THE SYMPATHETIC MEDIUM: FEMININE CHANNELING, THE OCCULT, AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGIES, 1859-1919 by Jill Galvan, Reviewed by Linda Simon
 

THE SYMPATHETIC MEDIUM: FEMININE CHANNELING, THE OCCULT, AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGIES, 1859-1919
By Jill Galvan
(Cornell, 2010) vii + 216 pp.
Reviewed by Linda Simon on 2011-05-06.

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During the second half of the nineteenth century, two marvelous inventions, the telegraph and telephone, enabled individuals to communicate over great distances.  These devices made their way into a culture fascinated with another means of sending messages, no less amazing: communication between the living and the dead. As Jill Galvan argues in her lively study of electrical and spiritual communication, women were central to both enterprises. Focusing on the United States and Great Britain, Galvan examines the worlds women occupied in séance parlors, offices, telegraph stations, and telephone switchboards as they channeled messages, mundane or occult, between individuals. Her examination of scientific discoveries and beliefs, social pressures, and economic conditions contextualizes her reading of a wide range of fictional works in which feminine channeling is a central concern.

Prodigiously researched, this study amplifies a large body of scholarship that explores the connection between technology and the mind, including Tim Armstrong's Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study (1998) and David Nye's Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (1990). It  also complements books on the Victorians' fervent interest in the occult, such as Janet Oppenheim's The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 (1985) and Sarah Willburn's Possessed Victorians: Extra Spheres in Nineteenth-Century Mystical Writings (2006).  By investigating the role of women in this energized world, Galvan brings a fresh perspective to her elucidation of British and American culture and fiction in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century.

Galvan examines at length several well-known stories of feminine channeling such as Henry James's In the Cage, George Du Maurier's Trilby, George Eliot's The Lifted Veil, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Marie Corelli's  A Romance of Two Worlds.  But she often illuminates these familiar works by analyzing them beside  lesser known stories from writers such as Grant Allen and May Cotes, Algernon Blackwood, Tom Gallon, and Richard Marsh.  Here she offers fresh discoveries.

In discussing Dracula, for example, Galvan shows that Grant Allen and May Cotes's Kalee's Shrine (1886) anticipates Mina's entrancement by Dracula's Oriental powers. Like Dracula, Kalee's Shrine reveals Occidental and scientific bias against Oriental enchantment, and explores the fraught boundaries between scientific authority and belief in occult forces. In much nineteenth century fiction, Galvan argues, "the mediating woman [serves] as both a vulnerable site of intercultural conflict and a figure whose acute sympathy could be reshaped to effect appalling allegiances to the invading culture" (19). Like Laura Otis in Networking: Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century (2001), Galvan links new inventions to the Victorian fear of psychic invasion and belief in porous consciousness.

Central to her study is the question of why mediation seemed particularly congruent with Victorian notions of femininity. To the Victorian mind, she argues, women's predilection for clairvoyance and telepathy, together with their apparent susceptibility to occult forces, proved their inherent faculty for sympathy. Indeed, the medium Leonora Piper, investigated for many years by the American Society for Psychical Research, eventually confessed that rather than channeling spirits of the dead, she behaved  "simply as an automaton,"  as she put it, responding to her sitters' hopes and desires conveyed to her through mental telepathy (qtd. Linda Simon, Genuine Reality: A Life of William James [1998] 306). Although Galvan does not cite this late confession,  her investigation of "the automized woman" (20)  in fiction leads her to argue that automatism "did not altogether deny knowledge; it simply split it, conceptually speaking, into conscious and unconscious forms. To perform automatically was to perform unconsciously--that is, to have one's body execute actions of which the conscious mind was only incompletely aware or in control" (66).  Piper's disclosure supports this conclusion.

The Victorians' fascination with the paranormal emerges in much of the work that Galvan examines. Henry James, for example, was well aware of a widespread interest in spiritualism: his brother William was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, and many of the Jameses' family and mutual friends regularly attended séances and demonstrations of mesmerism and hypnotism.  James's In the Cage features a telegrapher certain that she holds the power to channel others' thoughts unconsciously and to communicate ethereally. Since James's protagonist yearns to identify with the aristocracy, mediumship affirms her sympathy with the upper classes, allowing her stealthily to enter their world.

Galvan complements her study of literary works by examining a psychological treatise from this period:  Morton Prince's The Dissociation of a Personality: A Biographical Study in Abnormal Psychology, published in 1906, when the field of abnormal psychology was hardly established. Prince chronicled his treatment of a woman--he calls her Christine Beauchamp-- who sought his help for symptoms of anxiety and depression, familiar signs of what was then diagnosed as neurasthenia or nerve weakness. Under hypnosis, Miss Beauchamp revealed a second personality, the saucy and outspoken Sally, who admitted to tormenting her host self. Some months later, yet another personality emerged (Prince called her BIV), this one with no memory of the last seven years of Miss Beauchamp's life and with little sympathy for her travails. While hysteria, amnesia, and even alternate personalities were known in medical literature by 1906, the subconscious or unconscious was largely uncharted terrain. Prince, and some who read his study, hypothesized that Beauchamp served as a medium for the "invading, foreign presence" (153) of Sally and the impatient, churlish BIV.

Galvan offers multiple readings of Prince's relationship to his haunted patient. Since Prince, she notes, brought to his investigation of Miss Beauchamp assumptions about femininity and proper female behavior widely shared by his culture, they probably led him to determine that the "real" Miss Beauchamp was the one most decorously behaved. Sally, Galvan concludes, "is just too mischievous... , as well as suspicious that Prince's ideas are erroneous and self-serving" (156). Prince obliterates Sally not only to restore Miss Beauchamp's peace of mind, but to maintain his own "masculine authorial and professional significance" (155).

Deftly merges media studies and gender studies, Galvan shows how the Victorians' assumptions about masculine authority and feminine sympathy shaped their response to unsettling technologies of communication. Engagingly written and free of jargon, this book  is a welcome contribution to the cultural history of the nineteenth century.

 

Linda Simon is Professor of English at Skidmore College.

 


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