So why were the Victorians so fascinated with the supernatural?
Was it really just because of the Victorian loss of faith and questioning of the existence of God after the publication of Darwin's On The Origin of The Species? If evolution was true and in an age of science and reason it seemed that it was, what was there after... all of this? Are we really doomed to slowly rot and return to the earth? Is there really nothing more? What about ours souls? Where do they end up? If we even have one!
Dickens may have used his ghost story to make a comment on social justice but why was it that so many people believed in the existence of ghosts and even claimed to have seen them? Due to the industrial revolution, people were forced to migrate from rural villages to the mass urban sprawls of the cities. People were displaced and suddenly in completely alien environments that didn't look or sound like the homes they had come from... maybe creaking doors and staircases fed their overwrought imaginations! Or maybe the explanation is as simple as the introduction of gas lamps which were a more reliable and constant source of light but emitted carbon monoxide if not fitted correctly- such a dangerous gas could cause folk to hallucinate and see shadowy figures in the newly lit corners of rooms...
What with all this talk of death it isn't any wonder that our Victorian ancestors became fascinated with ideas of the occult and spiritualism. Spiritualists like mediums, psychics and clairvoyants were believed to be gifted with being able to communicate with the spirits of the afterlife and their job was to provide information about the divine and give them loving messages from their bereaved. Some popular forms of communication included crystal-gazing, thought-reading, telepathy and Ouija boards, things that are still used today by people interested in the occult. Spiritualists also upheld the belief that spirits, like humans, are capable of evolving and exist on layers of separate astral planes depending on the type of spirit they are.
Punch on Spiritualism: Last News from the Spirit World. 10 June 1876
Despite the spiritual movement injecting excitement and intrigue into the mundane existence of Victorian life, it also caused problems for the traditional structure of Christianity and challenged the once cherished writing of the Bible. For Spiritualists, direct communication with spirits and the divine were more valued than the words of the Bible and what with the emergence of Darwin's theories; religion was starting to get phased out of society.
As a consequence, the movement became one of socialism and grew to be popular within repressed groups such as the working class and women. As a matter of fact, the rise of spiritualism actually prompted the rise of female power. In a society where women were forced to abide society's strict rules and had little control over their own lives, spiritualism actually opened a door of hope for them, as only females were thought to have the power of connecting the physical world with the spiritual one. Since the church offered no positions for women in society, women started to turn their back on religion, pulling the gap between man and religion further.
However, Spiritualism didn't just attract the women, as a matter of fact; spiritualism also interested men; and not just working class men, but the middle and upper classes too. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was said to have been intrigued with the notion of being able to contact the dead and like the Queen attended many séances to connect with the spiritual world. Well known for his famous Sherlock Holmes series, Conan- Doyle decided to abandon fiction in the early 20th Century and immerse himself in paranormal study. After years of researching the subject and witnessing some truly amazing phenomena like telepathy and hearing his own dead son, a very convinced Sir Arthur finally published A History of Spiritualism in 1926 and became renowned in his field of study.
Spiritualism in Literature
Ideas of communicating with the dead and uniting the spiritual world with the real one were dramatized in art and literature and opened up an array of genres for writers including gothic fiction, romance and mystery. Due to literature becoming more accessible to the public in the mid-Victorian era, writers were able to appeal to larger audiences and thus poems, novels and writing became more interesting. Victorian writers sought to entertain the public and spread social and political messages within their writing. Now, it goes without saying that writers such as Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Barrett Browning all did just that. Take for instance, Dicken's A Christmas Carol, underneath the ghostly face of the story lies a deeper moral message; in Ebenezer Scrooge's case, always be kind and generous as it pays off-something that perhaps lacked in the growing industrial era.
Romantic Victorian writings are also thought to have stemmed from the idea of spiritualism and focus on the idea that spirituality and reality can unite. Both Bronte sisters use paranormal to explore the eternal nature of true love and focus on spiritual connection between two people, Cathy in Wuthering Heights cries 'I am Heathcliff' (chapter 9) the meshing of her and Heathcliff signify the intense bond she feels towards him. Similarly, in Jane Eyre during the separation from Rochester, Jane feels an electric shock pass through her body, and hears Rochester whisper the words, "Jane! Jane! Jane!" (chapter 35).
Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is now famous for its Byronic hero Heathcliff. It explores the spiritual love between Cathy and Heathcliff, who because of social class never marry but become united in death. In Chapter three of Bronte's Gothic Romance, Lockwood, a visitor to the Heights is confronted with the ghost of the young Catherine Earnshaw- is this just his imagination stimulated by the storm outside and his recent reading of Catherine's diary or has the dead Catherine returned to her childhood home in search for her soulmate, Heathcliff?
The Growth of Spirituality
Despite the strong monarchy, perhaps one of the main reasons spiritualism thrived in Victorian society was due to the persistent social issues and tough conditions people experienced, maybe, spiritualism was a way of escapism from the monotony of everyday life.
Ghost on stairs: http://theghostdiaries.com/the-ghost-on-the-stairs/
Spiritual photo in field: https://www.pinterest.com/geisterportal/spirit-photography/
Dickens writing: http://www.goseewrite.com/2011/04/interview-with-rick-griffin-of-midlife-road-trip-lucky-13-questions/charlesdickensitwasthebesto/
Ghost image: http://www.howtogetridofit.com/wp-content/themes/mimbo/images/how-to-get-rid-of-ghosts.jpg
Punch on Spiritualism: http://www.victorianweb.org/periodicals/punch/103.html
Hand reaching through glass: http://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/english-online/collection-items-manual/f/r/e/freedman-barnett-iilustrations-b20144-95.jpg?w=608&h=342
Spirit and couple: http://www.slightlywarped.com/crapfactory/curiosities/2011/october/victorian_spirit_photos.htm
Man and Skeleton: http://mediacacheak0.pinimg.com/736x/de/42/b0/de42b0e4273fb70f186c402453a48dca.jpg
The Hairbell Fairy: http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/06/12/sir-arthur-and-the-fairies/
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre an autobiography. 2007 e-book http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1260/1260-h/1260-h.htm
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 2007 e-book http://www.gutenberg.org/files/768/768-h/768-h.htm
Gregory, Candace. A Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Victorian Reactions to Spiritualist Phenomena. http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/gregory.htm
Lees, Robert James. The Victorians and the Supernatural. http://rjlees.co.uk/victorians_and_supernatural.htm
Luckhurst, Robert. The Victorian Supernatural. http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural
Ghost Stories: why the Victorians were spookily good at them: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/23/ghost-stories-victorians-spookily-good