Sex, Ghosts and the SPR

Trevor Hamilton. Immortal Longings: F. W. H. Myers and the Victorian Search for Life after Death. Imprint Academic, 2009.
The first full length biography of the controversial Victorian psychical researcher, and likely to remain the standard biography for some considerable time, as well as being a major sympathetic study of the early days of the Society for Psychical Research, and of the Victorian milieu.

Hamilton takes us through the many complexities of this field, and the life of a peculiarly complicated man whose quest was conducted under a the tension of emotionally hoping to prove the post-mortem survival of his great love, his cousin-in-law Annie Marshall, and a rational desire properly to accrue evidence. How one assesses his success in this rather depends on ones own views on these topics, much the same goes for Myers himself. Partly this is because the founders of the SPR have been converted into plaster saints by many of their successors, and particularly in the satirical sixties there were those whose chief hobby was kicking plaster saints off their pedestals and breaking them into pieces. Thus believers and sceptics tend to separate very clearly into the 'right and romantic' or 'wrong and repulsive' schools (the options of 'wrong but romantic' or 'right but repulsive' don't get much of a look in). Hamilton very much leans to the former view, though he is aware of Myers' several faults, such as being a crashing snob.

Of course this was par for the course in Victorian times: patronage of the 'lower orders' being the willingness to believe just about anything the right sort of people told them. Hamilton tends to share this to some extent, for example his comments that certain pieces of information could only come from access to 'academic sources', which the medium Mrs Piper, being the dull wife of a dull shopkeeper couldn't possibly be aware of, let alone interested in. Once suspects that comment both underplays the accessibility of biographical information, and underestimates Mrs Piper's intellect; that the dull persona was just another act, conscious or otherwise, necessary to navigate life as a storekeeper's wife.

It is difficult to assess at this point in time just how good or otherwise much of the evidence accumulated by Myers and his colleagues was, not least because so much of it dealt with "matters of a private nature", i.e. lost and not all together appropriate love affairs. In Myers case this resulted in the long suffering Mrs Myers destroying much correspondence and notes, because it concerned his love for Annie Marshall. Hamilton excuses Myers on the grounds that this was a 'Platonic' love, but I am sure that the realisation that your partner is passionately in love with someone else, even if they have never slept with each other, and the other party is twenty years dead, can be no less devastating than finding out that they have had quite a few tumbles in bed, but still always in the end put you first.

Perhaps the fact that people today think any of this matters says much about the real status of psychical research. The edifices of mainstream science are not shaken to the core by the revelations that Isaac Newton was a total all round shit, who spent large parts of his intellectual life devoted to alchemy and Bible prophecy, that Antoine Lavoisier was a corrupt tax gatherer, that Michael Faraday was a member of a peculiar religious sect, that Albert Einstein was a womaniser who abandoned his first born to an orphanage etc. etc. Real science depends on the masses of accumulated evidence and not on the foibles of particular people.

Even if it were to turn out that Myers was entirely right and romantic, it would still be as pointless to resurrect his own particular theories, founded as they were on the physics and psychology of a past age, as to resurrect the pholigston theory of chemistry. Perhaps the best summing up of Myers would be that he was a complicated man in a complicated time, dealing with immensely complicated topics which unlikely to be resolved in the lifetime of anyone alive today, more than a century later. -- Peter Rogerson. 

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