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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

The Divine Feminine Spirit: The Feminine Magic of Mediums and Ghosts by Amar Hoblos

            The practice of spiritualism and the belief that the spirits of the dead thrive among us like that of the living began centuries ago, with Native, Asian and African cultures and traditions. These spiritual practices and beliefs were and still are extremely sacred and prominent in these cultures and communities, however, in the mid-18th century and 19th century, spiritualism grew popular in Western and European culture. For this essay, I will be focusing on Western spiritualism and the Western view of female ghosts and female bodies. As spiritualism gained popularity and the number of believers grew fast, a certain power was acquired by women who followed spiritualism. Although men could be and were also spiritualists, the field was recognized and associated with women and femininity more often. As stated in The Spiritualist Medium: A Study of Female Professionalism in Victorian America, “Newspapers hostile to the vogue of spiritualism, and there were many of them, characterized male mediums as "addle-headed feminine men. [...] Phrenological studies, [...] reported the same thing. Mediums were weak in the masculine qualities of will and reason and strong in the female qualities of intuition and nervousness. They were im- pressionable (i.e., responsive to outside influences) and extremely sensitive. Above all they were passive. After all, it was queried, what spirit could manifest anything through a medium whose own personality was strongly assertive?” (Moore 201-203) Successful spirit communication was the result of a medium who could easily absorb the personalities of the spirits they are reaching out to. Passiveness and self-sacrifice were considered a feminine attribute man could not possess. 

            The occult and spiritualism defined many things, it applied to the many activities that relate to divination, such as palm and tarot reading, crystal work, astrology, light and dark magic, connecting to deities and spirits, spell and shadow work. In comparison, during this spiritual peak, the definition of women and femininity developed multiple meanings and titles like; the “New Woman”, the “medium”, and the “sensation heroine”. During the height of occultism and spirituality, it was noted in Women and The Victorian Occult that “Women form a strong affinity with the occult because just as the occult suggests a world beyond that of our immediate sense, so do women represent potential beyond those manifested in their usual roles.” (Kontou 2) As mentioned prior, although men were spiritualists too, and even mediums at times, it was a female field and one that attracted women because like spiritualism and occultism, it was otherworldly and women during this time were more divine. As a result, women who were drawn to occultism and spiritualism held great power, which gave them the ability to defy and push through the challenges of Victorian culture.

            Mediumship at the time grew tremendously popular. It is the practice of meditating and connecting for a brief period, with the spirits of the dead in order for the spirit of the dead to communicate with the living spirits that have summoned it. These practitioners were called mediums. The most popular forms of mediumship were seance tables and spirit channelling, however, trances and hypnotism as well as Ouija board activities were used and aided mediums in delivering messages. Women were considered the perfect candidates for spiritualists, occultists, and especially mediums because of the attributes of female sensitivity and female empathy. Victorian mediums were a “figure who subverts femininity and instigates questions of class, sexuality, and the position of women in the private and the public sphere both in this world and the next.” (Kontou 1-2)

            These attributes became a powerful tool in the occult realm that mediums would use to appropriate the emotions of a spirit they were attempting to reach out to and during seances. Despite the usual connotation that being sensitive and empathetic makes one meek and mild, and too “feminine” or too “weak”, it was a strong weapon to have during this time. “Sensitive nerves-- the privilege of women and effeminate men-- were not a sign of fragility but psychical tools with which to access the minds of the living and the dead.” (Women and The Victorian Occult 3) The connection between the supernatural realm and things alike, with Victorian women, specifically female mediums caught the eye of many. The ability to connect with the spirits of the dead was a strong power to be gifted, especially during a less fortunate time for women. As a result, spiritualism “promoted a species of feminine power whilst at the same time interacting with contemporary concepts of acceptable womanhood. [...] the main role women played in the development of the spiritualist movement is attributed to the similarities they shared with the spirits they were bringing to their audiences” (Women and The Victorian Occult 2) It seemed as though the spirits that they were contacting enhanced the already present powers of these female mediums and spiritualists. The two combined created a force that left many amazed by this newfound power that women collectively obtained. Women, “like the spirits, existed within an uncertain medium whose dimensions were simultaneously literal and metaphoric. Without legal rights or representation, that had their own metaphoric power in the vague but pervasive concept of “female influence”, and influence that the spirits themselves seemed eager to enhance and promote.” (Kontou 2)

            Spiritualists and mediums were not the only female figures that gained immense popularity and power-- the female ghost presented a new reflection on the power of women, that tied together with that of female spiritualists and mediums. The next three texts that I will be discussing showcase intense and strong female ghosts that are summoned to the living realm through seances and their own free will.

            The first text that I will be looking at is Lettice Galbraith’s In the Seance Room. This text follows the life of a man named Dr. Valentine Burke. Burke is blessed with amazing looks that allow him to take advantage of women. Burke was not economically stable, so despite his relationship with a woman named Katherine Graves, he gets engaged to a very wealthy woman who will inherit her father’s fortunes, named Elma Lang. Before anyone can find out about the affair, Burke murders Katherine in order to keep the affair a secret. Katherine's death was covered up as a suicide that Burke tried to prevent. He appeared to be a hero, and their affair became an eternal secret, or so it seemed. Throughout the story, his wife, Elma, notices a strangeness in their marriage; “The world knew nothing of the indefinable barrier which held husband and wife apart; of a certain vague distrust which had crept into the woman’s heart, bred of an instinctive feeling that her husband was not what he seemed to be. Something, she knew not what, lay between them. Her quick perceptions told her that he was always acting a part.” (Galbraith). It is important to note that this is the first encounter with a woman who in some way knows more than what is on the surface, showing that she is smart, analytical and intuitive.

            Later, both Elma and Burke visit a session with a medium. Elma decides to ask the medium to inquire about the diamond ring Burke lost when attempting to “save” Katherine Graves. The medium not only receives a message from Katherine admitting that he was with her the night she died and that she was hypnotized by him, but she also appears to return the ring to Burke. Katherine's appearance is very significant as it shows the opposite of the fetishization of femininity and the female body that has followed women throughout all eras. The female ghost brought a new type of rebellion because the “image of a woman’s corpse, to summarize crudely, had the ability to unsettle and question the patriarchal systems that fetishized and displayed female death in the nineteenth century.” (Bronfen 12) After this session, Elma adds all the pieces together and is fully convinced that Burke murdered her. Elma then leaves him with nothing, and Burke kills himself due to the stress of his secret being revealed and being left with nothing.

            Within this text, there are three separate women that display various strengths and powers that the Victorian era and spiritualism were aiming to display. The first woman being Elma and her intelligence and intuition that was able to feel and know there was more to her marriage and Burke than what he led on. The second woman being the medium. As mentioned prior, one of the greatest strengths of mediums is the ability to allow a spirit to present a message of any kind into the mortal realm. The medium worked the hardest to get Katherine to visit the seance session and speak the truth about what Burke had done to her. The third woman is Katherine herself. Katherine is the ghastly ghostly figure of this text, defying all stereotypes for women. Her character sends the message that even death will not stop a woman and that she only became more powerful as a ghost. It is very significant that the author of this text is a female writer because “Such imagery allowed female writers to enter into the male arena of science through the use of popular fiction. [..] when dead women are resurrected [...], the female author makes important and innovative contributions to debates that were in the Victorian period, a predominantly male arena “(Manghem 8) The whole vision and idea of what women are like and how they were perceived by society and men shifted. Spiritualists, occultists, mediums and ghosts, gave them the ability to unlock a power already within the female body and mind, and although the female body is “sensitive” and “fragile” in the mortal world, the ghostly female body is ruthless and a symbol of power.

            The next text that I will be looking at is Moonlit Road by Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce. This story is set in 20th century New Orleans, and recounts the tragic death of a woman named, Julia hetman, from three different perspectives; her husband who plays as the narrator, her son and she, herself, as a ghost. Julia was strangled to death on her own property, without any witnesses to explain what happened and so she became a ghost on the property. Julia seeks closure and upon seeing that her husband and son are full of melancholy she attempts to reach out to them. The use of mediums is also a large part of this text. Like the text “In the Seance Room” that I mentioned prior, the dead body of a female character plays a significant role. Julia’s son and her husband spend all of the stories feeling horrible for what happened to their loved one, and missing her greatly, however, it was on a specific night where Julia appeared on the moonlit road, desperately attempting to reach out to her husband and son, but only her husband could see her:

            Their faces were toward me, the eyes of the elder man fixed upon mine.  He saw me—at last, at last, he saw me!  In the consciousness of that, my terror fled as a cruel dream.  The death-spell was broken: Love had conquered Law!  Mad with exultation I shouted—I must have shouted, “He sees, he sees: he will understand!”  Then, controlling myself, I moved forward, smiling and consciously beautiful, to offer myself to his arms, to comfort him with endearments, and, with my son’s hand in mine, to speak words that should restore the broken bonds between the living and the dead. Alas! alas! his face went white with fear, his eyes were as those of a hunted animal.  He backed away from me, as I advanced, and at last turned and fled into the wood—whither, it is not given to me to know. (Bierce 310-311)

 Here we can see that Julia is not a vengeful ghost despite the harm that was done to her during her time in the mortal world. She simply wants to reach out and make a loving connection with her loved ones one more time. She truly believed it to be a beautiful moment, one that was so magical it could break the curse of being a ghost and apart from them, however, to her husband who saw her that night, it was the opposite:

In the shadow of a great dwelling, I catch the gleam of white garments; then the figure of a woman confronts me in the road—my murdered wife! There is death in the face; there are marks upon the throat.  The eyes are fixed on mine with an infinite gravity which is not reproach, nor hate, nor menace, nor anything less terrible than recognition. Before this awful apparition I retreat in terror—a terror that is upon me as I write.  I can no longer rightly shape the words. (Bierce 307)

Here we see that to Julia’s husband, this moment is not as beautiful as she thought it was. He was so frightened by the sight of her and his only object and reaction were to escape from it. This is like the previous discussion of the female body at death and ghostly females. The use of ghastly and horrific appearances of women combatted the notion that women were meek and mild, it contrasted the stereotypes of delicacy and fragileness that were held against women.

            The final text that I will be looking at is Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ Since I Died. In this story, the central focus is on the death of a wife. At first, we are given scenes where the wife shows us various memories. The wife attempts to converse with other characters in the text but receives no replies or attention. We find out later that these strange occurrences are because the narrator is the one that is dead. Concluding the narrative, we discover that the wife is trying to console her lover from the other side, who is also a woman. The story mainly takes place remembering memories from her previous life before she turned into a ghost. By the end of the narrative, she has to decide to leave the mortal world instead of lingering on, trying to reach her lover and hurting her feelings in the process. This text is different from the others mentioned prior because of its absence of horror and dark mystery and its absence of mediums, however, it is similar in the sense that all of these three texts have heavy themes of love. Despite Katherine Graves' haunting appearance that left everyone in the seance room horrified, she did once love Burke and the ghost of her did not do anything sinister. Katherine was frightening but that was merely the appearance of how she was at her time of birth. In addition, Julia was not a sinister ghost either, nor did she have any intentions of harming anyone, her goals and aspirations as a ghost was to simply be seen and connect with her son and husband once more. In the text Since I died, the wife, too, only had the desire to be with their loved one, once more and find comfort in their mortal memories. The wife, upon deciding to accept her fate as a ghost exclaims:

Am I blotted from your desolate fixed eyes? Lips that my mortal lips have pressed, can you not quiver when I cry? Soul that my eternal soul has loved, can you stand enveloped in my presence, and not spring like a fountain to me? Would you not know how it has been with me since your perishable eyes beheld my perished face? What my eyes have seen, or my ears have heard, or my heart conceived without you? If I have missed or mourned for you? If I have watched or longed for you? Marked your solitary days and sleepless nights, and tearless eyes, and monotonous slow echo of my unanswering name? Would you not know? Alas! would she? Would she not? My soul misgives me with a matchless, solitary fear. I am called, and I slip from her. I am beckoned, and I lose her. (Phelps 66-77)

The language used here is intricate, poetic and intense, arguably the most intense love shown between the three texts discussed. The ghostly wife shows readers a different side to ghosts, one that humanizes them and displays them as having the same emotional problems that mortals would have. In addition to this, it properly showcases the strong empathy, sensitivity and divine female attributes that were mentioned prior. This ghostly wife shows an extraordinary softness that is rarely displayed in texts that involve creatures (like ghosts) that are meant to be frightful, which, once again, shows a female ghost defying stereotypes as showing feminine attributes as being strong.

            It is also important to note that this story involves a lesbian couple. Homosexuality was neither popular nor seen as correct during this time, so for a female writer to write about these female characters so intensely in love, that not even death can separate them, is a huge step to fighting for the rights of women, women of any sexuality in the LGBTQ community and alike. Along with this, however, spiritualism was known to have an impact on the relationships between the sexes and the motion of marriage. Roles were changing for women and that included romantic relationships. As stated in Spirited Sexuality: Sex, Marriage, and Victorian Spiritualism, “Spiritualism and mediumship made possible a different way of conceiving of relationships between men and women, including sexual relationships, because it fragmented the social dichotomies and allowed for the reconfiguration of bodily and feminine subjectivity. These fractures often occurred at the site of female sexuality in the realm of the seance, but they splintered, in their wake, larger social formations, including an understanding of women's identities and marriage.” (Tromp 78) Therefore, it is highly likely that the changes in relationships between men and women could ease the introduction of same-sex relationships, as new ideas about female sexuality and relationships blossomed.

            Western and European female mediums, occultists, spiritualists and ghosts all shared a common belief and goal in some way or another, as they presented the world with new ways of perceiving our mortal realm and the eerie one beyond us. Their progress in the spiritual world is great, but the progress they have made in our mortal world is far greater. Spiritual women and mediums helped defy stereotypes about women while celebrating things that are feminine instead of shutting them down-- showing us that being a woman is being strong and that women have powers within them that can be unlocked whether it is spiritual or not. Victorian women and Victorian ghosts shifted the universe with touches of their magic upon all concepts and aspects of the feminine life to influence the many eras to follow it.

 Works Cited:
Bierce, Ambrose. “The Moonlit Road.” American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from
Poe to the Pulps, Library of America, 2009, pp. 302–311.
Collia, Gina. In the Séance Room ~ Lettice Galbraith. 1 Jan. 1970,
Duquette, Elizabeth, and Cheryl Tevlin, editors. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: Selected Tales, Essays,
and Poems. University of Nebraska Press, 2014. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Dec. 2020.
Kontou, Tatiana. Women and the Victorian Occult. Routledge, 2015.
Moore, R. Laurence. “The Spiritualist Medium: A Study of Female Professionalism in
Victorian America.” American Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2, 1975, pp. 200–221. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Dec. 2020.
Tromp, Marlene. “Spirited Sexuality: Sex, Marriage, and Victorian Spiritualism.”
Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no. 1, 2003, pp. 67–81. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Dec. 2020.


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