Degree Granting Department
Fiction, Gothic, Neo-Victorian, Spiritualism, Victorian
This dissertation offers critical and theoretical approaches for understanding depictions of Spiritualism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian fiction. Spiritualism has fascinated and repelled writers since the movement's inception in Hydesville, New York, in 1848, and continues to haunt writers even today. The conclusion of this dissertation follows Spiritualist fiction as it carries over into the Neo-Victorian genre, by discussing how themes and images of Victorian Spiritualism find "life after death" in contemporary work. Spiritualism, once confined to the realm of the arcane and academically obscure, has begun to attract critical attention as more scholars exhume the body of literature left behind by the Spiritualist movement. This new critical attention has focused on Spiritualism's important relationship with various elements of Victorian culture, particularly its close affiliation with reform movements such as Women's Rights.
The changes that occurred in Spiritualist fiction reflect broader shifts in nineteenth-century culture. Over time, literary depictions of Spiritualism became increasingly detached from Spiritualism's original connection with progressive reform. This dissertation argues that a close examination of the trajectory of Spiritualist fiction mirrors broader shifts occurring in Victorian society. An analysis of Spiritualist fiction, from its inception to its final incarnation, offers a new critical perspective for understanding how themes that initially surfaced in progressive midcentury fiction later reemerged--in much different forms--in Gothic fiction of the fin-de-siécle. From this, we can observe how these late Gothic images were later recycled in Neo-Victorian adaptations.
In tracing the course of literary depictions of Spiritualism, this analysis ranges from novels written by committed advocates of Spiritualism, such as Florence Marryat's The Dead Man's Message and Elizabeth Phelps's The Gates Ajar, to representations of Spiritualism written in fin-de-siécle Gothic style, including Bram Stoker's Dracula and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. My analysis also includes the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who conceived of Spiritualism as either "the birth of a new science or the revival of an old humbug." Hawthorne's ambivalence represents an important and heretofore completely overlooked aspect of Spiritualist literature. He is poised between the extremes of proselytizing Spiritualists and fin-de-siécle skeptics. Hawthorne wanted to believe in Spiritualism but remained unconvinced. As the century wore on, this brand of skepticism became increasingly common, and the decline of Spiritualism's popularity was hastened by the repudiation of the movement by its founders, the Fox Sisters, in 1888. Ultimately, despite numerous attempts both scientific and metaphysical, the Victorian frame of mind proved unable to successfully reconcile the mystical element of Spiritualism with the increasingly mechanistic materialist worldview emerging as a result of rapid scientific advances and industrialization. The decline and fall of the Spiritualist movement opened the door to the appropriation of Spiritualism as a Gothic literary trope in decadent literature. This late period of Spiritualist fiction cast a long shadow that subsequently led to multiple literary reincarnations of Spiritualism in the Gothic Neo-Victorian vein.
Above all, Spiritualist literature is permeated by the theme of loss. In each of the literary epochs covered in this dissertation, Spiritualism is connected with loss or deficit of some variety. Convinced Spiritualist writers depicted Spiritualism as an improved form of consolation for the bereaved, but later writers, particularly those working after the collapse of the Spiritualist movement, perceived Spiritualism as a dangerous form of delusion that could lead to the loss of sanity and self. Fundamentally, Spiritualism was a Victorian attempt to address the existential dilemma of continuing to live in a world where joy is fleeting and the journey of life has but a single inexorable terminus. Writers like Phelps and Marryat admired Spiritualism as it promised immediate and unbroken communion with the beloved dead. The dead and the living existed together perpetually. Thus, the bereaved party had no incentive to progress through normative cycles of grief and mourning, as there was no genuine separation between the living and the dead. In the words of one of Marryat's own works of Spiritualist propaganda, there is no death.
Scholar Commons Citation
Good, Joseph, "The Dark Circle: Spiritualism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction" (2012). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.