Peter Lamont. The First Psychic: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard. Little Brown, 2005.
The 'notorious wizard' in Lamont's book is Daniel Home the medium. Lamont here tries for a balanced biography, avoiding what he sees as the one-sided presentations of earlier biographers. These have either been by spiritualists presenting Home as a heroic figure possessing marvellous powers, or sceptics portraying him as a dyed in the wool villain and obvious fraud. Lamont notes that both sides have the habit of ignoring inconvenient facts.
That being said it is not clear how much Lamont has managed to add to the story, because Home remains an elusive character, known mainly through his own writings and those of his friends and enemies.
What has always emerged has been that Home in some ways was a surprisingly modern character, a media personality, famous for being famous as much as anything else. Like a good number of modern 'celebrities' Home tried to get out of the box he had been placed in, trying his hand at acting, sculpting, reporting and so on. He even had a period in which he thought about being a monk, the 19th century equivalent of the drying-out clinic. Like many modern pop idols he was sexually ambiguous. He was a star among the ladies, married an aristocratic Russian teenager, and for a time was the toy boy of an ageing widow but his relationship with two young Victorian men about town Adare and Lindsay was distinctly homoerotic. It was these two who were witnesses to some of his most amazing feats, such as the famous Ashley House levitation.
Like a rock star Home rose into the highest aristocratic circles: the rich and famous wanted to know him because he was the in thing. Others such as Robert Browning and a Dr Carpenter hated him with a vengeance. often going beyond the bounds of reason in their loathing.
Was Home genuine'? Here Lamont hedges, but finally suggests that he was indeed a charlatan whose methods of cheating were never found out, and that there is little good evidence that he was ever detected in fraud. Lamont concedes that in a way if Home were a charlatan it is almost as mysterious as if he were a genuine psychic. How could all those apparently sane people have been convinced that he hadn't cheated? Could they all be wrong, and if so was does that say about eyewitness testimony for anything? But to say he was a genuine psychic doesn't get us any further forward either, for there is no definition of what 'psychic means, or how any paranormal force operates. Either way there is an impenetrably mystery. Perhaps Home was the trickster, shaking people out of conventional ways of looking at the world.
He was scientifically tested by the likes of William Crookes, an eminent scientist, but then Crookes also endorsed the young and pretty Florrie Cook and her remarkably look-alike materialisation Katie King. Was Crookes in on the act or just so bowled over by her that he couldn't think straight? Who knows?
There are perhaps hints of what is going on which Lamont doesn't pick up on. Firstly. Home's life as the permanently unwell outsider, the lonely child living a world of his own imagination, pushed out by his parents to live with some sort of aunt. His father claimed to be and perhaps was the illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Home (an ancestor of the former Tory Prime Minister), something else which might have set Daniel apart from his fellows. There is a sense of a part being
acted. Maybe this is someone who never knew who he really was and therefore could take on many roles.
Perhaps his performances were part of some sort of play reality, the séances becoming places and times where boundaries could be broken down, and even the Empress of France's dress played with by unseen hands. Perhaps there is something in the psychology of small, interdependent groups that we really don't quite understand.
Perhaps some people can persuade those around them to believe anything, for example the British press a few months ago was full of the story of an individual who had persuaded several quite sane and educated people that he was a spy, and had taken over their lives for years at a time, keeping them almost prisoners by convincing them that their lives were in danger. Compared with that, convincing people they had seen miracles in the half light of a seance room doesn't seem all that difficult. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 90, November 2005.