Ghostly hands and ghostly agency: the changing figure of the nineteenth-century specter

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Author: Jennifer Bann
Date: Summer 2009
From: Victorian Studies(Vol. 51, Issue 4)
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 8,740 words

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This paper investigates the connection between the spiritualist movement and the literary ghost story, both of which came to prominence during the second half of the nineteenth century. While existing critical literature has viewed both phenomena as symptoms of a wider Victorian fascination with the supernatural and the possibility of an afterlife, little attention has been paid to the relationship between them. This paper argues for a fresh understanding of the post-1850 ghost story, one that reads the appearance, behavior, and agency of literary ghosts as a dramatic representation of a new conception of the dead--a conception created largely by spiritualism.

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To begin with, Marley was dead. Although many of Scrooge's preconceptions are dismantled by the end of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843), his former colleague's demise is not among them. Marley's ghost may appear and speak, but it cannot un-sign the burial register, erase the funeral and its solitary mourner, nor change the lifetime of detached cruelty that preceded it. Scrooge's revelation is not that the dead can walk, but that they cannot atone for their previous sins. The reprehensible actions of Marley's life are embodied as heavy, restrictive objects after his death--a chain made of "ash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel" (15)--and he is left with Scrooge's agency as a substitute for his own, explaining that it is only by persuading the living to change their ways that his eternal soul can be freed.

In presenting ghosts as essentially restricted figures--catalysts to another's action rather than the agents of their own--Dickens places Marley's ghost in a long tradition of the limited dead. Marley's chains represent not merely the consequences of his actions but the negation of action itself, a fate shared with the procession of other specters Scrooge views from his window: "The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever" (22). In this, the ghosts echo specters as distant as the ineffectually vengeful Old Hamlet, or the mournful Achilles, explaining to Odysseus that he "would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead" (Homer 173). When these ghosts walked, it was not to deny death's role as agency's ultimate terminus, but to affirm it. For Marley, and potentially for Scrooge, death represents not transformation but limitation, and ghosts not agency's continuation but an emphatic demonstration of its temporality.

In the supernatural fiction of the later nineteenth century, death began to bring freedom: shackles, silence, and regret were cast aside, and ghosts became active figures empowered rather than constrained by their deaths. The origins of this shift, I will argue, lie outside supernatural fiction and within the wider sphere of cultural representations of the supernatural as a whole. The rapid spread and popularity of the spiritualist movement in the mid-nineteenth century contributed a new model of the ghostly to supernatural literature, and--influenced by the active, powerful figures of the seance room--the specters of the ghost story changed. This transformation can be seen most clearly in supernatural literature by tracing the developments of the ghostly hand, from the powerless hand-wringing of Marley's ghost to the controlling, guiding, or demonstrative hands of later ghosts. With this trope I will gesture, as it were, toward the debt the ghost story paid to spiritualism.

There are few direct references to spiritualism in the supernatural fiction written during its most prolific years, and the fact that this seems, at first glance, to be one area in which ghost stories are rather isolated from their social context has clouded the connection between them. With its plethora of seances, materializations, ectoplasm, and table-rappings, spiritualism is strangely omitted from the ghost stories with which it shared decades of popularity; both spiritualism and the ghost story grew rapidly in the 1850s, peaked in popularity during the last decades of the nineteenth century, and faded to relative obscurity by the 1930s. Spiritualism made few appearances in fiction, however, and those stories in which it did play a substantial role concentrated on its follies rather than its ghosts. Henry james's "Maud-Evelyn" (1900) criticizes spiritualism as a denial of both death and fully embraced life, while Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's "The Day of My Death" (1868) attacks its numerous absurdities; these stories provide didactic or irreverent commentary upon the movement, and do not put the movement's conventions to narrative use. (1) And even these were rare exceptions. Viewing the Victorian supernatural from the perspective of the ghost story, a reader might emerge from decades of tales about ghosts ancient and fashionable, old and young, vengeful and pitiful, loved and feared, with little idea that a religious movement centered around them had ever existed.

The lack of explicit references to spiritualism in the ghost story, however, does not indicate a lack of influence. Spiritualism's contribution to supernatural literature was not limited to the seance and all of its trappings; it helped to subtly transform the figure of the ghost, from the less-than-human apparitions of earlier narratives into the more-than-human characters of the later nineteenth century. The universal practice amongst spiritualists to refer to apparitions of the dead as "spirits," rather than revenants, specters, or ghosts, reflects this change: where the prevalent culture understands ghosts as limited, echo-like figures like Marley, Old Hamlet, and Achilles, the clearest way to distinguish between the old and the new is to replace "ghosts" with another term. And yet, as my decision to refer to all apparitions of the dead as "ghosts" will indicate, such spiritualist figures are no less ghosts than their earlier counterparts. (2) Beneath its claims of new revelation, its meticulous preoccupation with every spiritual, physical, and moral detail of the life of the world to come, and its typically grandiose and fantastic performances and rituals, spiritualism newly imagined spectrality as something inherently powerful and transformative. As they assumed a more central narrative role, the spectral figures of the literary ghost story brought with them a unique kind of power and psychological depth.

Spiritualism as a New Revelation

In contrast to its otherworldly teachings, spiritualism began in suburbia. In 1848, the Fox family, living in Hydesville, New York, heard in their house peculiar sounds that seemed to come from the walls and furniture. Addressing the invisible source of the sounds, twelve-year-old Kate Fox asked that it copy her by following the stamps of her foot. Complying with this, the apparent entity then proceeded to rap out any number asked of it, including a request by Kate's mother Catherine that it give the respective ages of her children (it was correct on all of them, including a daughter who had died some years previously). After a code of communication was established, the "spirit" claimed to be that of a peddler who had been murdered in the house some years earlier. Whether or not this unfortunate man ever existed soon became largely irrelevant to spritualism's success; as Kate and Margaret Fox (along with their elder sister, Leah) began touring the region with similar performances, and other Americans discovered themselves to be "mediums" capable of relaying messages from more spirits, spiritualism turned from an anecdote into a movement.

In its first five years, spiritualism spread across the entire country and began to reach overseas. A brief lull in popularity in 1850s America served only to increase it elsewhere, as American professional mediums took their trade to more receptive audiences. In Britain, the most popular destination, these individuals were largely responsible for the ongoing process of transatlantic exchange that marked spiritualism for the rest of the century: by the time that spiritualism started to regain popularity in its home country in the 1860s, British spiritualism had grown strong enough that subtle differences, such as an increased emphasis on socially radical ideas, took hold in America. Exact numbers of spiritualists at any point in the movement's history are difficult to gather; the tendency of both spiritualist and anti-spiritualist writers to exaggerate for effect, and the absence of any accurate way to distinguish between the truly dedicated and the merely curious at any spiritualist meeting (or the combination of those last two, as demonstrated most dramatically by the controversy that arose in 1860 when a spiritualist periodical claimed Dickens's son Charley as a convert after he attended a seance), add to the complication. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that spiritualism's popularity remained high enough to rival mainstream religious movements throughout the second half of the century.

Spiritualism's hazy boundaries and broad scope of beliefs tempted many to impose a singular narrative and philosophy upon it, an act not limited to spiritualists themselves. To name the Fox sisters as the start of the movement proper is to neglect the degree to which its explosive growth required a public field already seeded by previous religious movements (New England transcendentalism, for instance, from which spiritualists adopted the already borrowed writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg along with the idea of individual access to an almost pantheistic sense of the divine), and by other pseudoscientific movements (most notably mesmerism, which provided spiritualists with the concept of an "etheric fluid" through which spirits could act upon the natural world). Spiritualism also drew from individuals such as Andrew Jackson Davis, the "Poughkeepsie Seer," whose established career as a professional clairvoyant preceded the Fox sisters' by several years. Spiritualists themselves agreed on remarkably little in matters of doctrine; there were spiritualist controversies over the nature of the afterlife, the existence of a deity, the value of Christianity or other religions, the appropriate role of professionalization in mediumship, the extent to which spirits at seances could be trusted to provide truthful information, and the matter of which, if any, of the numerous causes attributed to the movement (socialism, free love, and vegetarianism, among others) were advocated by the spirits or should be supported by spiritualists. Furthermore, although there was certainly a fundamental core of belief on which all practitioners could agree, spiritualists lacked any centralized structure of practice. Although they formed groups of like-minded individuals, respected particular speakers and mediums as especially authoritative or noteworthy on certain subjects, and produced revelatory texts of their own through spirit direction, spiritualists held few creeds in common, neither created nor desired any kind of religious hierarchy, and elected no one text as holy writ. (3) Spiritualists did generally agree on the mechanics of death as liberating transition, on the philosophy of the dead as guides and mentors, and of principles governing how the spirit body was formed and what general seance practice consisted of. The possible consequences of all this for spiritualists in particular and humanity in general, however, remained a matter for lively and fervent debate.

For those critical of or uninvolved with the spiritualist movement, or for those whose involvement did not extend beyond a mild curiosity and occasional seance attendance, these ongoing debates and discord did not go unnoticed. The spiritualist writer and advocate J. B. Angell wrote in an 1879 work on the subject, reflecting what seems to have become a frequent, if irreverent, criticism, "It is said that if the Spiritualist doctrine is one of love, why do we see among them at their meetings such a want of harmony?" (19). For all the weight such comments doubtless held, Angell's answer--that such criticisms could as easily be leveled against Christianity, with no consequent loss of status--was not without merit. The movement may have encompassed a broad variety of beliefs and practices, but all such diversity was clustered around spiritualism's central principle: the conviction that the dead were willing and able to communicate with the living, and that what they had to say was worth listening to.

In 1853, when sixteen spiritualist periodicals were already in print in the US and the Fox sisters were touring the country with their seances, Harper's New Monthly Magazine printed one of the first lengthy attacks on spiritualism to appear in the mainstream press. "This new form of demonology," Henry J. Raymond's editorial claimed, was no more than "a rank Sadducceism, that impudently pretends to be converted to a belief in devils and spirits of its own making"; all its claims, and all its supposed phenomena, were only "sheer naturalism, under an assumed spiritual form" (699). As the last statement implies, these accusations of "demonology" refer not to real activity with supernatural beings, but to the "awful blasphemy" of the replacement of the spiritual with a materialistic system of belief, in which spirit itself was naturalized (700). Spiritualism's focus on the apparitions of the dead is not criticized here, but its presentation and use of them is; by speaking of electricity, progress, and physical laws to explain its phenomena, spiritualism drags the soul into the mundane discourse of scientific rationalism.

But for spiritualists, the division between the physical and the metaphysical was merely a relic of a less enlightened past. Just as mortal life was only one stage of human existence, to be followed by various levels of ascendance through an afterlife with its own material landscape, so was matter capable of existing in a number of different forms. The tripartite division of body, soul, and spirit, which was fundamental to spiritualist theology, centered upon this rather unusual idea of physicality; after death, the self retained some form of spatial individuality in the form of the spirit, which in life existed as an intermediary between soul and body. Made up of an ethereal matter invisible to the living, the spirit assumed a form resembling the mortal body after death, and could also choose to clothe itself in any other form of physical matter if it wished (as, for example, in the accounts of spirits materializing at seances). (4) The souls of both living and dead existed within the natural world, but the living were limited in perception and action to only a small part of it; with death, and with the loss of the mortal body, the soul experienced not further limitation but rather empowerment.

For spiritualists, then, freedom from the physical body was linked inextricably to freedom of agency in a wider sense. Spiritualist descriptions of the body affirm it as the corporeal alternative to Marley's chains, praising death in contrast as a moment of liberation, "where the angel broke the casket and set the prisoner free" (Barrett 92). Repeatedly, spiritualist writing sets the transcendent freedom of the spirit against the cramped confinement of bodies that constituted "fetters" (Hoffman 171) and "earth-mask[s]" (Owen, Footfalls 371). Jabez C. Woodman's 1857 pamphlet illustrates the centrality of this dichotomy to spiritualist belief, providing a spiritualist gloss of St. Paul's description of a man "caught up into paradise, [who] heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to hear" (1 Corinthians 12:3-4): "These words could only be uttered by spiritual organs of speech, when divested of external matter. Paul was still clothed by an external body of matter. It was not possible for him to utter these words, because he could not freely exercise his internal organs of speech" (31).

The equivocation between the possible and permissible is deliberate, as natural constraints are equated to metaphysical laws. To be freed from practical restrictions on movement and speech is also to be freed from divinely imposed restrictions on knowledge. If the physicality of the flesh is described in conceptual terms, as earthly bodies become punishments, prisons, fetters, and masks, then conceptual restrictions can become physical; movement between the current world and the next one is merely a matter of one's ability to act.

The practical arrangements of seances reflected and reinforced this difference in agency between living and dead. While sitters joined hands around the table, both as a measure against potential fraud and as a means of unifying them as a physically and emotionally connected whole, ghostly hands lifted objects, played instruments, walked around the room, and interacted with various sitters. Describing an 1860 seance with two of the Fox sisters, Robert Dale Owen drew characteristic attention to the agency these hands represented:

By request, through the raps, the gas was extinguished and we joined hands. Very soon lights were seen floating about the room, apparently phosphorescent. At first they were small, just visible; but gradually they became larger, attaining the size and general outline of hands: ... while the hands of the circle remained joined, I looked under the table and saw [these] lights, as many as ten or twelve times. (Debatable Land 349)

The "hands" Owen described rapped on tables and door-frames, floated about, and brushed against sitters (including himself) as requested; "the feeling," Owen reported, "was like that from the gentle touch of a finger" (351). As seances increased their focus on visual spectacles over the next few decades, such hands became even more active, caressing the faces and hands of sitters and writing messages as well as lifting and touching objects. While sometimes attached to the materialized body of a ghost, spirit hands continued to appear in disembodied form, providing a literal metonymy for the spiritualist movement as a whole. Ghostly hands represented not merely agency in itself, but the power of death to confer it.

The Ghostly Hand as a Trope of Agency in Supernatural Fiction

The connection between spectral hands and spectral agency did not begin in the nineteenth century. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) provides a particularly striking example of the century before: a giant, armored hand falling to earth plays a central role in the narrative and in its wider reception, both heralding the destruction of the protagonist's (fraudulently obtained) nobility and pointing toward the subsequently explosive popularity of the gothic novel. Walpole's novel is fiction, of course, but its pretended status as a found manuscript testifies to the gothic's blurring the line between admitted fiction and pretended fact. As Otranto and its like were reaching for a foundation in reality, either through the pretense of prefaces or the tendency to set barbaric, feudalistic, and supernatural events in a time and place in which they could at the very least be considered more likely to occur (most typically, rural Catholic Europe of several centuries before), reports of the purportedly real supernatural sounded increasingly like fiction.

E. J. Clery discusses the commodification of the supernatural in the eighteenth century as a product of the growth of consumerism in the period, beginning her account with a description of the publicity surrounding the "Cock Lane ghost," an apparition of 1760s London that resembles the Hydesville rappings of eighty years later in striking ways. Both events featured a ghost, communicating through knocking sounds, who claimed to have been a victim of murder; both put relatively young girls at the center of events (eleven-year-old Elizabeth Parsons at Cock Lane, and eleven- and thirteen-year-old Kate and Margaret Fox in Hydesville); and both garnered massive amounts of publicity, controversy, and accusations of fraud on the part of the girls and their families, largely centered around the financial opportunities that arose from growing public interest. The house at Cock Lane became for a short time the favored site of evening entertainment of fashionable London, with visitors including Samuel Johnson; the two Fox sisters, along with their older sister Leah, appeared to paying audiences at public venues across the wider New York area. Whatever the later consequences of the Hydesville rappings, then, the spectral hands seemed initially to signal the same thing they had in Cock Lane: profit, publicity, and the transformation of the supernatural from spiritual force to marketable commodity.

If such connections can be made between Cock Lane and Hydesville, is there anything particularly Victorian about the significance of spectral hands at all? Clery suggests that the trope's foundation in supernatural fiction might lie in the cultural imagination of the eighteenth century:

   Adam Smith first posited the "invisible hand" as a metaphor for the
   workings of an economic unconscious; the system achieves its
   providential end of the general good of the whole through the
   unknowing agency of individuals driven only by greed and
   self-interest. In Otranto the invisible hand represents a
   laissez-faire of fictionality; in thematic terms an inscrutable
   force again manipulating and ultimately subordinating human agency
   in the interests of a "moral" goal. (66)

The same comparison, perhaps, could be made to the spectral hands of some later fiction. The ghost of the young Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (1847), grabbing Lockwood's hand in her own with such force that he rakes her wrist across broken glass to release it, embodies the ferocity of a living, unresolved past; the child-ghost of Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story" does much the same, her "little battering hands upon the window-glass" (17) preceding a gruesome tableau that brings the cruelty of her surviving family to light. As the gothic pulled the ghost narrative behind it, dragging a primarily religious rhetoric into the commodified, commercialized arena of the supernatural, the distance narrowed between fiction and nonfiction narratives. Spectral hands seem to serve the same purpose at Hydesville and Cock Lane as they did in the stories of Gaskell and Walpole: as a means for creating a coherent story by granting the dead some continued connection to later events.

But whatever the initial similarities between the Cock Lane ghost and the Hydesville rappings, spiritualism's rapid journey from local curiosity to religious movement left the possibility of a continued connection far behind. Where the Cock Lane case remained focused on the identity of the "ghost" and the veracity of her allegations of murder, the peddler of Hydesville seems more like an afterthought almost from the start, brushed aside in the wake of a religious language of new revelations. Does this, then, demonstrate a preference for the abstract over the individual? I would argue not, for as Clery's suggestions indicate, the spirit hands of these pre-spiritualist narratives are rarely those of individuals in any substantial sense. Even where these hands belong to named and identifiable characters, theirs is a disembodied, metatextual agency, the manes ex machina of an overarching desire toward order, coherence, and balance within the narrative as a whole.

The spectral hands of spiritualism, in contrast, belonged emphatically to individuals, something bound up with the spiritualist philosophy of the quasi-physical spirit body itself. Allan Kardec, an early and influential writer who compiled spiritualist doctrine in the form of a series of catechism-like questions and answers from particularly respectable spirits (a panel which included, among others, Plato, St. Augustine, and Benjamin Franklin), made this explicit in The Spirits' Book (1857): the soul "never loses its individuality," something preserved through "a fluid peculiar to itself ... which represents the appearance of its last incarnation" (63). Individuality as conceived in terms of a spiritual physicality warrants further elucidation:

   If souls were blended together into a mass, they would possess only
   the qualities common to the totality of the mass; there would be
   nothing to distinguish them from one another, and they would have
   no special intellectual or moral qualities of their own. But the
   communications we obtain from spirits give abundant evidence of the
   possession by each spirit of the consciousness of the me, and of a
   distinct will, personal to himself.... The individuality of the
   soul has been taught theoretically, as an article of faith;
   spiritism renders it patent, as an evident, and, so to say, a
   material fact. (64, emphasis original)

Not all of the ideas Kardec advocated gained purchase within the movement (his favored term "spiritism," for example, was rarely used by other writers), but this principle remained fundamental throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. By 1918, Arthur Conan Doyle was arguing much the same point:

   Are we to be mere wisps of gaseous happiness floating about in the
   air? ... if there is no body like our own, and if there is no
   character like our own, then say what you will, we have become
   extinct. What is it to a mother if some impersonal glorified entity
   is shown to her? She will say, "that is not the son I lost-1 want
   his yellow hair, his quick smile, his little moods that I know so
   well." That is what she wants; that, I believe, is what she will
   have; but she will not have them by any system which cuts us away
   from all that reminds us of matter and takes us to a vague region
   of floating emotions. (105, emphasis original)

The ghosts of spiritualism were no longer the dead, ethereal iterations of a type whose actions and motivations were determined by their metaphysical status. They were as varied and as psychologically complex as they had been in life, their ability to act within a physical sphere evidence of both their individuality and their liberation from the restrictions of mortality.

Beckoning toward the Future: Spiritualist Influences on the Post-1850s Ghost Story

The corresponding shift in conventions within supernatural literature is explicitly foregrounded in some ghost stories, such as Charlotte Riddell's "Old Mrs. Jones" (1882). Here, ghostly hands indicate a new direction, contrasting the spiritualist-influenced conception of what ghosts could represent with earlier and more limited specters. Relatively obscure today, Riddell was an influential figure in British supernatural fiction of the mid-nineteenth century, establishing her reputation with the 1867 story "Banshee's Warning" (subsequently published as "Hertford O'Donnell's Warning") and two subsequent novellas which formed the Routledge Christmas annuals for 1873 and 1875. Her ghost stories combined various shades of spectral terror with the focus on practicalities of work and finance that mark her non-supernatural work, and the urban, contemporary settings thus implied made for an uneasy juxtaposition of ancient and modern ideas about ghosts. "Banshee's Warning," for example, combines the much earlier convention of a ghost-as-death-omen with a degree of psychological depth typical of later supernatural fiction; the banshee's scream of unabated grief influences living characters on a parallel emotional level: "such a wail of pain, and agony, and distress, as caused the [listener's] blood to curdle" (144). "Old Mrs. Jones," however, incorporates this contrast directly into the story's narrative structure, playing characters' expectations of one type of ghost against the reality of another.

The story's plot is relatively simple: the eponymous Mrs. Jones, a doctor's wife who disappeared in suspicious circumstances, haunts the house where locals believe her body to be buried. The story's twist lies not in its rather predictable conclusion, as the discovery of Old Mrs. Jones's body proves her death at her husband's hands, nor in the appearance of her ghost, described in detail throughout the narrative. Instead, her neighbors' assumptions about her reason for haunting the house she occupied in life are challenged and finally discarded in the face of a ghost with far more agency and emotional complexity than they previously imagined. Speculations about Mrs. Jones's body being hidden in the house her ghost haunts come from a pre Victorian understanding of limited, relatively powerless ghosts who appear to the living because their incomplete burials or unresolved circumstances prevent them from ascending to the afterlife; their ghosts haunt the places where their bodies lie, connected to the flesh since they are unable to fully embrace the spirit. Old Mrs. Jones, murdered and unburied, fits the type well, and her neighbors welcome its explanatory power. "He wouldn't give her the chance of Christian burial," one states of her husband; "she's lying hidden away in some dark corner; no wonder the creature can't rest there" (187).

The absence of power, even to explain or attempt to resolve the ghost's own situation, is linked directly to this concept of ghostly appearance, as another neighbor reflects that "she's in that house somewhere, right enough, and if she could speak she would say so" (187). Even their descriptions of her "eyes, filled with hunger and ill-treatment" (187) imply a passive, sorrowful resignation, one dramatically opposed to the actively malicious figure described by the children living in the house: to them, her eyes are "fierce" and "dark," and her hands "like claws going to make a clutch at [them]" (184). Children are here presented as entirely ignorant of ghosts and ghostly convention; by presenting their descriptions of Old Mrs. Jones before those of her neighbors, the narrative privileges the unmediated reality of the ghost above the false impressions of the living. Readers, then, are drawn toward a more dramatic and active model of ghostly appearance, a view validated when Mrs. Jones's body is revealed in another building; her connection to the house, the story finally reveals, is territorial, not circumstantial.

Old Mrs. Jones's claw-like hands represent not only a potential threat, but the agency which makes it possible. It is this connection which infuses one local tale of a visitor who felt a cold hand upon her shoulder with its particular malice, and throughout their description, the children draw special focus to the ghost's hands to similar effect: "she came and touched me," the youngest declares, and her brother affirms that he "saw her go up to Effie and lay her hand upon her" (185). Episodic and fragmentary though these appearances are, they foreshadow the substance of the story's denouement, in which the ghost leads a servant to the hidden location of her body. Here, Mrs. Jones's presence in the narrative foreground brings with it a change in the contrasted agencies of living and dead, as the supernatural freedoms of the ghost literally overpower the human limitations of the living: "Doctor Jones' wife came to her bedside, and bade her get up and dress, and opened the door of the room, and the front door, and bade her walk till she was fit to drop through places and streets she had never seen before, till they came to the garden gate of St. Julian's; she passed through that and kept beckoning her to follow" (213). The effect is almost hypnotic, with the servant following in what witnesses assume to be a somnambulistic trance. The ghost's beckoning hand symbolizes not a plea, then, but a command.

The play on expectations in Riddell's story shapes the malice of its ghost. Where the supernatural can neither be predicted nor understood by appealing to the logic of earlier narratives, the ghost's interactions with the living become more directly menacing, no longer mediated through the filter of convention. Convention itself then becomes a haunting presence in this story: without a commonality of belief between characters and readers, creating too great a distance between characters' thoughts and readers' expectations would leave a narrative emotionally hollow, with the ghost's threat dissipated in the gulf between the two. The relatively late date of publication might thus seem a curiosity here, since few ghosts of the 1880s were incapable of communicating with the living, and the place of one's death rarely imposed limits upon the range of one's haunting. That the convention itself was still extant, however, suggests that the answer lies in the way in which this later concept of spectrality was used. What such stories show is not a linear progression from gothic revenants to spiritualist entities, but rather the adoption of various aspects of spiritualist ghosts in a piecemeal fashion.

The trope of the ghostly hand recurs frequently throughout the 1860s and 1870s, as the Victorian ghost story continued to gain in popularity. As "Old Mrs. Jones" indicates, an emphasis on ghostly hands lends itself well to violent, threatening ghosts. In Henry James's first piece of supernatural fiction, "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" (1867), one sister's murder by her spectral rival is indicated by "the marks of ten hideous wounds from two vengeful ghostly hands" upon her throat (220). The "fat but aristocratic-looking" apparition in one narrative from Joseph Sheridan Le Farm's The House by the Church-Yard (1863, later republished in its own right as "The Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand") is not disembodied, as the title might suggest, but instead belongs to a figure that is never seen, as if the ghost's appearance fades into insignificance beside what it can do. When this hand crawls into the protagonist's marital bed, sends his wife into a deathlike trance, and tries to suffocate his infant son, the capacity of ghostly power to influence and disrupt the lives of the living is made both immediate and dramatic.

Not all such ghosts, however, were threatening in the strictest sense of the term. In Anna Hoyt's "The Ghost of Little Jacques" (1863), the ghost of a child appears in order to reveal evidence of murder: Jacques was killed by his father. When the narrator fails to understand this on the ghost's first appearance, and is herself subsequently placed in danger at the same man's hands, Jacques reappears, compelling his father to drink a dose of his own poison. The ghost neither harms nor threatens the narrator, although it exerts considerable force over her in much the same way as Riddell's Old Mrs. Jones: "The little phantom had arisen, its slim finger was outstretched,--it beckoned, slowly beckoned; growing indistinct, it receded farther and farther out from the saloon towards the shop. The fascination of a spell was upon me. I turned and followed the retreating figure" (216-17).

While we may feel sympathy for Jacques once his story is known, it is important to note that his ghost appears neither vulnerable nor victimized, as much in control of events as he is over his inter actions with the narrator. The connections are evident with earlier supernatural fiction and its ghosts, who functioned as narrative devices to restore order and justice rather than as individuals. Nonetheless, a comparison with the 1840s child-ghosts of Gaskell and Bronte indicates some development: Jacques is active where they were passive, central where they were tangential. Although the ghost may lack some of the exuberance and disobedience the living child was said to possess, the power death grants him allows him to retain his individuality in a way his predecessors could not.

In Britain and America, the ghost stories of the 1850s and 1860s featured a large number of such powerful ghosts. As with the transatlantic commonalities of the spiritualist movement, the dynamics of discussion and textual production within the genre make this unsurprising; lax copyright regulations led to a large number of British (and Irish) ghost stories being reproduced in American periodicals. Further, once the spiritualist-influenced conception of the ghostly in fiction had displaced the gothic conventions to a point where limited and generic ghosts seemed old-fashioned and uninteresting, public demand pressed for modern stories defined by a shared cultural presumption that ghosts would act differently. While there were differences between American and British ghost stories, just as between American and British spiritualism, such differences rarely extended to the portrayal of the ghosts themselves. On both sides of the Atlantic, these ghosts more closely resembled the spiritualist conception than the gothic.

Take, for example, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "The Cold Embrace" (1860), which places the issue of the ghost's power squarely within a more nuanced psychological framework by contrasting a powerless mortal life with the greater possibilities of a spectral one. For Gertrude, the story's protagonist, life is a sequence of denied opportunities and negated agency; abandoned by her lover and forced into an unwanted marriage by her father, she lacks any ability to affect the world around her through words, deeds, or thoughts. Even her emotions exist in a stifling vacuum, eliciting neither response nor reaction from others: "how many times she hopes, only to be disappointed!" (70-71). Faced with the finality of an arranged marriage, abruptly ending a flickering dream of agency when her absent lover fails to return in time to save her, Gertrude chooses death over life in the only active choice we see her make. She drowns herself on what is, ironically, the day before her absent lover returns, having long since forgotten the girl he promised to marry. Death transforms passivity to action, as Gertrude's lover finds himself haunted by the constant, inescapable sensation of her arms around his neck. In the story's conclusion, ghost murders living man in a way that contrasts her dynamism in death with the inertia that marked her life, her invisible but forceful form dancing him to exhaustion and collapse at a ball. The cold embrace of the story's title is more possessive than affectionate, the physical enforcement of an emotional claim; the lover kept permanently beyond Gertrude's reach in life is literally held within it in death. Certainly, the narrative portrays Gertrude as a threatening ghost with the ability to overpower and ultimately destroy the living, but this force is neither indiscriminate nor, the narrator suggests, unjustified; Gertrude does not act as one of the indistinguishable and interchangeable dead, but as an individual with the same desires she had in life.

As this kind of psychological complexity became the genre's standard, various kinds of ghost stories capitalized upon these new possibilities. Child-ghosts had, by the end of the century, become the provenance of the sentimental ghost stories of (largely American) writers such as Annie Trumbull Slosson or Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Freeman's ghost stories in particular, which span the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth, are studded with such examples, as typified most clearly in "The Little Ghost" (1903). Like Hoyt's Jacques, the child at the center of this story is a victim of parental cruelty and neglect, forced into a life of domestic drudgery by a mother who later abandons her to freeze to death in an empty house. The child's appearance as a ghost is suitably pitiful, and her hands indicate not what she can do but what she feels she must do: "two little hands spotted purple with the cold, holding up [the narrator's] winter coat" (217). Her seemingly endless search for emotional and physical warmth is given added pathos by her childish activities, such as playing with the household cat. Just as the narrator sees the ghost appear gradually, with the child "seem[ing] to clear out of the dimness behind the hand" (223), so the full character of a ghostly child eventually emerges from the initial vision of ghostly action. The story ends with a tableau of emotional resolution after the old woman most vocally sympathetic for the ghostly child dies, and is seen in ghostly form walking away from the house with the child "holding fast to her hand" (236-37).

The narrator's initial fright exists only to be overcome, illustrating the fragility and vulnerability of the ghost by replacing fear with pity. "[She had] a dreadful little face, with something about it which made it different from any face on earth, but it was so pitiful that it did away a good deal with the dreadfulness," the narrator explains (214); indeed, even the cat is unafraid of her, purring as she strokes his back. For Abby Bird, who becomes the child's substitute mother at the story's end, the ghost's appeal to sentiment entirely outweighs any capacity to terrify. While the ghost's physical appearance suggests something of her horrifying death--she is tiny, freezing, and damp, her starved body "mottled blue with the cold" through her nightgown (215)--the effect is not macabre, as the incongruity of the ghost's appearance is not situated between life and death but between warmth and cold, safety and neglect. It is, in fact, the child's long white nightgown that becomes the strongest indicator of her other wordliness. "She did not seem to run or walk like other children," the narrator explains; "she flitted, like one of those little filmy white butterflies, that don't seem like real ones they are so light, and move as if they had no weight" (215).

In Peter Newell's 1903 illustration of the ghost holding the narrator's coat (fig. 1), the ghost's pure white gown seems almost to glow with its own light, the brightest thing in the picture. The ghost stands between two door-frames, surrounded by the shadows they cast and by the dark pattern on the rug beneath her. The narrator's clothing is dark, too, her face turned into the shadows as the ghost's is illuminated by an unseen source of light. The ghost's nightgown brushes the floor, hiding her feet as she appears to float rather than stand, and contrasting starkly with the huge, dark, and cumbersome coat she holds close to her body. Positioned as such, the ghost seems almost to be emerging from the coat and from the physical, bodily mass it represents; her hands clinging to its collar, halfway between pulling it close and pushing it away, illustrate the connection she maintains with an earthly life. What Newell suggests, the story ultimately confirms, showing the voluntary servitude of the child's behavior after death as a mimicry of life, and emphasizing the lightness and freedom of her movement only at her most ethereal. Abby Bird's wish to "get that awful little white robe off that child and get her in some clothes" (235) is here affirmed as misguided, a wish to bring the child back into the confines of life, and it is little surprise that at the story's close, the comforting embrace between woman and child happens only after the former has joined the latter in death.

The sub-genre of questionably real ghosts and more metaphorical hauntings best known as the psychological ghost story, a form which developed in the last two decades of the century, contrasted living and dead in much the same way. Take, for example, Vernon Lee's "Oke of Okehurst," first published as "A Phantom Lover" in 1886. The narrator, hired by the eponymous Mr. Oke to paint his wife's portrait, gradually discovers that Mrs. Oke's obsession with a murderous ancestor extends to a strange assumption of her identity. The narrator sees glimpses of a figure that may, perhaps, be the ancestor herself, but the real ghost here is Mrs. Oke, mimicking her predecessor to a degree that can only be expressed in supernatural terms: possession, reincarnation, haunting. The suggestions of real supernatural presence in the story seem in this light to be an extrapolation of Mrs. Oke's fixation, as the force of her character shapes not only the objective world around her but also the narrative itself. Whether her delight in the ancestor's misdemeanors is vicarious or remembered, the story's ghosts real or imagined, we are left again with the shape of spectral agency in the form of Mrs. Oke's hands. Her connection to her ancestor is depicted as a real, physical one, initiated at will; we do not learn that the house's library holds the books and belongings of the ancestor's lover until her descendant lifts them down to show the narrator, "touching the yellow papers with delicate and reverent fingers" (145). Indeed, the narrator's admission of her deliberate manipulation comes with an acceptance of his inability to influence or affect her in any way: "that woman would slip through my fingers like a snake if I attempted to grasp her elusive character" (181). Power, agency, and ultimately the story itself belong to the enigmatically spectral form of the living woman.

However dissimilar the stories of Freeman and Lee, it is notable that ghostly power in both cases is portrayed somewhat less dramatically than in the earlier fiction discussed above. The child in Freeman's story does not physically or psychologically overpower any of the living, and there is little suggestion that she is even capable of doing so; the transition from horror to sympathy in those around her is presented as entirely human. What death brings for this ghost is perhaps better understood as freedom than power, a more nuanced understanding of agency reflective of the spiritualist idea of the body as a prison and mortal life as a sentence. Mrs. Oke consciously adopts the same kind of freedom by connecting herself to a ghostly ancestor, living out exciting fantasies through a haunting she gladly welcomes. It is significant that these are later stories. While the principle of spectral freedom certainly underlay early spiritualism and seance parlor-tricks, it became a far more significant element of the movement in later decades, as the 1870s saw the introduction of "full-form materializations," visible ghostly figures with which sitters could interact. Spiritualism's association with socially progressive movements began long before this: the spirit-sanctioned advice for individual and social conduct that formed a significant part of early American spiritualism led to the establishment of the movement's first British strongholds in the working-class communities of northern England. But it was the advent of full-form materializations that brought this association to such prominence. These ghosts rarely threatened or overpowered sitters,' but their very presence demonstrated a freedom from both mortal limitations and social restrictions, two barriers portrayed as having a certain amount of overlap.

As critical literature on spiritualism has moved away from general overviews of the movement and toward a more in-depth examination of its underlying thematic concerns and psychology, several scholars have drawn attention to the connections between full-form materializations and socially progressive ideals. Particularly, the seance-room has been theorized as an arena for the suspension of social norms and assumption of power by those who would otherwise be without it. "Spiritualism made social violations of all kinds possible because it blurred the boundaries between the spiritual and material," Marlene Tromp argues; during seances, young female ghosts appeared in robes which left arms, legs, and necks bare, kissed and caressed sitters both male and female, and invited sitters to establish the reality of their materialized forms by laying their hands upon them (68). Anne Braude chronicles the various ways in which women understood and developed their role as spiritualist mediums in terms of the world around them, and the subsequent relationship between spiritualism and more mainstream issues of female emancipation and women's rights; Alex Owen makes these connections even more explicit by viewing the role of the medium as an exaggeration of Victorian ideals of femininity, thus giving women power through the semblance of passivity.

For the latter concept in particular, the spiritualist idea of ghostly agency provided a striking demonstration: in spiritualist thought, the presence of the materialized ghost required the quasi absence of the medium, something usually achieved by a combination of unconsciousness, removal from the sitters' field of vision, and physical restriction (mediums were typically confined to a darkened enclosure and bound to avoid accusations of fraud). The often striking physical resemblances between these mediums and the ghosts they brought forth did not go unnoticed by spiritualists or their detractors, but as contemporary critical discussion of the subject has broadened beyond the subject of fraud, the contrast between active ghost and passive mortal has proved fertile ground for discussion. The spiritualist concept of spectrality allowed those involved in the movement to adopt the kind of freedom and agency that their philosophy granted to the dead. However flippant it may have seemed, flirtatious ghostly behavior in seances was the counterpart of spiritualism's association with politically and socially radical movements, as made overt by spiritualists themselves both in print and in person, with innumerable pamphlets, periodicals, and lecture tours presenting spirit-guided views on the moral direction of humanity's future.

Although spiritualist ideas of death and spectrality were directly connected to its cultural and political force, I would not argue that the literary ghost story which adopted these ideas should likewise be viewed as radical, subversive, or even progressive in any overarching sense. Indeed, the ghost story often leans as much toward the conservative with regard to class and gender as it does toward the formulaic in terms of its plots. While the critical work done since the 1980s on the ghost story's role in providing a voice for the otherwise culturally silenced remains intriguing, the conclusions drawn from a particular subset of stories--typically, those written by American women in the last years of the nineteenth century and first years of the twentieth--cannot be simply extrapolated to cover the genre as a whole. As such, I do not suggest that spiritualist philosophy should be incorporated into critical discussion of the ghost story merely as a matter of matching like to like in its consequences; rather, that the wealth of possibilities provided by ghosts capable of acting as agents in their own right invites a far broader examination of the form.

Is there a sense in which this treatment of the supernatural, a simultaneous domestification and elevation of the ghost, belonged to the nineteenth century in the same way that gothic horror belonged to the eighteenth? Could the introduction of ghosts as characters, rather than as plot devices and moving scenery, have lent itself to the short-story form well enough to explain the explosive popularity in supernatural fiction once the periodical press became its main method of dissemination? We might guess that the ghost story's transformation into a more psychologically nuanced form would have come about eventually without the existence of spiritualism, but without spiritualism providing a springboard in that direction, it is difficult to imagine what shape the resulting genre would have taken. If we are to give the dynamic and complex world of the Victorian supernatural imagination its due, it seems only fitting that we leave Jacob Marley wringing his hands ineffectually before Scrooge's fireplace, and look to where spiritualism's hand is pointing.

University of Glasgow


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(1) A small number of ghost stories use spiritualism as a source for the supernatural, but these typically appear at the end of the nineteenth century and coincide with spiritualism's ensuing decline in popularity.

(2) The claim here is, as with most assertions regarding such a broad and amorphous movement as spiritualism, something of a generalization. Spiritualist literature did occasionally mention the possibility of "spirits" who had never experienced mortal life. Such figures seem to have been an infrequent and exceptional part of spiritualist belief, however, as the general spiritualist tendency to use "spirits," "angels," and "the dead" as interchangeable terms indicates.

(3) Some spiritualist versions of the Bible were produced, the best-known being Leonard Thorn's 1862 The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as Revised and Corrected by the Spirits, but these seem to have received little mention in other spiritualist literature. The interaction between spiritualism and Christianity was a complex one, covered more comprehensively elsewhere (see Oppenheim), and it seems likely that the general spiritualist resistance to any form of canonical text or holy writ arose in large part due to this ongoing debate within the movement.

(4) For the sake of clarity, I have provided a gloss; accounts are rather tangled on this issue, as Allan Kardec, for example, refers simultaneously to the "soul" and the "spirit" while describing the ethereal form as the "perispirit" (Spirits' Book 36). However, the tripartite division, soul/spirit/body, seems to have become the most common spiritualist philosophy by the time noted spiritualist Robert Dale Owen was writing in the 1860s.

(5) While interactions between spiritualist ghosts and sitters were typically benevolent, occasionally seance narratives reveal a more threatening side to the power imbalance. Take this exchange between the medium Florence Cook and her spirit guide "Katie King," for example, as recorded by William Crookes in 1873:

Katie had some spirit drapery in her hand, which she rubbed down over the medium to collect some of the "influence" used by spirits in materialization....

Miss Cook--Go away, Katie; I don't like to be scraped.

Katie--Don't be stupid. Take that thing off your head and look at me. (Scrape, scrape.)

Miss Cook--1 won't sit still for these manifestations. I don't like them. Go away. Katie--You are only my medium, and a medium is nothing but a machine. (Scrape, scrape.) (qtd. in Sargent 50 -51)

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A214605790