This essay will show why interest in the occult manifested in the Victorian Era and the ways in which it did. The word ‘occult’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as; ‘Not apprehended, or not apprehensible, by the mind; beyond ordinary understanding or knowledge; abstruse, mysterious; inexplicable.’ And it is with this definition that we will gain an understanding of the Victorians interest in occultism, and the very different ways in which these interests were shared by female spiritualists, as well as those whom had been left spiritually bereft by the work of Charles Darwin, and the scientific thinkers of the day who believed that their work was for the greater good of humanity.
In the early 19C Victorian audiences would be entertained by ‘scientific showmen’
who would demonstrate the latest marvels of science such as magnetism and attempts
to reanimate the dead with galvanism. There was an element of mystery to mesmerism, as Mesmer postulated that every being that breathed had within them a magnetic fluid. A kind of hidden life spirit. Many eminent scientists including Benjamin Franklin practiced mesmerism and the study of it led to the development of hypnosis. The practice of mesmerism - a therapeutic system popularised by Franz Mesmer, who believed that he had created a technique which allowed its practitioner power over another’s mind - carried on this tradition. As there were often clear class and gender differences between the mesmerist and subject, the roles could be inverted. Whilst in a trance the lowly parlour made could tell her employers what she thought of them with impunity. Similarly, the mesmerist could bark orders at his superiors without fear of
punishment. And the subversion of class and gender continued with spiritualism, Mesmerism’s successor. Spiritualism is the belief that the dead can communicate with the living or make their presence known by physically moving objects or by possessing the ‘medium’ in order to take control of her faculties so that transmission of the spirit’s thoughts are possible. This may have offered comfort to some. Others may have used it as a tool to break the constraints society held them in. Here we will look why this may have been an attraction for women. To the average 19c female, who had few rights, was unable to work, with no control over her own finances and had no access to education, segregated from the opposite sex (including her own male offspring from the age of four or five) the opportunity for women across the social strata, to participate in a séance would have held strong appeal. Offering women the chance to oppose restrictive social norms.
‘The séance reversed the usual sexual hierarchy of knowledge and power: it shifted attention away from men and focused it on the female medium, the center of spiritual knowledge and insight’
Spiritualism was an egalitarian pastime, anyone could join in. To many, communicating with the spirit world was seen as...