The Darkened Room

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England by Alex Owen.

It is impossible to appreciate the origins of modern occultism without an appreciation for Theosophy, and the Theosophical Society likewise has its genesis in the context of 19th-century Spiritualism. In a case like Anna Kingsford, we can see this whole cultural-historical arc in a single person’s career, moving from Spiritualist to Theosophist to Hermetic occultist. In his “Preliminary Remarks” to Magick: Book Four, Aleister Crowley highlighted Kingsford’s role in Theosophy as inciting an interest that was “to the Law of Thelema what the preaching of John the Baptist was to Christianity.” A few pages earlier, he had remarked, “Even if epilepsy were the cause of these great [religious] movements which have caused civilization after civilization to arise from barbarism, it would merely form an argument for cultivating epilepsy.” Whether or not it was a conscious allusion on his part, the comparison between epilepsy and religious enthusiasm in Victorian science was merely one side of a triangle, the third point of which was hysteria, with the fully gendered significance of that word.

The Darkened Room is a study of the relationship between Spiritualism and the social construction of women’s gender in Victorian England. Author Alex Owen barely glances toward Theosophy (referring infelicitously to “the Theosophy Society” in a note) and reserves her study of occultism for a later volume, The Place of Enchantment. But she does make some worthwhile comparisons to the Womanspirit and neopagan Goddess movements of the late 20th century, in an epilogue concerned to connect her historical study with contemporary feminist concerns. In her summing up of the 19th-century milieu which is the meat of this work, she observes that Spiritualism was both dependent on and subversive of the customary constructions of femininity in Victorian England, and that as feminist causes were more fully realized in society, Spiritualism went into decline.

Owen takes account of the ways in which the Victorian feminine was refracted through issues of social class, and the consequent effects on the distinction between “public” and “private” mediumship. Much of the book concerns itself with discourses of healing and sickness: both the engagement of Spiritualism in what would now be termed “alternative medicine,” and the medical indictments of Spiritualism as religious mania. The latter of these could lead to involuntary commitment for Spiritualists. While examining these issues, a number of worthwhile and fascinating historical cases and personalities are presented.

For most of the book, Owen manages to suspend the question regarding the “reality” of the spirits, though she does not avoid the conflicts involved with frauds and debunkings. In the end, however, she does propose a psychological mechanism of “splitting” to account for sincere intercourse with spirits, without affirming the objective status of spirits external to the mediums. By invoking the unconscious as a motivating force or field of operation in Spiritualist activity, she necessarily opens a dialogue with Freudian and post-Freudian ideas, and her methodology is clear and careful when she relates psychoanalytic concepts to historical work. The Darkened Room is a valuable intellectual history for inquirers into metaphysical religions as well as women’s studies and Victorian culture. [via]