by Janine Hatter
[page 9] “The supernatural” is expansive–often used, like here, as a catch-all phrase–and resists definitive classification even if it is narrowed down to the long nineteenth century (1789-1914). Within this era, it can encompass everything from the occult, Spiritualism, and reincarnation, through telepathy, mesmerism, and resurrection, to Faustian bargains, ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. The Supernatural in the Long Nineteenth Century explores these themes in their literary, theatrical, artistic, historical, national and international, social, and cultural contexts, and because no restrictions were placed on the definition of “the supernatural,” its broadest and most diverse elements are examined alongside more traditional representations. This makes for an eclectic mix of articles that invites readers to expand their understanding of “the supernatural” by considering interdisciplinary representations, lesser-known texts, other cultures’ representations of supernatural phenomena, and what these portents say about our own society. The articles in this collection reveal that the taste for supernaturalism, like the interest in the long nineteenth century more generally, is going from strength to strength and remains a fertile area of scholarly study.
The history of the supernatural in the long nineteenth century relies on many different, yet intertwining, features, all of which combine to create a complex, problematic, and diverse depiction of otherworldly phenomena. But what makes this topic so expansive and so appealing to critics is the ways in which the supernatural infiltrated every area of nineteenth-century lives, from the books that were read, the art that was viewed, and the performances that were watched, to the religions practiced (for instance, Spiritualism and Catholicism), the photographs produced, and the scientific practices undertaken. One of the main catalysts for this was the intellectual explosion that occurred over the long nineteenth century, which led to many alternative theories of the world. Marx and social constructionism, Darwin and evolution, and anthropological explanations of religion all promoted secularization, and yet the one problem that continued to haunt them was the idea of the soul. High mortality rates meant that communing with the dead during séances, and thus the possibility of life-after-death in heaven, hell or purgatory, kept strong hold over the cultural consciousness. Spiritualism was enthusiastically endorsed, while scientific research institutes, such as the Society for Psychical Research, were founded, demonstrating how the occult and the secular were intertwined in people’s daily lives.
The extent to which individuals engaged with the supernatural in their daily lives is reflected in the many literary genres that were consumed [page 10] over the long nineteenth century. From the late eighteenth century, there was an influence from the period’s preoccupation with ghosts, haunted castles, and fairies. Alongside the Romantics evolved Gothic fiction, with its focus on the patriarchal tyrant, the sinister foreign settings of Eastern Europe, and the emergence of the “rational” explanation for supposedly supernatural events. The Gothic led to several cross-over genres such as the 1860s phenomenon of sensation fiction and the evolving genre of detective fiction, both of which often hid crime behind a supernatural façade. Finally, in the late nineteenth century came the pinnacle of the ghost story’s popularity as well as an upsurge in vampire fiction, which remain attractive to writers to this day. Each of these genres helped keep the notion of “the supernatural” at the forefront of the cultural consciousness.
This special issue addresses the various ways that the supernatural is represented in a broad range of non-fictional situations and fictional texts in relation to the topics referenced above. It includes creatures such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, daemons, and monsters; pseudo-sciences like mesmerism, spiritualism and reincarnation; literary genres such as folklore, Penny Bloods, and travel writing; and other mediums, like the theater and visual art. By examining the role of the supernatural throughout the long nineteenth century, the contributors in this special issue return to several key authors and texts, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), as well as expanding supernaturalism’s remit to critically neglected sources, such as the Penny Bloods and West African beliefs. This has allowed the issue to have a wide scope and assess the supernatural from the perspective of different cultures, mediums, and theories. These articles demonstrate how writers, dramatists, artists, and practitioners of this period deployed the supernatural on literary and metaphorical levels in order to engage with contemporary debates on race and imperialism, class, medicine, sex and sexual expression, the New Woman, and the construction of identity and authorship–discourses that continually expand rather than restrict supernaturalism’s symbolic meanings.
The first set of articles in this issue re-examine Stoker’s classic text, Dracula, with regard to two short stories–his own “Dracula’s Guest” (1914) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “The Good Lady Ducayne” (1896)–continuing literary scholarship’s fascination with this prominent Gothic novel and its author, as well as his less familiar novel, The Lair of the White Worm (1911). The first contribution, Kaja Franck and Matthew Beresford’s article on “Dracula’s Guest” and its links to Dracula, counters arguments that postulate that their relationship is solely based on narrative. Instead, these two texts reveal Stoker’s wider interest in lycanthropy as well as vampires, and Franck and Beresford dissect the influence that this werewolf/vampire relationship had on Count Dracula’s [page 11] creation with regard to loneliness and animality. By directly comparing Dracula and “The Good Lady Ducayne’s” literary formations, sources, themes, and social critiques, my article establishes the potential influence that Stoker and Braddon had on each other, while exploring why one became a cultural phenomenon and the other was neglected. I postulate that Braddon’s short story was ignored due to its literary form, “realistic” vampiric figure, and anti-climactic ending, yet this story challenges the vampire’s literary landscape more effectively than Stoker’s novel, which had yet to establish the genre’s patriarchal Count as the epitome of evil. Carol Senf also discusses Stoker, but in relation to The Lair of the White Worm and its enormous supernatural monster that is also a predatory woman. Senf argues that this text extends Stoker’s interest in fin-de-siècle anxieties by examining the relationship between England and the colonies, the changing role of women, and the continued influence of the past on the present within the novel.
The way that Frankenstein and its themes of identity, science, and religion are deployed in theatrical adaptations and are re-presented in textual and visual art is another facet of supernaturalism which is under scrutiny in this special issue. Brittany Reid’s article discusses Frankenstein in relation to its first theatrical stage adaptation, Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823). By examining conventions of Gothic melodrama, performance reviews, cultural influences, and the source text, Reid reflects on how the Creature was reimagined for a new genre and medium, arguing for the continued complexity of the character on the illegitimate stage, which has continued to the present day. On the other hand, Cameron Dodworth’s contribution reads Realist novels and visual art through the negative aesthetic of ugliness, which is reminiscent of the Gothic monster. His analysis also stems from Frankenstein–a Gothic text that simultaneously explores scientific realism and spiritualism–and considers how Gothicism is Realism’s doppelgänger, a doubling that is used to promote a social agenda by a variety of different authors and artists.
Following from the doppelgänger, spiritualism, and mesmerism’s power for conveying a social agenda with regard to colonial relations, women’s position in society, and religious belief, Melissa Edmundson’s article examines Mary Kingsley’s travel writing on West Africa with regard to her social agenda of challenging British colonial rule in Africa. Edmundson postulates that Kingsley bridged the cultural and geographical divide by comparing and contrasting both countries’ spiritual and religious customs, demonstrating the universality of their interests in uncovering the mysteries of existence beyond death. Elizabeth Lowry’s article on the role of the Native American spirit control in the Victorian-era séance confronts the contradictory nature of the mythology that was built up around this figure. Lowry deconstructs how white Americans [page 12] sought to control this figure as a means of healing their pain during the Civil War and absolving their own colonial guilt, while the guides simultaneously offered a means to condemn the injustices inflicted on the Native Americans and were used as a call for political action. In three mid-Victorian texts by George Eliot, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and George MacDonald, Helena Ifill examines varying uses of mesmeric clairvoyance. During the period, the veracity of this phenomenon was subject to debate alongside the rise in spiritualism, and Ifill reveals how each author utilized this literary trope to promote his or her own personal agenda, be it a sympathetic understanding between people, an anti-materialist, religious message, or a concern for sexual propriety.
Running through the articles so far is an underlying anxiety with class relations within the long nineteenth century, but the next two contributions tease out this concern in more detail. Anna Gasperini’s article compares Sweeney Todd from J. M. Rymer’s The String of Pearls (1846-7) and Anthony Tidkins (the Resurrection Man) from G. W. M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1845) with regard to their depictions as demonic body dealers. While setting the Penny Bloods in their historical context, Gasperini places Todd and Tidkins in a Faustus/Mephistopheles pact with the anatomy schools to examine the impact that their relationship had on the working classes, which were both the texts’ and the bodysnatchers’ target market. Erin Louttit’s article argues for a rereading of the relationship between Mortimer Collins’s Transmigration (1874) and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Finest Story in the World” (1891), which both explore metempsychosis and its effects on class consciousness. Developing the intertextual dialogue between them, Louttit discusses their structural as well as thematic links to reveal how Kipling departs from, while skillfully overlapping with, Collins’s novel in order to emphasize the occult themes and disjointed unconsciousness of the reincarnation process.
Finally, our attention turns to Irish Gothic and two Irish writers’ contributions to supernaturalism, albeit in completely different forms. Melissa Fegan examines the folklore and supernatural works of William Carleton with regard to his fiction’s links with Ireland’s Great Famine. Fegan explores Carleton’s use of Irish Harpers, Senachies, Prophecy Men, fairies, ghosts, and banshees to argue that the only way that he could depict and understand the enormity and horror of the Famine was to invoke the supernatural. Concluding this special issue, Christie Cognevich’s article situates Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) as his earliest text to explore the symbiotic relationship between art, sin, and the supernatural, anticipating “Pen, Pencil and Poison” (1889) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Cognevich reads Sir Simon’s hauntings as a theater of the grotesque, allowing her to examine Wilde’s questioning [page 13] and problematizing of the relationships between acts and speech, and acts and identity, from his first published tale.
The wide variety of texts, writers, practitioners, and nationalities discussed in this special issue confirms what we already knew–that the supernatural in the long nineteenth century is an expansive topic that, like a Gothic fog, thickens the more you try to clear it. This collection of articles brings to our attention the variety of approaches to the supernatural–from historical, textual, gendered, classist, and sociological readings–that demonstrate not only the complexities and problems that people of this era faced when confronted with the other world, but also the ingenuity, skill, and determination that they needed to understand it.
I would like to thank Sara Williams as a contributing editor, as we started this venture together, as well as Matthew Crofts for concluding this process with me. You both have been invaluable.
MLA citation (print):
Hatter, Janine. "Introduction." Supernatural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 9-13.