Spiritualism and Feminism

Alex Owen. The Darkened Room. Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late 19th Century England. Virago, 1989.

Alex Owen studies the lives of a number of women who were associated with 19th century spiritualism. She sees mediumship as a way in which women could improve their social status, independence and circle of friends. It was one of the few semi-respectable careers open to working class women, and even for the middle classes it could lead to an escape from the confines of the drawing room and being an adjunct to a male world. Instead the woman medium could become a figure of power and influence in her own right, and could associate with the rich, famous and intellectual.

British spiritualism, though generally progressive in outlook was considerably less radical than in the United States, where free-love was discussed and sometimes practiced. Despite liberating women, spiritualism still held to traditional notions of femininity, in which women were seen as submissive instruments of spiritual power.

If women became too progressive and independent however, their husbands and other relatives might be tempted to have them placed in lunatic asylums. Two women who suffered in this manner were Georgina Waldon, who turned her home into an orphanage organised on progressive lines, and Louisa Lowe, who acted too hastily on the advice of automatic writing. It must be admitted that both women were probably manic depressives, and Mrs Love had periods of severe paranoid psychosis - but as the saying goes, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you", and locking your wife in a lunatic asylum was a de facto form of divorce in the 19th century.

It was of course much harder for wives to have their husbands locked up. In Mrs Lowe's case it is difficult to tell whether the automatic writing (a dialogue between an Old Lady and God, in effect dialogue between depression and mania) exacerbated her psychosis or provided a safety valve. Some of her activities recall those of the modern day psychic questers.

Ms Owen sees the séance room as a theatre in which hidden desires could be played out - she points out the teasing semi-nudity of many materialised figures - a magical place in which the William Crookes of this world could be enchanted. She avoids the simplicities of both Ruth Brandon's and the Brian Inglis's approach to the subject, and presents a rounded and sympathetic portrait, which should be of great interest to many of our readers. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 34, October 1989.


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1 comment:

Faizan Mohammad said...

Interesting. I might read it more in the source. Thanks.