On the Night Side

Antonio Melechi. Servants of the Supernatural: the Night Side of the Victorian Mind. William Heinemann, 2008. 

In popular history spiritualism and psychical research derive from the much vaunted Hydesville rappings; this book however explores their roots in the mesmeric and hypnosis movements of the first half of the nineteenth century. It centres around the life and controversial career of the mesmeric pioneer John Elliotson, and those who followed in his footsteps, producing all kinds of weird exhibitions and strange phenomena.

At the heart of many of the these performances were the ’servants of the supernatural’, literally domestic servants, often like the Okey sisters performers in mesmeric trances, but also perhaps like Harriet Martineau’s maid Jane Arrowsmith, the ones doing the mesmerising.

These performances contained in embryo most of the later (alleged) phenomena studied by psychical research, such as clairvoyance, telepathy and spirit guides. Interpretations varied, many such as Elliotson attributed the mesmeric effects to some new and mysterious physical force, they were materialists who were also attracted to phrenology. Others looked to more spiritual solutions. Magonia readers, looking at many of the performances by the servants of the supernatural, will note features not commented on directly by Melechi, such as the similarities to the performances of those who claimed to be under the spells of witches, or possessed by spirits, there are also distinct similarities to modern claims of ‘electromagnetic sensitivity’, wherein we can see a modern continuation of the idea of electricity as a mysterious occult force.

The question remains as to what these trances and performances were, “genuine” altered states of consciousness or acting out a role. Perhaps there is not such a dichotomy here as we might think, in that what is involved is a state of total absorption in a given role. These roles and performances like the ‘hysteria’ they were often supposed to cure were protests against the physical and social constrictions of women’s bodies and minds. The subordinate women such as the Okeys were able for a limited time to escape their backgrounds by becoming performers in the 19th century equivalent of Big Brother.

If the first part of this book was fascinating, I found Melechi rather less assured in his discussion of post 1848 spiritualism and psychical research, largely because the topic is just too large for the space allocated. The role of performance clearly comes into the discussion, and the use of spiritualism as a highway out of confined and boring situations. It propels Daniel Home from a probable future working in a store or a low grade class-room in some dull American Mid-West small town, to being a honoured guest of royalty. It takes Leonara Piper out of her boring old rut of domestic life to meet some of the leading intellectuals of her time. Similarly becoming the conduit for ’spirit guides’ of a particularly exalted character allows Rev Stainton Moses to articulate ideas and beliefs which would not exactly befit a Church of England clergyman of the period.

The account ends with the most enigmatic of all these mediums, Mrs Piper who greatly impressed the likes of Richard Hodgson, William James and Oliver Lodge but who failed to impress psychologists Stanley Hall and Amy Tanner. All that is left to us are contradictory texts which people will evaluate in terms of their own temperaments and beliefs, and which can never lead to resolution. Melechi does hint at a way she could have acquired information without resorting the supernormal powers. Given the extreme conditions that were set up, the only possible source of information was the investigators themselves. Melechi suggests that when she was in a ‘trance’ those around her let their guard down and talked among themselves as she wasn’t there.

But I wonder if this was only when she was in trance? Perhaps at an unconscious level these SPR grandees saw her as their employee and hence their servant, and on occasion just fell back into the habit of talking in front of their servant as she were not there, as their class were habituated to do in front of the housemaid. For all their hard line conscious precautions, including the employing of private detectives to follow her (proof of course that they did not regard her as their social equal) they couldn’t overcome their own unconscious prejudices and habits. -- Peter Rogerson

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