Spirits and Society

Jenny Hazelgrove. Spiritualism and British Society Between the Wars. Manchester University Press, 2000.

This is not a work of psychical research and readers will not find here a judgement as to whether the claims made by Spiritualists were 'real', nor is it a full history of psychical research and Spiritualism between the wars. Rather it is a study of the relationship between Spiritualism and aspects of society and popular culture, with particular emphasis on the light it sheds on gender relations.

Hazelgrove points out that most previous histories of Spiritualism have ended at 1914, suggesting that Spiritualism ceased to have a major impact after that date. However, the mobvement really took off during the first world war and had a major social presence between the wars, boosted by the activities of champions such as Oliver Lodge, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Price.

She looks at the psychological and cultural backgrounds encouraging both support and hostility towards Spiritualism, and notes that Spiritualists could use rhetoric having at least a superficial similarity to popular Catholicism, for example in the intercessionary role of the dead. Religious groups might see Spiritualism as an ally, but more usually saw it as a competitor to be condemned. For some writers such as Elliott O'Donnell, Spiritualism joined communism as aprt of a legion of vague conspiracies threatening the established order.

Much of the hostility came from the prominent role of women as mediums; O'Donnell was one of those most exercised by the role of women in Spiritualism, part of his violent hostility to feminism, which led him to imagine conspiracies led by lesbians all around him. They were symbols of the new woman.

Hazelgrove sees women in Spiritualist rhetoric being cast into the role of Mary the Mediatrix, or Joan of Arc, the warrior for truth. She explores the role of women in mediumship through the biographies of mediums such as Eileen Garrett and Estelle Roberts, both of whom we can recognise as quintessential fantasy-prone personalities. Of course, though mediumship was a way that women could earn a living and gain a social role, they were still often controlled by male authority figures, both in the leadership of the Spiritualist movement, such as the autocratic Hewart McKenzie, or through male spirit controls. She notes the very different attitudes that, for example, Harry Price adopted towards the slim, attractive and middle class Stella Cranshaw, in contrast to Helen Duncan who was none of the above.

She makes the interesting suggestion that the notion becoming popular in this period that poltergeists were generated by the 'sexual energies' of adolescent girls, was a projection of the sexual excitement and fear they produced in men, and beliefs that female sexuality untrammelled by marriage was 'dangerous' and disruptive. Of course the prominence of women as mediums was an expression of the traditional idea of woman as the 'sensitive' sex, prone to to dissociation and hysterics. Men mediums were often denounced as effeminate, neurotic and unmanly and were widely believed to be homosexual.

Hazelgrove also traces the popular impact of Spiritualism through literature, drama and film, showing how 'reality' and the popular media were already interacting upon one another. There is perhaps an irony here, for in the pst-war period Spiritualism was one of many of the traditional forms of recreation that were marginalised by television. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 76, November 2001.


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