Friday, 25 April 2014

How Very Victorian!

File:John Beattie Eugene Rochas seance.jpg

Séance conducted by John Beattie, Bristol, England, 1872 Image courtesy Wikipedia

With a callout seeking haunting tales written in the style of the 19th century ghost story, we would be remiss if we did not include a blog discussing the influence and impact of the Victorian period. The Victorian era (1837-1901) dates from the coronation of Queen Victoria through to her death and is associated with the industrial revolution, economic progression and expansion of the British empire. By the end of Victoria's reign as the saying goes, 'the sun never set on the British empire' as the global expanse of her empire ensured that there was always some portion of the British empire which would be in daylight.
The Victorian period was also associated with a cultural shift within arts and society towards romanticism and mysticism; e.g. the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, The Arts and Crafts Movement, Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn etc. It was also during this period when ghost stories acquired an association with Christmas. Although A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is probably the best known ghost story ever written, other authors from this period were also in the habit of sharing their haunting tales as a Christmas pastime including Washington Irving, Rudyard Kipling and M. R. James. Certainly Victorian authors were particularly good at composing ghostly tales, reasons for which are neatly examined in a Guardian article, and these tales are frequently trotted out as a Christmas tradition as with A ghost story for Christmas television series from the 1970's which was recently revived by the BBC in 2005.

Keeping with our theme of ghostly tales, perhaps one facet which was the most inspirational emanating from the Victorian era was the belief in Spiritualism: the belief that it was possible for the dead to communicate with the living. Commencing around 1850, interest in spiritualism is thought to have largely arisen from an occurrence in New York in 1848 when two sisters claimed to have communicated with the ghost of a murdered man who had previously lived in their family home. Clearly, this event fanned the flames of a pre-existing philosophy as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were recorded as having taken part in a seance on the Isle of Wight in 1846. Irregardless of the precise beginning of the spiritualism fad, seances involving a medium who would assist with communicating with the dead became all the rage during the Victorian era. Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were both as famous for their interest and attendance of spiritual seances as Harry Houdini became for debunking them in the 20th century. As the success of any literary theme is entirely dependent on public interest, perhaps it was the burgeoning spiritualism movement which was primarily responsible for the breadth of ghost stories produced during the 19th century. Whatever the explanation, the enduring appeal of these tales over a century later is testament to the content and quality of the writing style. We certainly hope our pending collection will match this standard!

Further reading:
The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox & R. A. Gilbert 
This blog post was written in the spirit of the April 2014 A-Z Challenge whereby a post is written every day during the month of April (with the exception of Sunday). The theme of each post is meant to correspond with a letter of the alphabet in sequential order. Saturday's post will be on U. For details and to visit the A-Z Challenge website, click here.

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