Victorian Spiritualism



Years ago, I took a writing class that was held in an editor’s home in Concord, Massachusetts. The editor/teacher mentioned that Arthur Conan Doyle had once been a resident, and the reason Sir Conan Doyle had rented the house was because toward the end of his life, he’d become interested in spiritualism and the world on The Other Side. The Concord house was near an enclave of the U.S. spiritualism movement—and it was reputed to be haunted.

You have to love the idea that the man who’d invented the utterly rational Sherlock Holmes had gotten caught up in the world of spiritualism.

The spiritualism (often spelled with a capital S) movement was more than a fad– ghosts became extremely popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Spiritualists usually sought contact with spirits of the dear departed. Victoria herself grew interested in the movement after Albert’s death. Yet stories with other sorts of spirits became popular during her era—Ghost of Christmas, anyone? And those stories were often linked to the spiritualism movement.

One reason the idea of the other world might have become so popular was that “[the] uncanny offered an escape from modernity and consumption. Christmas, with its conflicted consuming/giving narratives, embraced the uncanny as a defense against overwhelming materialism.” (Tara Stern Moore from her book Victorian Christmas in Print: Nineteeth-Century Major Lives and Letters)

Hmm. Sound familiar? The more things change. . .

Some aspects of Victorian culture seem less modern. Stern Moore wrote that “because of the ghostly nature of the Christmas story-telling circle, Christmas book sales became involved in the debate over Victorian spiritualism.”

Well-known, well-respected authors got caught up in the movement. The interesting thing is that Dickens–the man who popularized the spirit of Christmas—mocked the movement and didn’t believe in ghosts. He and William Howitt, a Victorian poet and fierce proponent of spiritualism, wrote each other long, public letters arguing about the existence of ghosts.

The debates between skeptics and practitioners included some fabulous sneering name-calling. I read a few of them while doing research about spiritualism for latest Bonnie Dee/Summer Devon story, The Psychic and The Sleuth.

Bonnie and I skipped the potentially interesting tension between an adherent to the faith and a non-believer. Our book features two skeptics, one of whom is a con artist out to make money — and who stumbles over the uncanny world.

Séances and automatic writing (such as the Ouija boards, which took off in the 1890s) were almost commonplace in that age. Crystal ball readers, tarot card readers, and psychics are still part of our world, but the heyday of spiritualism have probably passed when parlors gave way to family rooms.

On the other hand, I’m not the first to think that spiritualism will fade in my lifetime. Victorians lamented that their modern, industrial age was not a conducive to ghosts who shied away from the bright lights of cities.

Summer Devon is the alter ego of Kate Rothwell. Kate invented Summer’s name in the middle of a nasty blizzard. At the time she was talking to her sister, who longed to visit some friends in Devon, England–so the name Summer Devon is all about desire. Kate/Summer lives in Connecticut, USA, and also writes books, usually gaslight historicals, as Kate. She and Bonnie Dee are occasional cowriters (though they’ve never met or even spoken on the phone). Their fifth m/m historical, The Psychic and the Sleuth, will be out in January.

Summer will be giving away E-Arcs of her new book, The Psychic and the Sleuth, plus copies of other books and a paperback of The Nobleman and the Spy. Winner or winners will be announced on Christmas Day so get commenting!

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

15. How did December get its name?

14 Responses

  1. I live on the left Coast of the u.D. and I can assure you that Spiritualism and the other hoogedy boogedy interests are nowhere near dying out.. they are a whole growth industry in the Seattle area!


  2. Fascinating post! I’ve always wondered why ghost stories are particularly associated with Christmas. 🙂

  3. Fabulous post, Summer. Oddly enough, I mentioned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his interest in spiritualism in my own advent calendar post.

    Paige x

  4. Fascinating! And I find it so interesting that even 100 years ago, they too struggled with consumerism at this time of year. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    smaccall AT

  5. Happy holidays everyone, please enter me into the contest.


  6. I love the “skeptic finds the paranormal” theme. Always fun to watch/read the character coming up against something otherly.

  7. Spiritualism is alive and well in the US and elsewhere. There are whole towns full of spiritualists…two I know of, one in Florida, the other in NY. Hard to keep a movement like this from dying out.

    And these are all year ’round places to visit and get readings.

  8. Great post, Summer. And I, too, had no idea that consumerism was considered a problem back then. Anyway, the Victorian spiritualist movement is fascinating. Anyone happen to see a late 90s movie, Fairy Tale, based on a true story of some little girls who “took photographs” of fairies. Both Conan Doyle and Houdini were featured in the movie. Here’s an amazon link if anyone’s interested:

  9. Even as I read your post, there is a news article in the local paper about a Palm Reader setting up shop in Silver Spring’s revitalized downtown along with the pro/con letters to the editor. And the towns of Santa Fe, NM and especially Sedona, AZ, where New Age (old?) and Spiritualism is alive and kicking, are doing great.

    The thought that the need for any sort of spirituality increases, especially in times of great stress as well as great consumerism, is so true as people search for something more in their lives to shore themselves up and give them the ability to go on.

  10. Sir Arthur had such wide ranging interests. Novelists could do that in those days and be considered well rounded. Nowadays one is expected to specialise.

    Fun post. Thank you.

  11. Conan Doyle’s spiritualism is fascinating — I was reading recently about his belief in the Cottingley fairies. Interesting blog 🙂

    And, as for materialism being an issue back in the 19th Century, hehe, it’s always surprising to us, but it was hardly new even then. I’ve been reading some Elizabethan sources lately that espouse the troubles of too much luxury in a very similar fashion 😉

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