Thursday, 12 June 2014

‘[S]he is in a highly hysterical state. She’s a woman who resists’: the Dangers of Spiritualism in J. S. Le Fanu’s All in the Dark (1866) by Valeria Cavalli

In this month's post, Dr Valeria Cavalli examines the  theme of spiritualism in Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's novel All in the Dark (1866), and what the author's warnings about the dangers of spiritualism tell us about Victorian attitudes to women and madness. 

The dangerous habit of practising séances

When William Maubray is called to his dear aunt Dinah’s deathbed, he hopes that he will get there in time to say goodbye. He is certainly surprised, then, to find her in quite good shape, if not for her firm conviction that she is going to die before midnight. Dr. Drake explains to the puzzled young man that his aunt suffers from nothing more serious than the ailments of a woman of her age, but that she has recently fallen victim of self-deception. The eccentric old woman has in fact taken up the dangerous habit of practising séances, and the risk is that she will drive herself mad if she insists in taking seriously the ominous revelations of her spirit friend. Written in the peak years of Spiritualism, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s All in the Dark brings forth a way more terrifying reality than being haunted by ghosts, that is, being locked away in a lunatic asylum on the basis of one’s unorthodox creed.

The rise of spiritualism

Emerging in America in the late 1840s, Spiritualism spread almost immediately to Europe, finding fertile terrain in the state of religious uncertainty which was troubling part of the population, regardless of class, age, or gender. When scientific discoveries brought the credibility of the Bible into question, believers began to feel uneasy with the way Christianity explained the supernatural, and began to look for comfort in the occult. In fact, the occult could account for the supernatural according to the laws of nature: whatever forces were inexplicably ruling the Universe or man, they were completely natural, and their present state, if still unknown to science, was open to investigation. However, scientists and members of the Church together raised their voices in opposition to the movement from its very first appearance, and criticism poured from the pages of periodicals and newspapers.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Spiritualism and female transgression

As Alex Owen has pointed out in her Darkened Room (1989), many medical men regarded the movement with distaste and suspicion in part because of the increasing role it offered to women. In those years, the ideal woman was the submissive wife and mother, “the angel in the house” in charge of the domestic sphere. In giving women the authority and the right to exercise their innate spiritual powers, Spiritualism infringed on the culturally imposed limits of respectable womanhood. In the darkened room, not only did women become the principal actors of the séance, they also transgressed gender norms, by assuming male roles or highly sexualised trance personae. The subversiveness of the movement alarmed and alerted the medical profession, which was in charge of policing any deviations from the social order imposed by Victorian patriarchy. The emerging medical branches of psychiatry and gynaecology effectively teamed up to prove that women’s health depended on female biology. Since women’s role was primarily that of generator, physical and intellectual activities would compromise the balance of nerve force necessary for the functioning of the reproductive organs, thus causing mental instability. Most cases of insanity due to sexual illness tended to result in monomanias, among which Spiritualism was counted, and doctors began to consider any kind of suspension of everyday consciousness suspicious and to associate mediumistic trance, with its uncontrollable convulsions and frequent use of inappropriate language, with the pathological symptoms of hysteria.

'Queer fancies'

In All in the Dark, Dinah Perfect is depicted as a strong-willed, authoritative, and eccentric woman. Her faithful servant explains that Dinah has always been very extravagant, with her odd dispositions concerning her corpse and coffin:

She was very particular, […] and would have her way; […] she had her coffin in the house this seven years – nigh eight a’most – upright in the little press by the left of the bed, in her room – the cupboard like in the wall. Dearie me! ’twas an odd fancy, […] and she’d dust it, and take it out, she would wi’ the door locked, her and me, once a month. She had a deal o’them queer fancies, she had. [II, pp.168-9]

'She is in a highly hysterical state'

It is no surprise, then, that when the novelty of table-rapping reaches the Old World, it appeals mightily to a housebound, bored, middle-class spinster like Dinah, who is looking for excitement and escapism from the monotony of everyday life, and from the increasing fear of ageing and dying. However, Dinah’s credulity is quickly associated with hysteria. Echoing Dr William Carpenter’s theory on unconscious cerebration, the non-believing, sceptical (and alcoholic) Dr Drake describes the dangerous effects that Spiritualism could have on Dinah’s mind, by convincing her of the reality of her delusions to the point that her body comes to provoke the effects that she expects to happen. Dr Drake is afraid that Dinah will ‘frighten herself out of her wits’, and explains to William that Spiritualism can affect the nerves [I, p. 60]:

Why, you know what hysteria is. Well, she is in a highly hysterical state. She’s a woman who resists; it would be safer, you see, if she gave way and cried a bit now and then, when nature prompts, but she won’t, except under awful high pressure, and then it might be serious; those things sometimes run oft’ into fits. [I, pp. 38-9]


Wrongful confinement


At a time when the advances in the realm of the mind became increasingly associated with scandals related to wrongful confinement, Le Fanu questions the power held by Victorian psychiatry over extravagant and independent women. Dinah Perfect is certainly a bizarre character, with her many fancies and her addiction to table-turning. However, her oddities do not seem sufficient to diagnose her as incipiently insane. Dinah is an elderly woman troubled by the frightening thought of upcoming death. Her anxiety and hysterical crises echo the spiritual uncertainty that afflicted the author’s sister and wife, like many other Victorians. Moreover, her uneasy shifting between her family’s orthodox Christianity and the occult is reminiscent of Le Fanu’s own crisis of faith, which led him to find comfort in the doctrine of the Scandinavian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

 Le Fanu's wife Susanna (née Bennett), and his sister Catherine. All three experienced a crisis of faith at some point in their lives. The images of Susanna and Catherine appear in W. J. McCormack’s biography of Le Fanu.

'That foolish spirit-rapping'

Having experienced first hand the anxiety of spiritual doubt, Le Fanu is far from labelling Dinah mad, even though he does not sympathise with Spiritualism. In fact, all throughout the novel, Dinah sounds reasonable and practical, advising her ward on the importance of a good match in marriage, and her nephew on the more advantageous prospect of the Church rather than the Bar as a profession. Even on spiritual matters, the Rector confirms that, ‘I found her views […] all very sound; indeed, if it had not been for that foolish spirit-rapping, which led her away – that is, confused her – I don’t think there was anything in her opinions to which exception could have been taken’ [II, pp. 171-2]. On all subjects but Spiritualism, Dinah is perfectly sound. However, her fancy for table-turning would, for orthodox Victorian psychiatry, be a strong enough proof of her insanity, as the real case of Louisa Nottidge had shown.

Louisa Nottidge

Like Dinah Perfect, Louisa Nottidge was a wealthy middle-aged spinster who had also spent money ‘very wildly’ upon the word of a Spiritualist [I, p. 8]. In 1846, Nottidge decided to leave her mother’s home to follow the influential millenarian prophet Henry Prince. Prince was the founder of a small community in Somerset called the Agapemone (the Abode of Love), where he taught about free love and preached of everlasting life to a group of devotees who had agreed to donate all their wealth to the congregation. Three of the five Nottidge sisters had already joined the prophet (who had thus gained some £18,000), so that when Louisa communicated her decision to her mother, the latter had to act quickly in order not to lose another daughter, and her considerable fortune, to an unscrupulous charlatan. Mrs Nottidge had Louisa abducted and confined to the majestic Moorcroft House private asylum at Hillingdon, in Middlesex, on the grounds of theomania. Louisa spent seventeen months at the Hillingdon, and was released only because the Commissioners in Lunacy were summoned upon concerns about her failing health. After her liberation, Louisa joined the millenarian community, transferred all her possessions to Henry Prince, and took legal action against her wrongful confinement.

A fraudulent committal

Moorcroft House private asylum at Hillington.
This picture is taken from Sarah Wise’s Inconvenient People.
The case was heard in court in 1849 before the Lord Chief Baron, the Right Hon. Sir Frederick Pollock, while the attention it received in the press provoked responses from alienists John Conolly and Forbes Benignus Winslow, and Lord Ashley, Chairman of the Commissioners in Lunacy. The Lord Chief Baron accepted Louisa Nottidge’s plea and ordered a compensation for the damages received. The suit made clear that Louisa’s admission to the Hillingdon had not been fraudulently obtained, since two doctors certified her insane on the grounds that she had ‘estranged herself from her mother’s house […] to follow a person of the name of Prince, whom she believed to be Almighty God, and herself immortal’. However, as Joshua John Schwieso has pointed out, although the two doctors had been summoned by the family physician on the basis of their ‘experience in cases of insanity’, their biographies suggest that neither of them was an expert in the field. Despite all this, the final verdict was reached because the Commission in Lunacy, in the person of Mr Mylne, failed to convince the Lord Chief Baron of the necessity of keeping Miss Nottidge confined, as shown in the following report which appeared in The Times in 1849:

The Lord Chief Baron: Mr Mylne, was this lady in such a state of mind as to be dangerous to herself or to others?   
Mr Mylne: Not so as I was aware of; not so far as I knew. 
The Lord Chief Baron: If she were not so, then how was it that you kept her in this asylum for seventeen months?
Mr Mylne: My lord, it was no part of my duty to keep her there. I was only to liberate her if I saw good and sufficient reason for adopting that course. 
The Lord Chief Baron: It is my opinion that you ought to liberate every person who is not dangerous to himself or to others. If the notion has got abroad that any person may be confined in a lunatic asylum or a madhouse who has any absurd or even mad opinion upon any religious subject, and is safe and harmless upon every other topic, I altogether and entirely differ with such an opinion; and I desire to impress that opinion with as much force as I can in the hearing of one of the commissioners. […]You say unsound mind, Mr Mylne. Had she any unsoundness of mind upon any other subject under heaven except as to entertaining these peculiar religious notions?
Mr Mylne: Miss Nottidge did not exhibit any symptoms of insanity of any other subject, my lord, that I observed.

Not only did the Lord Chief Baron support an individual’s freedom to hold religious opinions (as long as they remained harmless to both the person and other parties), he, most importantly, stated that he ‘very much doubted whether, if in this case the plaintiff had been a man, or living under the protection of a husband, the defendants would have dared to have taken the steps they had’.

An unwarranted influence

This case made evident how women, and particularly single women, were in danger of wrongful incarceration, since their unorthodox religious views (Louisa’s own mother affirmed that ‘she worships a false god’) could be easily exploited for financial gain.[ix] In fact, in the case of Louisa Nottidge, what her family were trying to save was the £5,728 7s 7d that she had bequeathed to the prophet. After her death in 1858, which occurred while she was still residing at the Agapemone, the Nottidges brought Henry Prince to court and succeeded in obtaining the return of Louisa’s property on the grounds of the prophet’s unwarranted influence upon the deceased. Thus, in the early 1860s, the case of Louisa Nottidge received new attention in the press, both in England and in Ireland, and was associated with the increasing number of cases of wrongful confinement which were causing much sensation, both in real life and in fiction.

Spiritualism and madness

In All in the Dark, Dinah, unlike Nottidge, is surrounded by relatives and friends who love her for who she is rather than for her fortune, and who will miss her dearly after her death. However, in discursively associating Spiritualism with madness, Le Fanu is reminding the reader of the existing danger that even an incompetent doctor like Drake, with no specific knowledge or experience of insanity, could actually provide enough evidence to have a woman like Dinah confined on the grounds of her unorthodox beliefs. Furthermore, he is also presenting a reflection on the double standard with which Victorian psychiatry was dealing with its patients. After Dinah dies, her sceptical nephew William also becomes ‘addicted to the supernatural’ and begins to believe that he is haunted by the spirit of his dead aunt [I, p. 58]. He suffers from nervous strain and hallucinations, and also admits that ‘I think I’m growing as mad as […] poor Aunt Dinah’ [I, p. 216, my italics]. However, no judgement is made about the possibility of his being a case of incipient insanity. William’s temporary condition is attributed to the weight of financial and sentimental concerns which, combined with the strong tea he likes to drink (a recurring theme in Le Fanu’s fiction), the heavy tobacco he likes to smoke, and the supernatural stories he likes to read, provokes nightmares and somnambulistic states. Financial problems, disappointment in love, bereavement, and hereditary disposition were all considered by Victorian psychiatry to be factors in the detection of mental insanity. The fact that such connections are ignored in William’s case seems to validate the words of the Lord Chief Baron, who doubted whether the same precautions would have been taken if the plaintiff had been a man.
In All in the Dark, Le Fanu touches on the topical association of alternative spiritualities with insanity. Drawing upon his personal experience as well as his professional familiarity, in his work for the national and international press, with contemporary debates on these topics, Le Fanu investigates the power game played by Victorian psychiatry over difficult citizens, women in particular. Although the novel shows Le Fanu’s contempt of Spiritualism, it nevertheless dismisses the accusations of madness levelled at the believer, thus becoming a warning to women readers.

Dr ValeriaCavalli recently completed a PhD in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin entitled 'They said she was mad: insanity in the fiction of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu' (2014). She may be contacted at cavalliv "at" tcd "dot" ie. Details of an upcoming conference in Dublin on J.S. Le Fanu (15-16 October 2014) may be found here.

Further reading
  • J. S. Le Fanu, All in the Dark, 2 Vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1866), Vol. 2, pp. 168-9.
  • For a historical context on Spiritualism and Victorian medicine, see Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago, Ill.; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), Ch. 6.
  • On Louisa Nottidge, see Sarah Wise, Inconvenient People; Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (London: The Bodley Head, 2012), Ch. 4; Owen, pp. 151-54; and Joshua John Schwieso, ‘‘Religious Fanaticism’ and Wrongful Confinement in Victorian England: the Affair of Louisa Nottidge’, Social History of Medicine (1996), pp. 159-74. 

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