Historical Spirits

Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, Cambridge University Press, 1985,

This is an excellent detailed account of the social and intellectual background to the early years of spiritualism and psychical research in England, Oppenheim traces the various influences which impelled various people into these fields, in particular the search for an alternative to dogmatic Christianity and Materialism, In large part the arguments are illustrated by intellectual biographies of numerous participants including Sidgewick, Myers, Barrett, Wallace, Crooks and Lodge.

The book is divided into three main sections, The first, 'The Selling, examines the mediums and lay members of Spiritualist societies, sources of recruitment, etc, Part Two, 'A Surrogate Faith', explores the religious dimension, concentrating in three areas - the similarities and differences between the mainly middle- lass and metropolitan Christian Spiritualists and the working-class and provincial 'anti-Christian' Spiritualists; the roles played by the agnosticism of Myers, Sidgwick, et al in the founding of the SPR and the Theosophical! and other occult movements, '

The third section, ‘A Pseudoscience', explores the relationship between psychical research and psychology (including references to phrenology and mesmerism) and physics, with reference to Crooks, Barret and Lodge,.

Eschewing the polemics of an Inglis or a Brandon, Ms Oppenheim charts a course .of benevolent scepticism, aware of the great difficulties fac1ng the simplistic accounts of 'believers’ and 'sceptics', She is herself clearly sceptical of the claims of most physical mediums, but concludes that many puzzles remain and that if explanations are forthcoming will suggest that the Victorian and Edwardian psychical researcher glimpsed at least an element of the solution', and that "fundamentally their work was neither ridiculous nor even misguided, for through it they helped to find the means of accepting the changed world around them”.

With nearly 400 pages of text and nearly ninety pages of notes, this is not a light read, It is however an essential book for anyone with an interest in the history of psychical research, spiritualism, or the impact ,of science on religious faith in Victorian England. – Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 25, March 1987.

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