The sympathetic medium
by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
In this fascinating study, Jill Galvan examines women as communication relays, in Britain and the United States, during a period of profound societal change. She finds a common foundation for female mediation's many forms, technological and spiritualistic, encompassing typing and operating the telegraph and the telephone switchboard, as well as in the séance room. Comparing the roles women played in these various spheres is not new, but by scrutinising the influences such occupations had on both male and female writers, Galvan is able to broaden the analysis.
To help understand the development of the female intermediary, Galvan sketches the growth of this new world of communication methods for transcribing, sending, receiving and recording information which gathered pace in the 19th century. She argues that despite their apparently diverse manifestations, they were effectively a single vocation which took different forms, and mediating communication between the living was essentially the same as doing so between living and dead. Women became a vital part of the workforce for all of these activities, and the means of transmission came to be regarded in gendered terms. Issues associated with these forms of communication, notably privacy versus disclosure, were repeatedly aired, and Galvan pursues the themes as manifested in a variety of guises through close analysis of a number of texts.
She reminds us that while it may seem a strange idea to regard transmitting a telegram as no different to communicating with the dead, the writings of the period encourage such connections, by associating technology and the occult. Referring to mediumship as a spiritual telegraph is the most obvious example, but the influence carried both ways, and the distances bridged by terrestrial communications technologies often evoked a sense of being in touch with another world. Despite mentioning WT Stead a number of times, surprisingly Galvan does not discuss the organisation he set up to facilitate communication of the Spiritualistic kind, Julia's Bureau, which the deceased 'Julia' described as "a kind of Dead Letter Office, in which missing messages will be sorted out and re-delivered", a reasonable metaphor to Stead, who saw automatic writing, conveying messages from dead to living, as no different to transmitting Marconigrams across the Atlantic.
Women were seen as ideally suited to acting as intermediaries because of two contradictory traits they were thought to possess: sensitivity, or sympathy, caused by a nervous system more delicate and finely-tuned than the masculine variety, resulting in a spiritual quality (which also manifested as 'The Angel in the House'); and a tendency to display automatic behaviour, which made them more efficient as communicating devices. This Galvan characterises as displaying the right kind of presence and the right kind of absence. On the one hand, the female exercised a calming sense of connectedness in an increasingly fragmented (geographically, socially, scientifically, theologically) society. Yet on the other, her perceived automatism allayed concerns about the privacy of messages, themselves sensitive in content. At the same time, a perceived absence of consciousness suggested manipulability, while the danger of voluntarily broadcasting secrets (women being known for their garrulousness) could give rise to a feeling of untrustworthiness. This ambiguity made the female medium, in whatever sphere, a protean figure that could be plundered by writers.
Subsequent chapters focus on texts that exhibit the characteristics of this process. Some are well known, others less so. Henry James's In the Cage depicts a telegrapher who believes herself complicit with her higher-class clients, leading her to show that she has not been the passive instrument expected of her menial role, but has retained a knowledge of their telegrams which threatens their privacy. This concern that the female functionary might exceed what was required of her was pitched against her automatic responses, and an altered state made her vulnerable, particularly to predatory foreigners able to control her by force of will. Their automatism protected the privacy of others' messages, but it made them a bridgehead for such subtle invading forces. Fiction such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, Grant Allen and May Cotes's Kalee's Shrine and Marie Corelli's A Romance of Two Worlds and The Soul of Lilith all depict women susceptible to unwholesome external influence, though not always succumbing to it.
The novel that (automatically) springs to mind when thinking of a passive female influenced by a strong-willed mesmerist is George Du Maurier's Trilby, and Galvan sets the novel in the context of the recently invented phonograph, comparing the wax cylinder's perfect reproduction to the recall of the hypnotised subject, and exploring the role of mediation in the creation of a society of mass consumers. She also looks at two more of Du Maurier's books, Peter Ibbetson and The Martian which deal with other aspects of communication at a distance, telepathic and inter-planetary respectively. A chapter discusses the links between the female channel, dissociated consciousness and the detective story, focusing particularly on Conan Doyle's "A Case of Identity" and Morton Prince's allegedly non-fiction The Dissociation of a Personality, the dissociation a condition in which the sufferer mediated aspects of her own subconscious.
Finally, Galvan moves away from women to look at men who fulfil similar communicative functions. Robert Browning's 'Mr Sludge, "The Medium"' of course features, along with Kipling's 'Wireless', and a reading of George Eliot's The Lifted Veil which interprets the protagonist's paranormal abilities as imaginary. She concludes her literary survey with TS Eliot's essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' which uses occult imagery to consider male transmission in the composition of poetry, but is an exception that proves the rule by indicating the overwhelming female domination of modes of mediation at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. A brief afterword examines the theme as it continues into the media of film and television.
Galvan's argument is a stimulating one, but abstract similarities between typing pool, telegraph office, switchboard and sťance room, with their female personnel considered as relays, perhaps lead her into speculative territory not supported by the evidence. There are functional resemblances certainly, over and above women acting as media in both spheres, for example, the stratification which pertained in both office and sťance room, leading to a correlation of a woman's status with the degree of exposure to the public; but in terms of earning a living there were different choices to be made according to circumstances, and they cannot be seen as interchangeable in terms of women's lived experience. In Spiritualism, certainly, there are huge differences within mediumship. Galvan mentions mental medium Mrs Piper, but not more robust physical mediums such as Mrs Guppy and Eusapia Palladino. By stressing certain similarities of communication, there is the danger of producing a reductionist account that does not sufficiently acknowledge their differences.
Although it is not the focus of her book, Galvan has made some errors concerning psychical research through relying on a narrow range of sources. It is misleading to begin a sentence referring to the foundation of the SPR in 1882 with the words "In the realm of the occult..." as this implies that the SPR did not adhere to scientific criteria but were seekers after esoteric knowledge, even if she does explicitly exclude Theosophy and neo-Hermeticism from her analysis. There is also a curious distinction between psychical research and the advance of academic psychology. Referring to Edmund Gurney, the SPR's major experimentalist until his untimely death in 1888, Galvan states that "his psychical research is sometimes indistinguishable from his work in psychology". Gurney would agree with her assessment, with the exception of the "sometimes", simply because he would deny that there was anything to distinguish, they were all part of the same piece for him. Galvan refers to the "weirder interests" of the SPR without specifying what she thinks they are, and why she considers them weird.
There is less about the history of Spiritualism in this book than might be assumed from the title, the term medium being most generally associated with the séance room. Galvan's emphasis is less on Spiritualist structures and personalities than on the roles women played in various types of communication, and the influences that were in turn transmitted to the literature of the period. Still, within her terms of reference she does a valuable job in elaborating the intertwining influences of technological and otherworldly communications during the 19th century and beyond. In the process she elicits fresh insights into the expansion of opportunities for females to work outside the home in the 19th century, and the issues that those opportunities raised, as well as covering an eclectic range of novels, not all of which are as well known as they should be.