24 October 2017


Simone Natale. Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

Today we see the prepackaged corporate entertainment business as somehow separate from science, religion and daily life but in the Victorian period things were very different. Most entertainment, at least for the middle classes and the respectable working class, was often conducted at home, while outside the home popular sources of entertainment included inspiring sermons, recitations by authors and demonstrations of scientific marvels.
Spiritualism, which emerged in 1848, straddled these boundaries. Spiritualist experiences often began in the home, as one of a number of domestic entertainments; table turning was one of its original forms. Popular mediums however could broaden out to be platform speakers and more general performers. As Dr Natale, a lecturer in media studies at Loughborough University, shows a fair number of mediums had been professional performers, something which continued into the twentieth century, Eileen J Garrett and Gladys O. Leonard two of the most prominent mediums of the early twentieth century had connections to the theatre.

On stage, mediums could give 'inspired' lectures and quasi-sermons, play musical instruments, or in the case of physical mediums produce performances that occupied a liminal ground between 'scientific wonder' and stage magic, escapology and burlesque

Spiritualism imitated and subverted new means of communications. The raps by which the spirits were said to communicate were clearly pastiches of the tapping of the telegraph and the term 'spiritual telegraph' became a popular term for the process, and the new science of photography spawned the spirit photograph. This seems appropriate as photographs themselves become a kind of haunting after their subject’s decease, in old photographs the dead stare out at us through the camera lens, hinting that we shall soon follow them.

The spiritualist movement utilised all the paraphernalia of the media of the period from advertising to literature. This was the first age of true mass literacy and mass literature and all sorts of spiritualist literature was produced from periodicals such as Medium and Daybreak, through promotional pamphlets to ponderous biographies. Ghost stories formed a central theme of the literature of the period.

One special aspect of literature was that produced by automatic writing. Natale points out that this was at a time that people were fascinated by all sorts of automatons. The medium is reduced to author as amanuensis, relaying messages from the famous dead (these included Dickens and Oscar Wilde). A better strategy was create a fictional dead author, as Pearl Curran did with 'Patience Worth', said to be a seventeenth-century Quaker girl, but whose language resembled less that of Bunyan and the King James Bible than the olde worlde English of historical romance writers. There is an element of knowingness and satire in Pearl’s writing, as witness her creation of a character called Willie Passwater.

At the top of the game were the medium superstars, Natale’s example is Eusapia Palladino, whose performances were rather too raunchy for even Celebrity Big Brother. An even bigger superstar was Daniel Dunglas Home who featured many of the rich and famous among his clients. The dark side of celebrity is revealed in the fate of the Fox sisters' abusive and disastrous relationships, substance abuse, the descent into poverty, confessions and de-confessions worthy of any of today’s celeb mags.
Far from being an incidental byway of the media age perhaps spiritualism lies at its roots, that the very beginning of visual and performing arts lies in ecstatic encounters with 'the other' in shamanic and like techniques as suggested in Rogan Taylor’s Death and Resurrection Show. – Peter Rogerson

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