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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

Spiritualism: Empowering or Simply Tragic by Zainab Ahmed

          The idea of the Afterlife and what exactly happens after death is one that has been questioned by all of us at one point or another. For most of us, the hope is that with death, a person will finally be at peace. Suffering, no longer a burden they have to deal with. In her article, “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century”, Jennifer Bann examines the phenomena of spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead. Specifically, on how it caused a changing shift in late nineteenth century supernatural fiction, to move away from the notion of death being a limitation but rather to the idea of it bringing freedom. Seen in the statement, “shackles, silence, and regret were cast aside, and ghosts became active figures empowered rather than constrained by their deaths”. (Bann, 664) Such is an idea that, this paper will further discuss by focusing on the link between spiritualism and love using the texts, “The Cold Embrace”, “Since I Died”, and “Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman”, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Wilkie Collins respectively. These texts all deal with different forms of love: the unrequited, requited, and traumatic. By comparing and contrasting these texts, this paper will examine spiritualism and the theme of love to illustrate that in Victorian supernatural fiction, love is more painful and tragic than empowering.

        In the article, “Spiritualism: Communication with the Dead”, it is argued that by primarily using women as the conduits between life and death, spiritualism challenged common gender assumptions. (Guiterrez, 737) The use of mainly women being conduits, allows for both men and women to have the same powers and ability to affect the living world after death. This would not be possible while alive in this era, as men tended to have more power than women.  The central principle of spiritualism is that the dead were both willing and able to communicate with the living, and that their voice was worth listening to. (Bann, 667) In death, common marginalizations no longer existed, regardless of gender or social class, all spirits had the same power over the living world. The accepted conclusion being that:

The souls of both living and dead existed within the natural world, but the living were limited in perception and action to only a small part of it; with death, and with the loss of the mortal body, the soul experienced not further limitation but rather empowerment. (668)

The empowerment and freedom associated with the loss of one’s life can be seen in the ghost story “The Cold Embrace” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The following image illustrated by FS Coburn in the nineteenth century is the first thing that comes to mind when imagining Gertrude and her first interaction with her betrothed after dying: (See Fig. 1)

            The pure shock and fear on the man’s face fully illustrates how one feels in this moment. Although Gertrude is not described as a figure that looks like a demon, but rather as the same beautiful women she was when she died, the image of her cold hands around his neck brings a similar picture to mind, and further highlights the true horror of the situation. Further, emphasized by using the description of the serpent ring— a ring the narrator could recognize while being blind and used to marry Gertrude; proving that it is her hands embracing him.  This image also illustrates the idea of the spirit being able to have an effect on both the living soul and world around them, a power Gertrude lacked during her life and proves how death, was a source of power for her, she finally mattered.

         For Gertrude, life as a living mortal was one of passivity, she was never able to stand up for herself. Betrothed to an unfaithful man who she loved dearly and later forced into a marriage of her father’s choice, in her own words her life was filled with constant disappointment, “how many times she hopes, only to be disappointed” (Braddon, 26). In death, this changes, Gertrude has control over the world, she is able to embrace her lover and quite literally force him to spend eternity with her. By haunting him to the point of exhaustion leading to his death, Gertrude finally gets to be with her husband with them happily dancing for eternity. 

         Gertrude’s story is empowering at first glance, she gets revenge, but ultimately it is more tragic than it seems. There are two moments in which this can really be seen, the first is during their wedding where the narrator emphasizes that even death cannot part them because, if she loves him, then even in death she will embrace him. (26) The later events prove, that for Gertrude her love was real, she does in fact come back from the dead and embrace him, but this is what makes the narrator’s unfaithfulness even more wretched. If this is not painful enough, she then explains to him that people who commit suicide cannot enter heaven and their souls are then doomed to be restless for eternity:

The dead who die at peace with God are happy in Heaven, and cannot return to the troubled earth; and that it is only the suicide, the lost wretch on whom sorrowful angels shut the door of Paradise—whose unholy spirit haunts the footsteps of the living. (26).

The language in this statement is absolutely horrifying but not in the way one would typically associate the genre of horror with. There is no violence or blood here, just sorrow adding another level of fear that only the use of spiritualism in Victorian supernatural fiction can provide. This statement embodies everything that humans fear, the idea of the soul never being at peace and doomed to be restless until the end of time. Even if one is not religious, there is a common idea that hopefully death will result in peace, why else do we say, “rest in peace”? We want to believe that there will be some form of relief and that the afterlife does not always have to be a place of terror. For Gertrude, this statement proves the level of torment and suffering she was experiencing in her life, truly emphasizing the lack of control she felt over her circumstance. She committed suicide knowing full well that there would be no peace for her, and yet, it is a risk she is willing to take. Proving, the fact that her actions may seem justifiable and even necessary, but at the end of the tale, was it all really worth it? Some may believe it was because she finally got to be with the narrator and punished him for his actions, but ultimately, there is tragedy in forcing someone to be with you. By haunting him, Gertrude forces the narrator to have no choice in the matter, and does anyone really want to spend eternity with someone knowing that they do not love you the same way that you love them? It seems like this will only lead to problems, as both the souls of the narrator and Gertrude are doomed to be restless, having both committed suicide. The difference being one was on purpose— Gertrude, and the other forced— the narrator.

            The above tale deals with the concept of unrequited love and shows that fighting for love can be both admirable and painful. The use of spiritualism drifting from empowerment to pain is similarly noticeable in “Since I died” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, by exploring the idea of requited love. This is a story about a recently deceased woman and her lover, specifically, the conflict of wanting to be with her again and moving into the afterlife. The couple was in a relationship that is shown to be a great source of happiness for the narrator, she was in love and everything was great, until she gets sick and tragically dies. Early on, a statement is made discussing the notion that in contrast, to what is commonly thought, ironically, there is death in life and life in death, “to live is dying: I will die. To die is life, and you shall live” (Phelps, 62). Implying that living is the equivalent of suffering: one may be technically alive, but their souls are dead inside. The opposite is implied for the deceased, in death there is peace, truly allowing for one to live; for what is the purpose of living if not to be happy and at rest? It can then be argued that by being dead the narrator is empowered because she is finally at peace. She no longer has to struggle with the confinements that the living world placed on her. In this story and the time period, the relationship the narrator and her lover have is one that was commonly frowned upon—a romantic relationship between two women was a sin. Therefore, it is not presumptuous to assume that one cause of suffering that living imposed on her was the way that society viewed her relationship. There is no doubt, that most people despised or thought what they were doing was wrong and unacceptable. However, for the narrator, the woman she loves is her happiness, and in death she finally receives the freedom to be herself without judgement. 

            However, the narrator is desperate to reunite with her lover; establishing the reality that she is experiencing more pain than peace. This is when the concept of spiritualism is added to this story, the narrator mentions the tragedy of their love story and the desperation to once again be able to communicate with each other, even for just a moment. She expresses how she wishes for one more touch but alas knows this won’t be possible forming the tragedy of their story. One that no other relationship can relate to, the distinct separation between the soul of the dead and the body of the living, “the fear which no heart has fathomed, the fate which no fancy has faced, the riddle which no soul has read, steps between your substance and my soul.” (61) Proving, that no matter, how hard she may try the reality cannot be avoided, the truth is that she is dead and will never be able to reunite with her love. A fact that is reiterated when, despite her best efforts she cannot soothe her lover and convince her of her soul being at peace, “I tried to tell you how little pain I knew or feared. Your haggard face bent over me, I could not speak, when I would I struggled, and you said she suffers!” (63) This last statement is heartbreaking, truly displaying the kind of loving relationship these two women had. Even without direct communication – a consequence of the narrator being a ghost and unable to speak; her lover still picks up on her suffering. The narrator wants to bring her some peace by reassuring she is okay but is unable to. Resulting in an additional display of hardship, because death is supposed to bring peace, and here the narrator is struggling to provide it for the living. She is not experiencing it as she is too focused on her longing and is unable to move on. Demonstrating, that grief is a two-way street, it is not only the living who mourn but also the deceased. Mourning, the people they used to be, their loved ones, and the memories they will hold on to for eternity, even if, their loved ones on earth will eventually move on. A truly heart-breaking thought, but one that t is reality for the narrator of this tale, she will never be able to escape. Even in the end, when she is presented the ability to finally move on, she still turns back to try and tell her lover something, proving that her longing is eternal, and she will always have unfinished business.

            The last form of love that this paper will look at in relation to the concept of spiritualism and how it can be more tragic than empowering is the one seen in “Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman” by Wilkie Collins— a love that is traumatic. This tale is full of tragedy from the beginning, Miss Jeromette is first introduced as a woman who cannot escape from a man stalking her, and the narrator then steps in to help her. From this interaction alone, it is proven that Miss Jeromette lives in a society that does not care about her or what she has to say. The man does not leave her alone, even when she explicitly tells him to. It is only when the narrator steps in that, she is free from him. One should not be fooled into immediately believing that this proves the narrator is a good person, because even he admits to lying in order to get what he wants. He wants to spend more time with her and lying is an easy way to achieve this. He is enchanted by her and has no ill intentions but, is still a man who takes advantage of a woman who is alone, “I took a man’s unfair advantage of her, by appealing to her fears.” (Collins, Chapter II) While she was alive, Miss Jeromette suffered a painful life, she was lonely and genuinely believed that even her death would be one that was horrific. She was in a relationship with a man who did not respect her and only brought her pain, but yet knew if asked, she would return to him, against her better judgement. An idea, similar to the story of “the cold embrace” in that both Gertrude and Miss Jeromette are women who cannot escape their feelings about men who are nothing but a source of misery for them. Unlike Gertrude, Miss Jeromette later has another lover, the clergyman— but even he brings her pain leaving for his career. This story deals with empowerment through death and spiritualism, because the belief is that despite her horrific life and death, she is finally at peace. When she reconnects with the narrator at the end, she is described to be a divine figure, implying that in death she is happier, no longer traumatized by her past. In this moment, Miss Jeromette has power she never had in her life, she is able to stand up for herself by identifying her killer. Thus, allowing her to finally break from the shackles her all-encompassing love for the senior pupil trapped her with. By dying, Jeromette is finally free from a love that truly only made her miserable and will not go back to him. Unfortunately, this moment of peace is only short-lived because even though, spiritualism allows for her to send a powerful message to finally receive justice, ultimately, the murderer is not convicted. The story ends with the clergyman being the only one who knows what truly happened, but has no way of proving it other than his story, so he is also left with no choice other than suffering guilt for not doing anything sooner until the end of his life, proving this is indeed a sorrowful tale.

          These three tales prove that despite, the common belief being that spiritualism results in empowerment rather than limitations for the dead, this is not true. When combined with the theme of love, this concept is far more tragic than empowering. A theory proven, by the analysis of three different texts that each looked at three different forms of love, and yet the ending was initially the same. All three, dealt with characters who were women and all experienced different forms of love, one that was unrequited, requited, and immensely traumatic, but the result was overwhelming tragedy in all three. As mentioned above, in spiritualism, there is a notion of equality regardless of gender in death, however, these stories all illustrate that for women, life is a source of suffering not only while alive, but also while dead. Symbolizing the way that Victorian society viewed women, they did not get a lot of say in situations and having your voice heard was a struggle. In these stories, none of the women truly get peace, they are all tormented by the lives they lived, regardless if they were full of love and happiness like the narrator in “Since I died”, or if they are tragic, like the case of Gertrude and Miss Jeromette. Therefore, it is safe to say that the use of spiritualism combined with the theme of love in these stories, portrays that instead of empowerment, the only thing death will bring is pain.

Spiritualism and Love: Empowering or Simply Tragic 
by Zainab Ahmed is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
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