Friday, 15 January 2016

The Victorians and Spirituality

So why were the Victorians so fascinated with the supernatural?

The Victorian era was the golden age for natural discoveries, industrial advancement and scientific achievement. However, despite the civilized and rational surface of Victorian society, a darker and less civilised fascination with the unexplainable and paranormal lurked beneath the surface.

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!

Writer's of the period share the public's fascination with the ghostly other worlds, making the era famous for its tradition of ghost stories... Dickens' Christmas Carol being one of its most famous. How many of us remember settling down with a glass of our favourite fizzy pop and booing to Scrooge and ahhhing Tiny Tim. A Christmas Carol is a ghostly allegory that warns of the dangers of living a greedy selfish uncharitable existence... the ghosts may hint at an 'imminent moral reckoning' but they also offer Ebenezer Scrooge the gift of hope; a second chance to escape retribution by living as a charitable citizen with a social conscience.

‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.’

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... 

A fascination with ideas of the occult and spiritual realm became fervent within society for many reasons, one of the most probable reasons being the high mortality rates for it was stated that "Fifty-seven out off every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age" thus death and mourning became a central part of daily life for the Victorian. In fact, no one was more fixated on death and spirituality than the lady herself; Queen Victoria. After the sudden death of her husband she resigned herself to over 40 years of mourning and entertained many mediums in an attempt to communicate with Albert once more, a similar story to that of Heathcliff and his Cathy perhaps?

In 1848, the young Fox sisters of New York heard a series of tappings, a spirit apparently communicating with them through code, and their story spread quickly. The vogue for spiritualism was under way.

Spirituality as Practice

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?

'I must stop it, nevertheless!' I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch ; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little ice0cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a melancholy voice sobbed, 'Let me in-let me in!' (pg22,Ch3)

Like the spirits in A Christmas Carol, the spirit of Catherine Earnshaw directly communicates with Lockwood and even physically touches him. Imagine! The union of spirit and human demonstrates the thrill the Victorians took from direct spiritual connection.

The Growth of Spirituality

There is also an element of uncanniness that surrounds writing of that era, for instance in both Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Bronte's Wuthering Heights the characters experience a haunting between waking and sleeping, so there is always a possibility that they spirit they encountered is a dream. Indeed, sleep was used throughout Literature to disguise spirits as hallucinations and leave the reader uncertain about the story. This not only occurred in literature but fascination with uncertainty translated itself onto art, theatre and photography. In the late Victorian era, all forms of trickery were used to try and include things of the divine into reality, photography being the most popular. Demand for spirit photography was high during Victoria's reign and soon spiritualism became a working industry.

Famously, in 1917, two teenage girls in Yorkshire, Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffiths (age 10), created two photographs of themselves with fairies. The photos showed the girls dancing with fairies and supposedly communicating with them. For a while, people were convinced that the photos were real and even Conan Doyle published his notes on the case purporting them to be genuine.

Overall, spiritualism was a movement that started in the mid-19th Century and continues to gain prominence in literature today. As the time, spiritualism and paranormal activity were used to question elements of society at the time and address the exacting pressure that both the Enlightenment and religion caused. What with the constriction of the church and the emergence of the Enlightenment, the spiritualist movement sought to expose human ignorance about reason and logic and hinted that it was absurd for humans to believe that they were all powerful and all-knowing. Although the Victorian period was stable in terms of the monarchy, there was a lot of social unrest and the thrill and excitement that the movement caused has lasted throughout the 20th century, and even today society is fascinated with the ideas of spiritual life, like possession, haunting and even beliefs about extra-terrestrial life.
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.


Image reference:
Work Cited/Used:
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre an autobiography. 2007 e-book
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. 2007 e-book
Gregory, Candace. A Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Victorian Reactions to Spiritualist Phenomena.
Lees, Robert James. The Victorians and the Supernatural.
Ghost Stories: why the Victorians were spookily good at them:


Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Changing Perceptions Of Women In Literature

The Changing Perceptions Of Women In Literature

It is often thought that the Victoria era was a time of change and modernity, and for women, a period where their role in society evolved. Despite Britain being ruled by an effective and popular Queen, there was still significant inequality between men and women. In short, women were marginalised. Due to this, the main focus of this blog will centre around the perception of women in the Victorian era, and a Freudian interpretation their status in society.

Sigmund Freud 
 At the time, it was seen as a respectful act for a woman to cover her legs; if she was a respectable lady, her entire body would be covered. It was a common misconception, however, for people to also cover the legs of tables, chairs and other objects. A Freudian understanding was that the sight of such things would spark sexual desire: ‘...Victorian age ladies used to cover the legs of their chairs too, because they were legs, and legs were not to be shown"[1]. According to Freud, the legs of a chair, and of any other object, could be viewed as phallic suggestions, and sitting in the chair, as a woman, showed her willingness and desire to enjoy sex. In Freud and his Followers, Freud suggested that once a man has taken a woman’s virginity and her love, no other man can compare to the initial experience. Freud’s theories, however, do not take into account the obvious examples of how women did, and continue to, disassociate themselves from love when engaging in sex. Prostitution, for example, which was very popular at the time, was a potentially lucrative endeavour, and this reality greatly undermines Freud’s argument.

“Whoever is the first to satisfy a virgin’s desire for love, long and laboriously held in check, and who in doing so overcomes the resistance which have been up in her through the influences of her milieu and education, that is the man she will take into a lasting relationship, the possibility of which will never be again open to any other man.”[2] (Roazen)
Women were depicted as objects of desire, though according to doctors, such as John Harvey Kellogg, if a man wished to fulfil his sexual desires, he should acquire a prostitute, as a wife would be placed in pain if used for desire. For Kellogg, a man’s wife should only be subjected to the action of sex for procreation. The Victoria era was notoriously repressive, and it wasn’t only women that were subjected to sexual scrutiny. Though it was also taboo for men to consider the prospect of sex, the invention of the ‘jugus penis[3]’ was used to prevent any form of erection or desire to masturbate if the end result was not to conceive.

Robert Browning was a controversial Victorian figure, and not only developed female protagonists in his poems/short stories, but also depicted them as victims, rather to be seen and not heard, a common philosophy for the time. Both Browning and his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were regarded as leaders of the feminist movement through their writing in the Victorian period. The poem, Porphyria’s Lover, could be seen as a symbolic poem to reflect the true treatment of women, contextualising the fact that at the time, it was more important for a woman to be seen rather then heard. At the moment where Porphyria enters the cottage, and is disrobing, she calls to the unknown male narrator, and simply ignores her: ‘...And, last, she sat down by my side/And called me. When no voice replied/She put my arm about her waist...’[4]

Throughout the poem, there is a focus on the protagonist’s appearance, her ‘yellow hair’ being the main source of his admiration for her. The poem, however, holds a darker element when her hair and beauty become the making of her death: ‘ one yellow string I wound three times her little throat around and strangled her...’[5] This, in many ways, could be a subtle way of displaying a social context; that a woman's lavish appearance could potentially lead to her demise, as she attempts to be seen. This could be considered as a threat to a dominant male’s masculinity. It is therefore evident that, to truly be an obedient lady, one must be submissive to a man’s actions, and Porphyria’s Lover clearly displays a man’s need for superiority. The fact that ‘God has not said a word’[6] in regards to Porphyria’s murder merely suggests it was considered God’s order to have women in a state of submission. 

The Laboratory, another of Browning’s poems, adopts a slightly different tone, where a woman narrates. The language and tone of the poem suggest that it is she who is associated with power and manipulation, and her male lover being the cause of her mental anguish. This, in effect, was a complete juxtaposition and role change of the social standards, and Browning’s unknown female narrator was a radical one. She is consumed by revenge, caused by the lover in question, therefore her actions are a product of his doing. Throughout the poem, the narrator’s primary objective is to create pain to her lover, by poisoning his mistress, and the language used suggests she’s takes great enjoyment from the scheme: ‘...And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue, Sure to taste sweetly,—is that poison too?’[7] She is idealising the notion of death, as she describes the phial’s colour with wistfulness and purity. This links back to Porphyria’s Lover, where death is also romanticised. The Laboratory, however, justifies the act of murder, by suggesting that the scorned female is acting out of revenge: ‘He is with her ...Where they are, what they do: they believe my tears flow’[8]. This may be Browning attempting to show how even the most criminal of acts committed by a woman are seen to be done with rationality. This is in contrast to Porphyria’s Lover, the male narrator has no motive for his murder, and seems to be acting randomly. The narrator in The Laboratory also uses language that echoes the attitude of men towards women in society, such as casting judgement of her rival lover’s figure: ‘What a drop! She’s not little, no minion like me’[9]. Here, Browning is suggesting that so consumed with hate is the narrator , that she is expressing herself in a way typical of a man, which shows how far a woman can by corrupted by a man’s impact on her.


It is clear that the perception of women in literature throughout the Victoria era began to change, and these selected poems are both attempting to highlight the changes of women’s roles in society. They both display extreme ends of women’s representation in society. A woman has to remain obedient to her husband, and if she dares to stray, she will only be led to the path of destruction or prostitution. The only way to remain pure is to have an honest life with one man. In Porphyria’s Lover, there is an allusion to forbidden love, so Porphyria’s death can be seen as the result of her own actions. The narrator concludes that his murder is just, after reassuring himself that ‘no pain she felt’[10], and that God’s lack of interference is a sign that the narrator, at least in his own mind, carrying our God’s unspoken will. A woman’s obedience is shown in The Laboratory is even more apparent, as it appears that the only way the narrator can convince a man to make poison for her is not through money, but with a kiss. Her body is still the object of desire, and her the money is worthless without a kiss.

[2] Roazen, Pete.  ‘Freud and his Followers’, chapter Love and Marriage, page 49
[4] Browning, Robert. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’
[5] Browning, Robert. ‘Porphyria’s Lover’
[6] Browning, Robert. ‘Porphryria’s Lover’
[7] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’
[8] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’
[9] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’
[10] Browning, Robert. ‘The Laboratory’