Christine Ferguson, Determined Spirits

Christine Ferguson, Determined Spirits: Eugenics, Heredity and Racial Regeneration in Anglo-American Spiritualist Writing, 1848-1930 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) x + 230 pp. £70 hb. ISBN 978 0 748 639656

Determined Spirits is part of the Edinburgh University Press series ‘Edinburgh Critical Studies in Victorian Culture’, whose General Editor is Julian Wolfreys. The aim of the series is to challenge and refine what the Series Editor’s preface refers to as ‘the many journalistic misconceptions’ about Victorian culture, ideology, science and practices that exist, and to replace stereotypes of ‘the Victorians’ and their world with new, interdisciplinary readings that open up contradictions and neglected areas of research. Christine Ferguson’s project grew out of an interest in the concerns with reproduction and heredity that she observed in Spiritualist archives, and which had not been previously discussed.

As she explains, the study of Spiritualism is in many ways undergoing a renaissance. Once considered by the scholarly establishment as a ridiculous and embarrassing episode in American credulity, the invention of modern Spiritualism by the Fox sisters in upstate New York in 1848 is now seen as one of the most fertile areas of academic enquiry into nineteenth-century notions of science, religion, communicative technologies, personal and national identity and so on. Spiritualists were not peculiar in their concerns in any sense of the word; rather they dramatized through their practices the anxieties and obsessions of the wider society around them. In this way, they were very much like earlier groups who practised the exorcism of supposed demonic entities or attempted communication with ghosts – groups whose activities have also begun to be studied since the 1990s with a renewed sense of their scientific and cultural importance.

In Ferguson’s field, scholars such Janet Oppenheim, Alexandra Owen, Helen Sword, Bridget Bennett, Brett Carroll and numerous others have offered a re-reading of Spiritualist movements that emphasises their empowerment of women and lower class men as mediums, their channelling of emotional and sexual currents in Victorian life that could not otherwise be freely acknowledged, and their intersections with mainstream nineteenth-century and modernist literatures in both America and Europe. Leading feminists and socialists, they have shown, were often also committed or occasional Spiritualists, as were a number of prominent novelists and poets: for example, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Rider Haggard and Annie Besant were all to some degree interested in Spiritualism. As Ferguson explains, part of the attraction of Spiritualism for these radical figures may have lain in its ability to challenge contemporary assumptions about gender, race, history and life itself – Spiritualism challenged fixed categories of ‘knowledge’ and subverted the very notion of rigid boundaries. Therefore, it has also been of interest to modern literary critics whose favourite areas of exploration are often liminality, subversion and anti-essentialism.

Ferguson, however, seeks to complicate this recent reading of Victorian Spiritualism. Whilst acknowledging its usefulness, she points out that not all Spiritualist thinking was so palatable to modern liberal critics. Spiritualism often overlapped with, and was complicit in the formulation of, eugenic theory and the viler discriminatory theories of heredity and race that profoundly scarred human history from the 1850s onward. Moreover, Spiritualists were not necessarily interested in indeterminacy and open-ended re-categorisation of human experience to accommodate new ideas and lifestyles. Some were, to some extent. But for many the attraction lay in providing verifiable answers to the great questions of human life. Scholars may not now accept the offered proofs of contact with other planes of existence, the production of ectoplasm or the ability to speak with one's ancestors. But to those who created and accepted such proofs, Spiritualism offered confirmation of existing beliefs and indeed prejudices rather than a delightful postmodern playground for new identities and politics of empowerment. It was a movement of its time, and that time included widely accepted racisms, imperialisms, sexisms and other ideologies that in other contexts of writing about Victorian science have been roundly and rightly condemned.

Ferguson’s book therefore attempts to reinsert Spiritualist writing back into the less pleasing scientific discourses of its time. She focuses on Spiritualist writing that actively promoted ‘bio-essentialism, racial and hereditary determinism and the prenatal fixity of character’ (2), as she sums up. Spiritualism, she shows, appropriated evolutionary theory and placed it in an occult context but it did not therefore abandon an interest in the biological and material world. It sought to influence such key areas of worldly life as criminology, aesthetics and racial policy. By supposedly offering reports from an afterlife in which wise guides knew the secrets of existence, mediums could either overtly or by inference put forward theories about such matters as if they were truths. For example, in chapter 2, Ferguson discusses stories and spirit writings which suggested that the mentally disabled lacked souls, or were sub-humans. The American medium Edith Ellis, writing in the 1930s in the persona of a spirit guide, suggested that the collective soulless mass of ‘idiots’ was ‘primitive’, and that its existence actually damaged the rest of humanity by dragging down higher thoughts and aspirations. In chapter 5, Ferguson relates a story from John Edmonds and George Dexter’s writing on séances, in which a departed spirit thanks a judge for condemning him to death, thus promoting him to the spirit world where he could become wise and good. As she notes, this is on one level simply a piece of propaganda in favour of capital punishment.

Determined Spirits therefore acts as a necessary corrective to accounts of nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Spiritualism which have perhaps over-emphasised its radical, subversive potential. Ferguson makes a valuable point about the dangers of pseudo-science and the potential for harm in relationships between scientific and occult discourses, and she makes it well, basing her conclusions on detailed archival research which brings to light little known writings. The book ranges across themes of madness and mental incapacity (chapter 2), eugenics and reproduction (chapter 3), race and miscegenation (chapter 4), criminality (chapter 5) and aesthetics (chapter 6), with an introductory chapter on mediumship as a phenomenon. Its conclusion draws attention to the present day relevance of such topics, with a short discussion of the Raelian movement and its alleged experimentation with cloning (earlier, in a footnote, Ferguson also references the widely-reported views of the football manager Glen Hoddle on the relationship between karma and disability). The book’s importance therefore lies not just in a re-evaluation of Victorian and early twentieth-century Spiritualism and its writings but also in a wider reflection on the ways in which scientific ideas circulated, and sometimes originated, in literatures apparently outside the rationalist mainstream – and occasionally still do.

Marion Gibson (University of Exeter)