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The Weird Victorians & the Last Enchanted Age

Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: a modern take on the motifs of the weird nineteenth century.

5,476 words

It’s ill to loose the bands that God decreed to bind;
Still we be the children of the heather and the wind.
Far away from home, O it’s still for you and me
That the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie. [1]

Even below the Missouri-Compromise Line, the mornings now have a delicious coolness, faltering on the edge of a “chill,” and I found myself yearning for an old-fashioned, nineteenth-century ghost story. Or, at least, something like it. So, the other night, finding sleep elusive, I decided to stream Dead Still, a show about an 1880s photographer who specialized in taking snapshots of the deceased for grieving families. I thought the program was dull (maybe it was the late hour), but it did put me to sleep. As I began to drift, I considered that curious historical specimen: the Victorian. He has been, by turns, accused of prudery and of sex addiction; a personality of the stiff upper lip and stuffed shirt. . . but also one obsessed with the wild and uncivilized, prone to packing up for an African safari or a trek through the Amazon. Maybe running off to join a traveling circus. He is a product of the weird nineteenth century.

Historians like Max Weber have declared the years between 1789 and 1914 as the ending of the age of “enchantment” and the beginning of the age of secularism and science, in which figures like Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel loomed large. I could add that it was the last time Western empires and kings would direct world affairs from a position of surety, and it was the swan song of European aristocracy and its ornamentation before, in the words of author Karen Blixen, “the age of dull democracy.” But history is rarely so tidy, and there is no denying that the nineteenth century was peculiar. The West did indeed cross over into a period in which the pace of life quickened. The natural rhythms of rural seasons were exchanged for the urban demands of capital and work hours. Industrialization in all its unprecedented forms and technologies that altered the natural world: lightbulbs, typewriters, “horseless carriages,” and machines of all kinds transformed the public and the private spheres of existence. Prophets of progress praised the wonder element, radium, as a way to both light watches and keep its wearers energized as they absorbed its glowing embers throughout the day. Everyone seemed to embrace the brave new world ahead and the trains that would take them there on time.

But if we peered beneath the day’s self-advertisements of world exhibitions trumpeting modernity, the “belle epoch,” we would see something else: premodern tendrils of the superstitious and the marvelous, which clung stubbornly on and kept Westerners tethered to their medieval roots. I am a believer that epochs are defined by their most prominent qualities, or obsessions, of course — but also by their antitheses. Seeing one’s reflection in a pool or looking glass is to see one’s foil staring back, as the creators of Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray well knew.

Consider the “long nineteenth century” and its literature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its marriage of electricity, the science-wonder, and electricity, the god-terror; Romanticism and its authors, who wrote ghost stories like Wuthering Heights and the oddly appealing grotesqueries such as The Fall of the House of Usher; Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its exploration of the latest medical studies — blood transfusion — paired with the oldest fears of the demonic — blood drinkers — and what existed beyond the lit streets of the domesticated West and in the untamed darkness encircling it; Lewis Carrol and his little protagonist, plunged into an opium-induced dream world of nonsense, but who toppled it all like a house of cards with rapier-wielded logic; Emily Dickinson, she of the rational New England mold, fixated on death and what lay beyond the veil that separated the apparent from apparition. Perhaps it should not surprise us, then, that so many Victorian men and women — industrialists, WASPs, sensible middle-class types — fell under the spell of “spiritualism,” a nineteenth-century movement that promised an intimate reunion with long-gone relatives, while all around them, cities of steel and smoke factories heralded the coming of the mass-produced modern age.

At Last Death Himself Had Touched Her, and Brought Her with Him 

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What motivated this preoccupation with the spirit world, with the magical in the midst of the industrial? One difference between the Victorians and ourselves was their relationship with death. The modern West shrinks from death. We bury our fears through distraction so that we may skirt confrontations with the void; we invent ridiculous identities for ourselves to paper over the yawning gulf called the “Self.” I’m not the only one who suspects that our divorce from nature and her cyclical cadence has led to a clinging to fabricated ideas about our humanity and the entitlement we feel that we have to live however long and in whatever way suits us, no matter the obligations we owe to past and future generations.

Most Westerners today die in nursing homes or hospitals, then staff send them directly to a morgue or funeral home where mortuary specialists handle their bodies — all so that we, the public, do not have to. We make eulogies that euphemize, rather than dwell on, mortality. To most of us who have not seen the dying in war or in our professions as physicians or policemen, death is unreal and avoided until the last possible moment.

Not so for the Victorians. I’ve explored many an old, mossed-over cemetery — a favorite Southern pastime (true Southerners have never gotten over the nineteenth century or the slightly unhealthy preference for the gothic and the wilting) — and seen the family plots. Here, a wife and mother, who died of bed-fever; there, a brood of children sunk beneath little markers, all carried off by an illness that ravaged whole towns. Death struck often and without warning. Many died in their beds, and family members handled them and laid them to rest, some of them on their own properties. If that was the case, they even dug the graves. And, as Dead Still pointed out, they were not turned off by the idea of hiring professionals to photograph dead loved ones so that they could hang the images on their walls to look at and sigh over when passing them by.

Queen Victoria, the “black widow” herself, made death a lifestyle, and she never stopped wearing dark mourning dresses after her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861 of an unknown stomach malady. Across the Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln descended into a depression after his son Willie died, and he couldn’t stop himself from disinterring the little boy twice (!) so that he could gaze upon his child’s face before the final goodbye. It is no exaggeration to say that Victorians were consumed by nothing so much as they were by death.

Flirting with death, those kooky Victorians.

In the sentimental nineteenth century, the idea of “the good death” meant that one expired peacefully beneath one’s own roof, reconciled to God and surrounded by friends and family. This ideal was not always possible. The catastrophe of the War of Southern Secession (1861-1865), in particular, made realizing the “good death” for nineteenth-century Americans a challenge. [2] Nevertheless, soldiers and their families tried to preserve the image of repose amidst the savagery and senselessness of the battlefield. In March of 1864, Sandy Pendleton of the 12 Georgia Infantry wrote to a Mr. Willis about the death of his son:

[As] an intimate friend of your lamented son Ned Willis . . . and having enjoyed the sad privilege of being with him a short time before his death, I take pleasure in doing the little that I can to assuage your grief . . . I found him . . . not suffering and perfectly conscious . . . Ned grasped my hand . . . and said, “Sandy, the doctors won’t tell me whether I am going to die. Am I mortally wounded?” I replied, “Yes, Willis . . .” He said, “that’s the way I like to hear a man talk. I am not afraid to die any more than I was afraid to go into battle . . . Tell [my betrothed] not to be distressed. I die in the best cause a man could fall in” . . . On returning after a couple of hours, I found that he had died quietly a short time after I left. [3]

Pendleton provided the best thing that he could give to his friend’s father: solace that Ned died manfully and honorably for his “cause” and while thinking of those he cherished, as if they had gathered round his deathbed in person. Family members who received such letters from the front were the lucky ones; others had no idea how their soldiers fell, or where their remains lay buried.

Wars were not the sole means of frustrating the “good death,” but Europeans living and dying in faraway colonies, cut off from kin and home, also produced an instinctive sense of horror among white families. Frances Armstrong, a settler in South Africa who lost her daughter in 1854, felt a crushing loneliness added to the tragedy of a mother’s loss. While burying the child after the funeral service, she recalled a wave nausea wracking her frame as she looked around the African churchyard:

Something struck me as very cold and unlike England and afterwards I remembered that no bell tolled. We went on to the cemetery, such a scene of desolation I never witnessed. The rank growth of weeds of the hot climate perfectly unchecked, the paths a mass of weeds, not a tree planted. I could not help feeling pained and distressed at my darling having such a resting place. [4]

And what of the mothers and grandmothers still in Europe, or the men and women who eventually departed Africa or India or other foreign lands for home? They left behind the bones of children and spouses in places where they felt that no European should rest, forever parted from their blood and soil. For many, this was intolerable, and they found themselves yearning for a connection to something neither mainstream religion nor reason could give them — a way to contact the spirit world and ensure their relatives were at peace, wherever they lay.

The Passion of the Romantic Spirit  

Change in the nineteenth century occurred so rapidly that newly harnessed natural powers, like electricity and photography, became tangled up and confused with supernatural powers of the occult. What were people to make of invisible currents that carried messages instantaneously called “telegraphs?” Why shouldn’t they have been able to use those currents to send invisible messages to the “other side” — to the spirits, who were themselves transformed beings of energy? Scientists had proven that electricity and gravity were forces that existed and that shaped life on earth, but they remained “inexplicable and miraculous” to most people. Indeed, skeptics often required spiritualists to perform their art while standing on “non-conductive” platforms, like a stack of books or wooden chairs, so electric phenomena would not be confused with actual phantasmic events. [5]

The Second Great Awakening “sparked” lecture “circuits,” in which transmission of spirits and fired tongues could be channeled like a current from the speaker to the “shocked” audience. If Christian emotionalism could energize the faithful, couldn’t spiritualism, fueled by desires just as strong, wake the dead? Why shouldn’t cameras, working through light and shadow, be able to capture another kind of shade? So many technologies now mediated and controlled the Victorians’ natural world — why couldn’t they find or invent the power necessary to control or alter the ultimate, natural end? Even Harry Houdini, a man who knew every trick in the book, always admonished his wife to look into spiritualist practices after his death — if anyone could foil the Reaper, it was Houdini. His widow, Elizabeth (“Bess”) spent a fortune trying to free his spirit from the chains of death, convinced that her husband was just waiting to let her in on the secret of cheating the grave.

For most dabblers, spiritualism was not “religious,” nor was it particularly “transgressive” in the manner our “trans”-obsessed academics insist on (to these miseducated people, any boundary or binary — often one that they, themselves have created — is necessarily oppressive, unless of course, it is one to which they insist we must all conform). People who attended seances Saturday night still attended church the next morning with nothing more than perhaps a prick of conscience. Spiritualism did not conflict with the mainstream Victorian faith in God, so much as it revealed an extension of the Victorian faith in man’s ability to cross time and space in new and simultaneous ways. Spirit power and scientific power, they imagined, were not so different, but they could channel it like wind in ship’s sails and current through wires. For others, it illustrated a simple desperation as a newly mobile world upset older understandings of death and dying.

Indeed, an entire industry developed around contacting the dead and sensationalizing it through new forces, for spiritualism was also a product of industrialism, technology, and mass society — and not its simple antonym. For the first time, books were available to the masses through a cheaper press and book-making business. In the eighteenth century, bookmakers were artists, and book-binding required effort. The inlay in many old hardcovers needed the manipulation of gold-leaf, thinner than fine stockings and more fragile than butterfly wings. A laborious printing process ensured that relatively few books were made, and those that were cost more than a working-class person could afford. But with the advent of the “penny press,” books became available to a public both more literate and hungrier for leisure reading than ever before. “Penny dreadfuls” were one of the first examples of pop culture in the Western world and enjoyed particular favoritism among the youth and working-class of Britain, who picked them up in drug stores that sold them in serialized magazines and wood-pulp paperback format. As their name suggested, penny dreadfuls indulged a taste for sensation, horror, and the marvelous.

Tarot readings grew in popularity, and shopkeepers began to keep card decks in regular supply, often next to the latest penny dreadful serials. Spirit or “Ouija” Boards were coveted items for soirées and house parties. The first man to construct one for sale, Elijah Bond, filed his US patent in 1890. Ousted by his own company soon afterward, Bond moved to West Virginia, where he founded a new brand, the “Swastika Novelty Company,” believe it or not, that produced knock-off Ouija boards called “Nirvana” boards.

Elijah Bond’s Swastika Nirvana Board, ca. 1895

Professional spirit-communers, or “mediums,” emerged from the woodwork, claiming to have direct lines to other dimensions, and they often took their show on the road, a practice made popular by traveling revivals, freak shows, and circus troupes. Some men assumed the role of medium, but it was usually a woman’s part. She, being of more malleable stuff and sensitive to the mysterious and emotional, was also more easily “penetrated” by the spirits. They inhabited her body and spoke through her during whispered seance sessions or in “trance lectures” before large audiences. Sometimes it was a simple voice she heard and translated, but other times, the medium endured a full possession of her faculties, and her voice would take on the affectations of her possessor. To facilitate a “current,” attendees at seances would sit around a circle: male, female, male, female, and so on. This, they thought, created a “circuit” of alternating positive and negative charges and stood the best chance of hailing the spirits.

Women were also common in “rapping” sessions, during which people seeking spiritual guidance would put questions to “rappers,” who would then ask the spirits to answer in a series of knocking and cracking noises that signaled a “yes” or a “no.” Twelve and fourteen-year-old Kate and Margaret Fox were the most famous rappers of the nineteenth century and enjoyed special popularity in the “burned over” district of upstate New York (fertile ground for off-beat religious movements such as Mormonism in the nineteenth century). One Dr. Chase, devastated at the loss of his mother, sought the sisters out for a private consultation in order to contact her from the grave. Once seated with the Foxes, he

asked if his Mother’s Spirit was present. The answer was, she was. Whether she was happy / she was, whether her knowledge had increased since she passed away / it had. Whether she continually watched over him / she did. Then he asked about . . . a sister, whether his suspicions in regard to her death were correct. The answer, they were not. Would she have lived if other means had been used? The reply, she would not. Then he asked if [he] could be convinced that there could be spiritual manifestations, then he could get no more answers. [6]

Presumably, such a question to spirits who had spent the better part of an afternoon obliging him was impertinent.

Indeed, women throughout Western history have assumed the role of “keepers of the dead.” In ancient Greece, they were the priestesses who wore the robes of vestal virgins and prayed over sacrifices to the gods in their temples. Hades was Lord of the Underworld, but it was Persephone who caused the seasonal dying-off by her own descent, come autumn, into the kingdom of the dead. In the story of the crucifixion, women washed and prepared Christ’s body for burial, and it was a woman who discovered His empty tomb. As long as we’ve fought wars, it has been for the men to die and for the women to remember. So, it was instinctive for Victorians to assume that the fair sex could more easily summon the departed. Tthis connection to the dead that women have historically maintained is one reason why I find so unbecoming the gaggles of females involved in the tearing down of the memorials and statues that organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned more than a century ago during the Victorian and Edwardian eras; not only is it anti-white, but it is anti-woman — a betrayal of their very natures.

Nothing Makes One So Vain as Being Told That One Is a Sinner

Both men and women assumed the guise of “fortune-teller,” the psychics who claimed to see the future in cards, palms, tea leaves, and crystal balls. One didn’t have to have particular skill to read palms or cards, for newspapers and ladies magazines published helpful guides about what each card and hand crease meant.  Drawing a “knave of spades,” for instance, signaled the imminent arrival of a “dark and ill-bred young man; reversed, he is plotting some mischief.” [7] As knaves will do. “Divination games” were “heavily featured at Christmas and Halloween parties” among the country and middle-classes, while “professional practitioners of the occult laid the cards for tonnish ladies and gentlemen in some of the finest drawing rooms in London.” [8] These diversions were mainly forms of “thrilling entertainment,” rather than proof of any real belief in the occult. Still, the entire Anglo world was captivated by its brushes with the esoteric and mystical.

In 1852, poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a letter to a friend about the new phenomenon fascinating the public: “the crystal ball . . . The original ball was bought by Lady Blessington from an ‘Egyptian magician,’ and resold at her [estate] sale.  She never could understand the use of it, but others have looked deeper, or with purer eyes.” [9] Indeed, poor Lady Blessington did not foresee her own demise, and she died suddenly, her crystal ball put up for sale with the rest of her effects in order to pay off her debts. An advertisement in The Bristol Times and Mirror stated that the ball

formerly belonged to the Egyptian Magi, was purchased by an old Jew, from whom it passed to Lieutenant H– . . . the Lieutenant threw the ball to his little daughter to play with. The child, who had lost its mother, suddenly started saying, “Papa, there’s a lady in the ball — It is dear mamma.” Day after day the child stoutly declared she saw her mother . . . until the Lieutenant, being uneasy, gave the crystal to Archdeacon R– . [10]

The Archdeacon pronounced it “Satanic” after his own grandchild began “seeing” visions swirling inside its depths, and he got rid of it just as quickly. After changing owners an unknown number of times, it eventually fell into the hands of a noted astrologer whose Semitic stage name was “Zadkiel.” The Blessington Crystal had a more complicated and labyrinthine history of Oriental origins, dubious peddlers, thieves, and colonial masters than the Hope Diamond.

An 1875 New York Times article declared “Zadkiel” “the Nostradamus of the nineteenth century” for predicting Prince Albert’s death in his published almanac, “which was duly fulfilled within the year [1861].” This caused much commotion against “Zadkiel,” for the prince was “well-loved,” and, the article proceeded on sniffily, “under the sway of that impulse which leads the Anglo-Saxon race on the slightest provocation to load the desk of the patient newspaper editor with its lucubrations, a response to this query [Who is Zadkiel?] was promptly forthcoming” and rushed to print. He was, apparently, a retired naval officer by the name of C. J. Morrison. Furthermore, the article revealed, he was not only the notorious author of the almanac, but a “globe seer, who gulled many of [the] nobility . . . [and by] making use of a boy of under fourteen or a girl under twelve, he pretended, by their looking into the [Blessington] crystal, to hold converse with the spirits of the apostles, and to tell what was going on in any part of the world . . .” [11] His own Rear Admiral, Sir Edward Belcher, had unmasked him, and “Zadkiel” took his former commander to court for libel. Because it could not be proven that the seer ever charged his clients money for his crystal ball readings, he won the case, but the jury only saw fit to grant him twenty shillings for his trouble.

Thomas Kennington, Crystal Ball, ca. 1890.

Most mediums and psychics, of course, were frauds, just as Victorian magicians were tricksters. The Victorian period was that most sincere and that most counterfeit of ages. Confidence men and painted ladies; upright gallants and demure damsels. Yes, the Victorians were defined by their opposites and mirrors, and authorities were liberal in their use of the British Vagrancy Act of 1824 when entrapping more than a few scoundrels and griftresses. Most, however, got off with a short stint in the local clink and a fee. The law did little to discourage the practitioners that it targeted.

Secrets and Burning Odorous Gums from the East

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that so many colonial administrators and military officials like C. J. Morrison were drawn into and themselves spun glittering webs of illusion and alchemy. So much time did they spend in the Orient, that when these travelers returned to Europe on leave, anxious friends and acquaintances begged them for stories about their sojourns in more colorful and exotic lands. If soldiers and sailors learned some “Eastern” tricks to thrill the ladies at dinner, so much the better.

Imperialism and archaeology were, indeed, other Victorian avenues into the occult. The Western man brought back not just stories but curiosities from “the East,” sparking a fashion craze for Chinese chintzes; Persian rugs and “magic lamps”; “iridescent beetles’ wings” and Arabian perfumes and turbans; “turquoises with verses from the Koran”; “enamelled and jewelled medallions . . . taken from the Turkish camp before Vienna”; Egyptian sphinx statuettes from opened crypts to add interest and decor to many drawing rooms across Europe. [12] Ever since Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and the Levant (1798-1801), when the great man and his caravan of expeditioners discovered the Rosetta Stone in the ancient city of Memphis, the field of Egyptology drew amateur and academic orientalists from around Western Europe to North Africa. James Burton, an early Egyptologist hired by Muhammad Ali Pasha to perform a survey of Egypt in the 1820s, made an exploration of Thebes and Karnak. He then published several detailed hieroglyphic translations with help from the Stone. Perhaps succumbing to the lure of Bedouin life, he disappeared into the desert for the better part of decade, only reemerging in the mid-1830s when his father quit sending him money.

Expressive vignette on papyrus depicting women mourners at Ani’s funeral, ca. 1250 BC.

Many enterprising Egyptologists renewed his exploits, and the alluring myths of spells, curses, and the rediscovered and published translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead followed in 1842. Incantations from The Book sought a “union with the human and the divine realm . . . it had the power to join the resurrected with the gods of creation. The grand cosmological stage . . . was the solar-Osiris cycle that describ[ed] the journey of the sun god, Ra, and his interactions at night with his counterpart, the netherworld god, Osiris . . .” [13] The Bronze Age manuscript echoed other naturally-patterned mythologies, such as the Greek romance between the Goddess of Spring and the God of the Dead and the sacrifice Demeter made of her daughter that renewed a seasonal harvest each year. Egyptian mythology of this kind promised not just renewal from death but renewal of Victorian wonder at a journey into the unknown — and also a kind of reassuring reconnection with an older and natural cyclicism lost in the modern tumult. It seemed tailor-made for the Victorians, who hungered for answers and who turned it into one of the first “coffee table books.”

Egypt was not the only spot undergoing digs and surveys. Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist and former businessman from Mecklenburg, spent years searching for answers of his own and finding what is now presumed to be the lost city of Homer’s Troy on the Turkish coast, south of the Dardanelles. But perhaps his greatest revelation was the golden “Mask of Agamemnon” that he recovered in 1876 at Mycenae, southwest of Athens, Greece and its war for independence against a fraying Ottoman Empire became a cause célèbre in the nineteenth century, drawing romantics from across the continent — a fitting backdrop for an aroused interest in classical legends. All of these treasures from an ancient world known only before in misty mythologies, re-enchanted Western Europeans, who remain enthralled with their wonders still.

A Lurid Fragment from Some Jacobean Tragedy, as a Wonderful Scene from Webster

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So, what ruined the illusion, the sentimental attachment to the “good death,” that faith in progress and premonition? What shattered the looking glass? Or did it simply morph into a new form of avant-garde art and politics: ballets like Le Sacre du Printemps, more interested in mocking Victorian bourgeois sensibilities than in celebrating pagan cyclicism and sacrifice; various twentieth-century death cults that discarded light-heartedness for a harder-edged, darker focus; a turn from the feminine embrace of the goddesses of memory to a more exciting, masculine revival of a soldier’s embrace of the war gods; the esotericism that injected interwar movements like National Socialism with an attraction to the arcane? Was the German swastika merely an evolution, a borrowing of the eastern design printed on Elijah Bond’s Novelty Board?

No. There was indeed a sharp break from them of the nineteenth century and us of the twentieth and twenty-first. We both are, for better or worse, children of the Enlightenment. But the wonder and innocence and the belief in the miraculous — even in the midst of so many “Zadkiel” and Fox Sister hucksters — that lent the Victorian era its enchantment, did not outlive the guns of August or Picasso’s Cubist Periods. Far from conquering death, human powers had instead made death by machine more terrible — made the “good death” an impossible mockery. How could the fragile enchantment and wonder survive the horrors of bodies tangled in barbed wire; how could belief in progress wade into and resist drowning in the mires of Passchendaele?

So confident had Victorians been in the West, in themselves, and in their conquest of nature . . . but now they peered into the glass at the unnatural and twisted shapes they’d made; they saw the image and despised it. This was the new turn modernity had taken. We can think of the World Wars, the end of aristocracy and empire, as Victorians and Victorianism committing suicide — killing themselves and their age. . . a draught of poison lifted by a shaking hand to stop the monster within; the reach for a blade to cleave into ribbons the hated self-portrait in a vain attempt at escape. The knife “was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead [they imagined they] would be free. [They] seized it, and stabbed the canvas with it, ripping the thing right up from top to bottom. There was a cry heard, and a crash” that broke the spell, and the last age of enchantment, it was no more. [14] We are not the richer for it.

It is now possible to look at Victorians and their idiosyncrasies with a bit more kindness than they received from earlier generations of modernists, who loathed everything about them. When I hear historians or media types call Victorians “puritans,” or death-obsessives, the first thing that comes to mind is “cheap shot.” My next reaction is sarcasm. Respectability and death; science and spiritualism were the obsessions that defined the nineteenth century. How are self-righteousness and diversity, “postmodernity” and anti-whiteness superior neuroses? The “death-obsessives” of the nineteenth century were not preoccupied with extinction, like those who are today pushing white genocide. “Racism” has become a taboo perhaps worse than sexual indiscretion was in the Victorian era. At least Victorians believed in redemption; at least reinvention in Bombay or Melbourne was a possibility for the disgraced in 1890. At least most of them had a healthy racial consciousness that they accepted as natural. At least men and women, for the most part, knew their roles and did not imagine themselves fighting the “sex wars” that have so plagued modern life. True, there were radicals beginning to make themselves heard in the Victorian era, but they were the marginalized ones at that time. I’ll take the weird nineteenth century any day.

But maybe without the “dead stills.”

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Notes

[1] This verse is from the dedication page in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (London: Spotswoods and Co., 1886) and is addressed to Katharine de Mattos, Stevenson’s cousin and childhood sweetheart. She apparently inspired the author to write the novella during a conversation they had “in the north countrie.”

[2] For more on the “good death” and the War of Secession, see Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Vintage Books, 2008). Readers, beware. Although Faust provides interesting and useful information on the “good death” and how the US government meticulously catalogued its dead soldiers, race-conscious and/or Southern readers must bring a machete to cut through the biases.

[3] Lane Mills, ed., “Dear Mother: Don’t grieve about me. If I get killed, I’ll only be dead.”: Letters from Georgia Soldiers in the Civil War (Savannah: Beehive Press, 1990), pp. 293-295.

[4] H. M. Matthew, Grahamstown Diocese Historical Notes vol. 1, Grahamstown: Diocesan Office, 1957, p.62.

[5] For a tiresome example of spiritualism as “transgression,” see Anne Braude’s Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 3.

[6] Isaac Post to Mary and Joseph Robbins Post, November 23, 1848, Mary and Joseph Post Papers, private collection.

[7] Louisa Lawford, The Fortune-Teller; or Peeps into Fortuity (London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1861), 76.

[8] Mimi Matthews, “19th Century Fortune-Telling: From the Drawing Room to the Court Room,” January 11, 2016.

[9] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1899), 48.

[10] “A Most Extraordinary Circumstance,” The Bristol Times and Mirror, August 6, 1850.

[11] “The Nostradamus of the Nineteenth Century,” The New York Times, July 18, 1875.

[12] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Planet Ebook.com, 1890), 141-42. The bolded, italicized  subtitles are lines from the book as well.

[13] Foy Scalf, ed., Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt (University of Chicago, 2017), 7. The picture of the women mourners above the quotation is found on page 56. The man they were mourning was Ani, an aristocratic Theban scribe, and the scroll from which this and other colored images appeared is called “Ani’s Scroll.”

[14] Wilde, 197.

 

9 Comments

  1. Bert Wells
    Posted September 23, 2020 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    Excellent article ,worth keeping.Alan Moore is actually an old British working class lefty who has never left his old industrial town of Northampton.Unsuprisingly he now finds himself on the wrong side of history with the woke brigade after him for the use of the original golliwog character in his Leaugue Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and also aleged sexism in his work.Like J K Rowling with the trans issue he seems suprised at being attacked by these people.As someone told a member of the soft left back in the 1980s ,unless they reacant like it or not sooner or later they would find themselves in the same trench as Mrs Thatcher,Solzenytsyn and The Pope.

  2. Adrian
    Posted September 23, 2020 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Intruiging article. On a pedantic note, in the novel, Victor Frankenstein pointedly refuses to say how ‘the monster’ was created, and there is no mention of electricity. That only came with the films.

    • KatS
      Posted September 23, 2020 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Thank you. You are correct that Dr. Frankenstein does not specifically detail how his “experiment” worked, but there is toward the beginning a passage in which the narrator mentions “natural philosophy” and how watching a lightning storm transformed his thinking. He also discusses talking to scientist about his theories on electricity — so it’s heavily implied that electric currents were involved, hence the films’ making a big to-do of it.

      • Crawfurdmuir
        Posted September 24, 2020 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Remember that Galvani had not too long before the publication of Shelley’s novel discovered that the legs of a dead frog moved when electricity was applied to them:

        From Wikipedia, s.v. “Galvanism”:

        ‘According to popular legend, Luigi Galvani discovered the effects of electricity on muscle tissue when investigating an unrelated phenomenon which required skinned frogs in the 1780s and 1790s. His assistant is claimed to have accidentally touched a scalpel to the sciatic nerve of the frog and this resulted in a spark and animation of its legs.[5] In reality, the reaction of muscles to electrical stimulation was already established at the time.[6] Galvani was investigating the effects of distant atmospheric electricity (lightning) on prepared frog legs when he discovered the legs convulsed not only when lightning struck but also when he pressed the brass hooks attached to the frog’s spinal cord to the iron railing they were suspended from.[7] In his laboratory, Galvani later discovered that he could replicate this phenomenon by touching metal electrodes of brass connected to the frog’s spinal cord to an iron plate. He concluded that this was proof of “animal electricity,” the electrical power which animated living things.’

  3. Martin Venator
    Posted September 23, 2020 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    This is the kind of article that makes CC stand out inbthe galaxy of dissident right websites. A really wonderful piece – thanks!

  4. Posted September 23, 2020 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Despite all their advances in science and culture, the Victorians remain best known for their taboos over sex. On the other hand, they discussed race without hesitation. For us, we freely discuss sex, but race has become a huge taboo. Will our era be remembered in the future for its outlandish “woke” nonsense?

    • KatS
      Posted September 23, 2020 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

      I do hope so, for that would necessarily mean that we eventually got over it. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that history is a series of shifting moral panics.

  5. Right_On
    Posted September 23, 2020 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    Another fascinating piece Kathryn. Except that most authorities agree that it is highly unlikely that Lewis Carroll [sic] was a drug user. When I first heard Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” I hadn’t read Carroll’s Alice books. When I eventually did read them I was disappointed to find that the Dormouse never does say “Feed your head” !

    Interestingly, though English occultist Aleister Crowley loathed the uptight Victorian age he was born into, in later life – seeing the way the modern world was going – he did wonder if it hadn’t been more of a Belle Époque than he’d realized at the time.

    But yeah : dead stills – forgeddaboutit.

    • Posted September 24, 2020 at 3:32 am | Permalink

      I figure that the reason for the dead stills was because photography was an emergent technology, probably fairly rare and expensive. When someone in the family died, they might not have had a daguerreotype done before, and that certainly would be the last opportunity to get a group photo. At least you know the dead guy would sit still!

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