7 April 2010


Marlene Tromp. Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs and Self-transformation in Victorian Spiritualism. The University of New York Press, 2006

Concentrating on a forgotten group, the Victorian female materialisation medium, Marlene Tromp explores how they constructed liminal personalities and behaviours. There was the séance room with its atmosphere of suppressed sexuality, one of the few places where men and women could actually touch each other in the dark, and the materialised spectres produced by these mediums.
These materialisations, far more scantily clad than any respectable Victorian lady was allowed in mixed company, were often described in remarkably erotic terms by their male admirers. Their spectral nature allowed liberties to be taken which would otherwise have not been allowed. The relationship between William Crookes and Florence Cook/Katie King is an excellent example of this.

Sometimes this went to very dark lengths indeed, a modern reader finds the account of the spiritualist James Burn reporting of a spirit child named 'Cissie' giving him a "fervent kiss" which gave him a "peculiar thrill", and at another time had a round of kissing and hugging including "an altogether rich kiss", very disturbing, and hopes that on these occasions Cissie was played by the adult medium in disguise or by a doll, rather than by a child actor.

Even within the context of the spiritualist ideology there was little to distinguish between the medium and the spirit. The spirits were supposed to be built up from ectoplasm taken from the medium's body, and Tromp cites how mediums would often regard themselves as being doubly presented in their materialised role and in their bodies in the cabinet. Seeing these accounts one immediately connects them to comments made by actors as to how they can become caught up in roles, so that the boundaries between their identities and those of the part become blurred.

If the dead represent the outer world of the wilderness, the dead from 'primitive' societies represent this even more so. According to Tromp while American mediums materialised Native Americans, British mediums materialised African or Indian spirits. These materialisations represent the return of the suppressed 'other' invading the Victorian drawing room.

Tromp diverts from her main study to example a number of fictional ghost stories set in India, in which the oppression of the native masses produces dark revenges, and in which the land takes its revenge. Several of these stories struck me as not unsimilar to some of the allegedly true stories in collections such as Phantasms of the Living.

If sex was one problem faced by mediums, drink was another, as exemplified by the sad careers of the Fox sisters which Tromp documents, but fails to spot the obvious connections: that the Fox sisters, and indeed several of the mediums discussed here were early victims of the celebrity culture, and have many similarities to the sort of celebrities and reality TV stars whose emotional and marital problems are the constant fodder of the gossip magazines.

Indeed what struck me throughout this book was the strong connection between this 19th century spiritualism and show business, the culture of fame, the playing of roles, the sense of transgression, the loss of personal boundaries, the sense of being public property always on display and having to perform. We might argue that these mediums, because they were playing such often raw emotional roles, were even more subject to psychological problems.

Like many of these academic books, this one has lots of interesting insights and ideas, but does get trapped on more than a few occasions into the academic jargon and the almost by rote politically-correct citations. (Is it actually a professional requirement in these departments that one must refer to Jacques Derrida on a set number of occasions? I only ask)

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