Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England 1780-1914

Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England 1780-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012) 308 pp. £68.40 PDF/EPUB, £72.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107002005

The relationship between magic, in all its diverse forms, and modernity, in its equally diverse forms, has become the subject of an ever-growing field of research. Magic itself is no respecter of disciplinary boundaries, and the scholarly interest in the topic has developed a similarly heterogenous approach, crossing the borders of literary studies, social history, religious studies and the history of science. Karl Bell’s The Magical Imagination offers further insights into what has become a vibrant field of enquiry, exploring the flourishing of magic in three British cities during the long nineteenth century. We have become used to thinking of the resurgence of magic during the nineteenth century in terms of the re-enchantment of modernity, the permeable boundaries between science and occultism and the challenging of gender roles implicit in spiritualist seances to name but a few approaches. Such approaches commonly reject the Weberian paradigm of a disenchanted modernity and focus instead on the diverse cultural uses of re-enchantment. Like other works, The Magical Imagination argues for the significance of an enchanted modernity but offers a different approach by focusing on cases of apparently genuine belief in magic. In turn this entails a shift away from elite organisations such as The Society for Psychical Research or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with their frequent adoption of scientific languages and methodologies. Bell argues that the focus on these marginal sciences has led to ‘Victorian expressions of the magical imagination [becoming] readily equated with middle class spiritualists, mesmerists, psychical researchers, and occultist societies’ (149).  The core argument of the book is founded on a rejection of this ‘intrinsic bias towards disbelief (or at least its temporary suspension) in works on antinomian modernity’ which, Bell suggests, has ultimately been founded on scholarly rationality that has trouble accounting for a seemingly genuine belief in the supernatural in modernity (6). In essence, then, the book claims to offer an alternative approach to arguments that claim Victorian interest in magic was driven less by questions of belief than by the opportunities it afforded for, as Helen Sword puts it, ‘linguistic playfulness, decenterings of consciousness, fracturings of conventional gender roles [that] betray a characteristically modernist obsession with all things textual: reading, writing, literature, authorship, publication, libraries, and even the discourses and methodologies of literary criticism’.1 This deconstructive emphasis has been challenged by Roger Luckhurst, who has argued that such readings are in danger of ignoring ‘conservative […] social and religious visions of the afterlife’ 2 produced in spiritualist writings, and by Christine Ferguson who notes that the danger of reading spiritualist texts through the lens of critical theory is that it can produce a version of occultism that would not be recognised by those within the era.3

The Magical Imagination is clearly aligned with the latter arguments, focusing on ‘the plebeian magical imagination […] as a functional socio-cultural resource which enabled people to navigate and manage the experience of modernisation’ (19). As this suggests, while the framing of the argument stresses the importance of tracing cases of genuine belief, the details of the arguments do in fact show how magic was nonetheless translated into wider concerns outside the boundaries of magical practice per se. The diverse applications of magic become clear as the book progresses and demonstrates that in fact belief was never simply a question of credulous faith for those inhabiting urban environments during the nineteenth century. Chapter One addresses the relationship of modernity, urbanisation and magic in broad terms, arguing that magic was not a survival but continued to play an active part in the experience of urban life owing to its ‘dynamism and adaptability’ (77). Chapter Two argues that that a genuine belief in the reality of supernatural phenomena co-existed alongside their exploitation in stage entertainment, while Chapter Three turns towards class, arguing that bourgeois claims of magic’s demise did not reflect the experience of the working classes. The fourth chapter builds on these previous discussions to trace the significance of gender, reflecting at its close that the combination of a masculine modernity of ‘order and control’ with a feminine modernity of ‘desire and fantasy’, when read through magic, leads towards ‘a hermaphroditic modernity’ (191). Chapter Five examines how the supernatural could be a means of articulating working class protest, while Chapter Six traces the ‘magical memory mapping’ of the city in which supernatural events are embedded into the geography and temporality of urban areas, offering a ‘reservoir of memory of the city’s transformation, with supernatural legends providing a way of mapping past significance upon sites in the present’ (244).

Somewhat modifying the initial claims of the argument, the latter part of the book affirms that magical practice is never simply about questions of belief; instead magical stories ‘could obviously be told, enjoyed, and communally employed without having to be wholly believed’ (255). This might seem a bit of a contradiction, but it is more a result of the material under consideration. The tracing of magical mentalities or imagination that runs throughout the book is, by definition, itself a rather ghostly concept, and doubly so when the focus is on everyday magical practices adopted by those who were not part of a network of scientific and journalistic resources. Hence rather than extended case studies of individuals, groups or magical practices, each chapter contains numerous examples drawn from archival material, a mix of newspaper reports, collections of folklore, and ballads among others. This is both a strength of the book and a drawback because rather than gaining a direct insight into what the practitioners themselves claimed about their magical beliefs, the evidence is frequently based on what was written about them, sympathetically or otherwise. It also means that the arguments are, of necessity, built up from sometimes rather fragmentary material that gains significance when considered as part of a general pattern rather than expression of individual belief or local context, something which Bell acknowledges when noting that ‘the comparative approach […] help[s] offset imbalances in the material’ and that the book aims not at ‘three micro-studies’ but ‘a more general impression […] of magical mentalities in the nineteenth century urban environment’ (29).

This building up of this picture means that although there are reflections on the geographical, cultural and economic difference between the three cities, these tend to be subsumed within the broader thematic concerns of each chapter. Indeed the subtitle of the book – Magic and Modernity in Urban England 1780-1914 – might suggest a sustained exploration of the relationship between esotericism and spatiality. In fact the emphasis in the book falls very much on the second term, modernity, using urban experiences of magic as a conduit to consider wider issues such as gender or political resistance. If the experience of urbanisation has frequently been taken as a marker of modernity then the book’s argument focuses on the ways in which the nature of urban space itself ‘prompted fantastical imaginings that appear at variance with the progressive assertions of a rational, ideological modernity’ (50).  It is only in Chapter Six that questions of spatiality are given direct focus. Here the emphasis is on the subversive potential of magical practices that ‘through fantastical readings of the environment effectively created evasions, new spaces, and places which were beyond the means of official surveillance’ (257). While this approach certainly reflects the aim noted in the previous paragraph, it does mean that, ultimately, magical geography is subsumed beneath magical modernity.

The Magical Imagination offers multiple approaches that researchers in diverse fields will find useful. For those approaching this material from the perspective of literature and science there is less emphasis on scientific questions and only brief mentions of literary figures. While the book might at first sight appear to have less direct relevance to researchers interested in the unstable (and much discussed) borderland between science and magic during the nineteenth century, its focus on class and spatiality nevertheless suggest productive areas of enquiry that might be pursued in relation to the marginal sciences while suggesting new ways in which the larger theoretical questions prompted by the relationship between magic and modernity are both reflected and challenged in the everyday magical practices the book traces.

Justin Sausman, University of Hertfordshire

Helen Sword, Ghostwriting Modernism (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press 2002), p 78.

2 Roger Luckhurst, The Invention of Telepathy 1870-1901 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002), p 256.

3 Christine Ferguson, Determined Spirits: Eugenics, Heredity and Racial Regeneration in AngloAmerican Spiritualist Writing, 1848-1930 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2012), p 2.