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:



  1. It is an interesting point in the Victorian Age, the fact that people was intrigued by the supernatural.
    There were a lot of shows about magicians doing tricks and it was considered as supernatural.
    I think it is because supernatural is contrary to the principle of the religious dogma. They may not think that there could be a life after death.
    I like the picture because photography is something useful for living people because when you take a photo you take everything even what the eyes of a human cannot perceive especially supernatural phenomena.
    In some tribes, they considered photography as a way of taking away a part of your spirit

  2. Interesting post and I loved the facts and creepy pictures to go along. I thought it was a really good integration of history and literature of the time. The part about Victoria trying to commune with Albert also very fascinating!

  3. I am glad you take pride in what you write. This makes you stand way out from many other writers that push poorly written content. mental tricks