On Séances with Plato: Joanna Lowell Talks 19th-century Spiritualism

As readers, we’re fascinated with all sorts of worlds — both ours and those beyond the veil. Today Joanna Lowell, whose gothic Regency, Dark Season, is out next week, is here to talk us about the 19th-century séance craze. Take it away, Joanna!

One afternoon, years ago, when I was working as a kind of mail clerk for a small press run by a wizardly poet I greatly admire, talk unexpectedly turned to the spirit world. Perhaps I started it by making an offhand remark about the courtly grandeur of the old wooden table at which I stuffed and sorted envelopes. (It’s boring work, the stuffing and sorting of envelopes, so even a table can become fuel for the imagination.) Before I knew it, the wizardly poet had launched into a story about Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, contacting Plato and Sir Walter Scott at séances during his exile in the Bailiwick of Jersey. His method? Table-tapping. He sat in darkness at a table with his wife and their friends while visiting spirits lifted and dropped the table legs so as to tap out their messages. According to the poet, Plato was a chatty Cathy. Sir Walter Scott, however, did not give interviews. He delivered one message only: VEX NOT THE BARD.

In the mid-19th century—when Hugo was conversing regularly, not only with Plato and Sir Walter, but with Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Machiavelli, the list goes on—the modern Spiritualist movement was gaining hundreds of adherents, both American and European. Many late Victorians in particular were more than ready to have their credulity taxed, either because the idea of the paranormal excited and enticed them, or because the high incidence of infant mortality and early death left survivors desperate for signs of loved ones lost.

After hearing the story of Victor Hugo’s séances, I began to read up on 19th-century Spiritualism, and to write a few séance stories of my own, one of which I eventually developed into my novel, Dark Season. There’s a superabundance of literary, scientific and documentary material related to séances and mediumship, with plenty of confirmed hoaxes to bolster the skeptics and just enough of the inexplicable mixed in to tantalize the believers. Several of the hoaxes are very well known. The Fox sisters caused a sensation in New York and beyond in the 1850s with their public séances; later, one sister confessed they’d produced the “rappings” attributed to spirits by cracking their feet.

When it came to séances, feet were a fraud’s best friend. Mediums would slip off a shoe and use a foot to ring a bell or lightly stroke a woman’s hand after she’d been told to concentrate on her departed husband. The poet Robert Browning caught medium D.D. Home red footed when Home “materialized” the face of a dead child in a nearly pitch black room; Browning grabbed the child’s faintly luminous face and found himself holding Home’s bare toes. Of course, hands helped too, especially fake ones. The Eddy brothers rested lead hands on audience members’ arms, then “levitated” or played musical instruments with their real ones. Then there were the spirit cabinets, with their secret compartments filled with muslin and false beards! Given all the antics, I wonder if Sir Walter Scott really did drop in on Victor Hugo. VEX ME NOT rings true as an appropriate ghostly rejoinder to human intrusions into the realm beyond the veil.

Even though the fad for séances has faded, the spirit world continues to attract our attention today, and the forms that our mortal fascination with spirits takes are often just as interesting as the spirits themselves! 

Thanks for the history lesson, Joanna! Dark Season is out June 20, and you can preorder your e-copy here for $4.99 (discounts vary across sites): Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, GooglePlay. And for more historical tales, be sure to visit our Everything Romance page!

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