concern of late Victorian spiritualism, that of tracing the physical location of the spiritual through hybrid theories that sought to account for

matter and spirit, the mechanical and the ghostly. For the investigators of the late nineteenth century the physicality of the ghost, its material traces, and corporeal symptoms were central to the experiments and theories developed to explain phenomena occurring during the séance. First emerging in New York State in 1848 with the Fox sisters, spiritualism arrived in Britain in 1852 with the medium Mrs. Hayden, and continued to grow in popularity, exerting a fascination that spanned social and intellectual divides, and in the latter half of the nineteenth century was a source of public controversy as scientists debated the inclusion or exclusion of the spirits from within the borders of scientific naturalism, as Janet Oppenheim has argued: Intellectuals turned to p

sychic phenomena as courageous pioneers hoping to discover the most profound secrets of the human condition and of man’s place in the universe. With psychology in its infancy, it still seemed in the late-nineteenth century that psychical research, if not spiritualism, might play a legitimate and important role in the growth of a new science. If today spiritualism no longer generates the public controversies of the nineteenth century, the figure of the medium nevertheless remains a source of fascination, [-p.51]  following a broader upsurge of interest in the supernatural in the realm of popular culture that a recent article in New Statesman has dubbed, after the long-running television series of paranormal investigations, “generation X-Files.” Spiritualism has become a prominent feature of television shows such as Medium or Ghost Whisperer, which portray female mediums often struggling to come to terms with their abilities and seeking to help both the spirits and the bereaved, while the British series Sea of Souls and Afterlife depict the scientific investigation of the supernatural by university psychologists. When viewed from a historical perspective, it is striking that these themes appear to echo the explosion of interest in the scientific investigation of spiritualism that occurred in the late nineteenth century.


This essay will explore the ways in which the present moment is haunted by the Victorian past, using Electricity as a medium through which to read contemporary representations of late Victorian spiritualism. I will investigate the ways in which the novel is haunted not by ghosts themselves, but by the language in which spiritualists and investigators of the late nineteenth century sought to represent and explain ghostly phenomena. Electricity explores this through the use of persistent electrical analogies to forge links between haunting, sexuality, and spatiality, displaying a carefully researched investigation into the debates surrounding spiritualism and science, and in turn drawing attention to the ways in which electrical science generates, rather than destroys, ghostly effects. The essay will firstly survey the flow of ideas between spiritualism and electrical science during the nineteenth century, demonstrating how the novel engages with questions of the materiality of the ghost crucial to late Victorian spiritualism. I will then suggest that the novel can be seen as a critical engagement with the history of psychical research, tracing a possible model for the central character in Ada Goodrich Freer, a controversial late nineteenth-century psychical researcher, arguing that the novel suggests a hidden narrative behind the figure of the deceptive medium.” (pp.50-51)


“In turning to the nineteenth century, Electricity is part of the growing genre of the neo-Victorian novel, associated pre-eminently with A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) and Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998), which were popular literary successes in addition to being adapted for cinema and television. These novels adopt a Victorian setting and form, while self-consciously drawing attention to their historical distance. The ghost has become a key trope within the neo-Victorian novel, both as subject matter and as a way of exploring critically the turn to the past in those novels whose plots do not ostensibly explore spiritual themes. According to Hilary M. Schor, debates over science and faith during the nineteenth century “have opened new possibilities for discussion of the nature not only of fiction, but of material reality. The Victorian past has come to uncanny life in contemporary fiction.” Sally Shuttleworth has argued that the neo-Victorian novel reveals a “non-ironic fascination with the details of the period” and reads this through Fredric Jameson’s argument in Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that our “historical deafness” manifests as a proliferation of dead styles and fashions in pastiche, symptomatic of a lack of genuine historical understanding. In contrast, Cora Kaplan argues that the fascination with the Victorian past is animated by more than nostalgia for a past that never was or postmodern pastiche, and is instead a “self-conscious rewriting of historical narratives to highlight suppressed histories of gender and sexuality, race and empire, as well as challenges to the conventional understandings of the historical itself.” 6 Both Shuttleworth and Kaplan place the turn to the Victorian in the context of the British Conservative government’s exhortation of Victorian values during the 1980s and early 1990s, which promoted thrift, family values, national pride, and the value of work.” (p.52)

The novels I refer to as having enjoyed are: Barbara Ewing’s The Circus of Ghosts (which this essay might more directly relate to), and Fay Weldon’s Kehua! but I’m also put in mind of Paula Morris’ Ruined and Margaret Mahy’s classic The Haunting and Alison Wong’s As the Earth Turns Silver and a few others, the names of which escape me.

What role do ghosts play in New Zealand literature?

How do ‘our’ ghosts compare with those of other literatures?

Ref: Justin Sausman Where are the Dead? A genealogy of Mediumship in Victoria Glendinning’s Electricity, pp.50-63 in Esther Peeren, and María del Pilar Blanco (Eds.). Popular Ghosts : The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.

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