Supernatural Victorian Era

The Victorian era marked the beginning of the supernatural which has only grown with the passage of time. Between 1750 to 1950 the main focus in Britain was on religion and it was this focus on religion which was accompanied by several beliefs.

England witnessed some sort of a contradiction. On one hand was the emergence industrial revolution which modernized the world with the help of new scientific inventions whereas on the other hand practices like the witchcraft still found a place and were considered extremely popular. As time passed by, this fascination grew all the more intense.

Since the advances in science were so fast, for some time, the distinction between natural and the supernatural often became blurred. Even the literary culture of the Victorians was touched by the interplay of science and magic.

Parlour magic book
Parlour magic book
Spirits fraud book
Spirits fraud book
Magic tricks
Magic tricks

Mesmerism

There were other movements that emerged in this interval between science and belief. In the 1830s and 1840s, there was Mesmerism, in which miraculous medical cures could be affected by manipulating the invisible flows of ‘animal magnetism’ that passed through and between bodies.
Mesmerist advert
Mesmerist advert
A Mesmerist was someone who could throw his subject into a trance. This allowed (allegedly) the passage of energy into the weaker body of his patient to recharge him!
Franz Anton was the Mesmer who theorised this in the feverish atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Paris. A team of academy scientists discredited, however, it became a popular medical treatment.
Trance was associated with great supernatural powers like gifts of cure, visions of the future, heightened senses, and a merging of minds typical of the rapport.
John Elliotson was a passionate convert in London but lost his post at University College Hospital. Charles Dickens actually defended Elliotson since Darwin believed himself an expert Mesmerist.

Spiritualism and mediums

1848 was the revolutionary year for a new religious movement from New York. There was a claim made by Fox sisters that they connected with the unquiet spirit of a murdered man in their house who communicated with them by loud knocks on wood.

Table movement to connect with spirits
Table movement to connect with spirits

This fraudulent news was the origin of the Spiritualist movement, which talked about a method of communicating with the dead in through mediums. Delicate, sensitive women were the choice of medium. Although not allowed by the bible, it became a dissenting belief. The testing and experiment were the talks of the era.

Spirits fraud
Spirits fraud

The arrival of American medium Mrs. Hayden in 1852 can be attributed to the spread of Spiritualism to England. Industrial “religion dissenting” north of England started accepting it. Many men of science like the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, were also converts.

Victorian Spiritualism, also called as the Spiritualism movement, started in the late 19th century and attracted people from different social classes, including Queen Victoria. Victorian Spiritualism was particularly attractive to women because they were regarded as more spiritual than men.

Late Victorian era saw a large number of people claiming to have communicated with ghosts.

Spiritualism in literature

A book called The Night-Side of Nature (1848) authored by Catherine Crowe was a collection of anecdotes and stories that were somewhere between truth and thrilling tale. Dickens preferred Mesmerism over Spiritualism and his popular journals helped establish the Christmas ghost story. Females were particularly sensitive to the spirit-world which also helped the supernatural tales as the women writer’s forte’. e.g. Margaret Oliphant to Vernon Lee and Edith Wharton.

Ghost stories

It was around the same time, the fad of fairy tales started slowly fading out.

The fairy tales were, however, replaced by the ghost stories which continued to haunt for few more centuries. It was a popular belief back in the medieval Britain that while all good people went to heaven, bad people always found a place in hell and also that the dead often came back as ghosts to haunt the living. These beliefs became so strong that the Catholic Church had to keep a portion of its space reserved for the ghosts to operate.

The rise of Protestantism, however, led few of the sections of the society especially the elite class people to believe that all such beliefs were nothing but fraud and deception though this in no way restricted the people from refusing to believe about ghosts. The end of the 17th century saw a slight respite as people had become reluctant in believing about ghosts and haunted houses but then again, this posed a threat to Christianity as people had started becoming atheists.

Along with the whole concept of belief in ghosts, there also emerged another concept simultaneously which was that of witches. The popular notion about witches was that they practiced magic and flew during nights.

These witches also had some dark powers. In the 18th century, all the enactments made earlier regarding witchcraft stood repealed. Till this time also, a large section of the people continued to believe in all these beliefs. If any person suffered from some illness or was undergoing a rough phase, it was considered that it was due to the influence of witches.

However, with the passage of time, the belief in witches started fading away. This did not affect the belief in ghosts though for reasons best known to them. Even the Bible mentions about ghosts. In fact, this belief grew so strong that ghost stories soon found a part in the writings of all the eminent writers. For instance, Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol also referred to ghosts. Such was the impact of beliefs in the Victorian era.

Additionally, the Victorians were also keen in the postmortem existence of an individual and the thought of how the heaven was like. The Protestants, however, preferred to believe in a simple rule that sinners went to hell whereas the righteous went to heaven thereby leaving no place for the ghosts to exist and wander about. This is the reason why spiritualism as a concept was widely accepted since it involved striking a conversation with the dead.

These beliefs in supernatural concepts had become so strong that even after providing the people education and bringing about a radical change in the social structure, these beliefs continued to persist. To top this, spiritualism further endorsed the concept of ghosts and hence received a large audience. It was only after the Great War that spiritualism lost its support resulting in fading of the concept of ghost though ghost stories continued to create ripples.

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