The Sympathetic Medium

The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859–1919

Jill Galvan
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7z8f3
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  • Book Info
    The Sympathetic Medium
    Book Description:

    The nineteenth century saw not only the emergence of the telegraph, the telephone, and the typewriter but also a fascination with séances and occult practices like automatic writing as a means for contacting the dead. Like the new technologies, modern spiritualism promised to link people separated by space or circumstance; and like them as well, it depended on the presence of a human medium to convey these conversations. Whether electrical or otherworldly, these communications were remarkably often conducted-in offices, at telegraph stations and telephone switchboards, and in séance parlors-by women.

    In The Sympathetic Medium, Jill Galvan offers a richly nuanced and culturally grounded analysis of the rise of the female medium in Great Britain and the United States during the Victorian era and through the turn of the century. Examining a wide variety of fictional explorations of feminine channeling (in both the technological and supernatural realms) by such authors as Henry James, George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Marie Corelli, and George Du Maurier, Galvan argues that women were often chosen for that role, or assumed it themselves, because they made at-a-distance dialogues seem more intimate, less mediated. Two allegedly feminine traits, sympathy and a susceptibility to automatism, enabled women to disappear into their roles as message-carriers.

    Anchoring her literary analysis in discussions of social, economic, and scientific culture, Galvan finds that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminization of mediated communication reveals the challenges that the new networked culture presented to prevailing ideas of gender, dialogue, privacy, and the relationship between body and self.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5862-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Tuning in to the Female Medium
    (pp. 1-22)

    In The Soul of Lilith (1892) by Marie Corelli, a scientifically ambitious man uses a woman to discover the secrets of the heavens. The Lilith of the title lies entranced in a makeshift spiritual laboratory in a locked room in a London house, subjected to a brilliant Middle Easterner named El-Râmi. Having revived Lilith’s dead body six years previously, El-Râmi now tethers her soul. While she is unconscious, her soul traverses the immortal regions of the universe, but he, a skilled metaphysical engineer, may call it back anytime he wishes, querying Lilith about her cosmic experiences. El-Râmi’s ultimate goal: to...

  5. Chapter 1 Sympathy and the Spiriting of Information In the Cage
    (pp. 23-60)

    If there was one note sounded most frequently in nineteenth-century discussions of the electric telegraph, it was ebullience at its promise of far-flung community. A popular history of the electric telegraph compares the marvel of connectivity of our own age. The “Victorian Internet” was, as its contemporaries put it, a network of “human sympathies” encircling the earth and making it “palpitat[e] with human thoughts and emotions.”¹ The language of the meeting of minds and hearts, which turned up repeatedly at this time, implies something unexpected caught in this first Web: its achievement was conveying not just information but something more...

  6. Chapter 2 Securing the Line: Automatism and Cross-Cultural Encounters in Late Victorian Gothic Fiction
    (pp. 61-98)

    Equipped with harassing villains, eerie dwellings, sublimely transporting landscapes, and bodily and mental possessions, Gothic literature has always revolved around heightened emotions. Inspiring fear is its stock in trade, and its original eighteenth-century protagonists are creatures of keen sensibilities. A century later, when a spate of new Gothics was published, the mediating woman, with her powers of sympathy, slipped easily into the genre. What she represents in these fictions is a matter of feeling but also, as this chapter explores, a matter of psychical instrumentality. Much of the unease of late Victorian Gothic stems from the specter of the exotic;...

  7. Chapter 3 Du Maurier’s Media: The Phonographic Unconscious on the Cusp of the Future
    (pp. 99-134)

    By 1898, Dracula, with its vision of a magical man who enters onto unwelcoming soil through an automatized woman, is reworking the basic outlines of a story already made extremely popular in George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894). Svengali seems to hail from Austria, yet he is principally ethnically marked (and maligned) as Jewish; his origin is the “mysterious East.”¹ His mesmeric powers allow him to transform the ingénue Trilby into the world-famous La Svengali, who produces harmonies whose intricacies he grasps implicitly but is incapable of vocalizing himself. With her as his instrument, he realizes his fantasy of overpowering even...

  8. Chapter 4 Telltale Typing, Hysterical Channeling: The Medium as Detective Device
    (pp. 135-159)

    The term occult makes a statement about knowledge. It is at once a barrier and an invitation, demarcating the hidden even while challenging us to make it known. This is the same sort of dual meaning that governed modern spiritualists’ understanding of their enterprise. Claiming that the séance worked by as yet imperfectly understood natural laws, they denied that the question was what could be—spirits were indubitably real—and recast it as a matter of what could be known. For many, indeed, spiritualism turned on a sense of mystery and its opposite. Reading séance accounts, one is struck by...

  9. Chapter 5 Literary Transmission and Male Mediation
    (pp. 160-187)

    Sarcasm and humiliation simmer through Mr. Sludge’s confession of phony spirit mediumship in Robert Browning’s 1864 dramatic monologue. Especially infuriating to Sludge is the un-gendering effect of his work: because he is always pretending to be someone else, his grasp would not be perceived by séance sitters as a sexual threat, and women merely infantilize him or, at best, use him for an erotic thrill they refuse to give him credit for. Rhetorically slyly, but probably accurately, Sludge blames his addressee Hiram H. Horsefall and Horsefall’s genteel friends for his own deceptions: it is they who have turned him into...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 188-194)

    More than a century ago, female-tended relays helped people to communicate across space and time. Thus arose a certain image of women’s relationship to information and dialogue, an image sketched and resketched in the stories this book has examined. The women in these tales are media that transmit, connect, record, and detect; they are feeling bodies with minds that fracture or dissociate to become routes to other selves. Now, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the possibilities for at-a-distance contact have changed dramatically. Yet these changes are far from wholesale, and older ideas of communications and of the women...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-208)
  12. Index
    (pp. 209-216)