Robert James Lees - Victorians and the Supernatural

Robert James Lees


 

The Victorians and the Supernatural

Beneath the surface of most societies is a subconscious desire to explore beyond the physical world. Those who participate in such explorations believe that, in so doing, they may understand better the material world in which we live. This was the case in the Victorian era and is still true today. Although modern European society appears to be proud of its agnosticism, the acknowledgement that there may be an existence beyond the material one is present in many cultural and festive events

 
   

Our fascination with the supernatural has grown since Victorian times. Halloween is celebrated each year with increasing enthusiasm, especially by the younger generation. We still light great fires each autumn, and gather around them in family and village groups. We still collect the traditional evergreens such as holly and ivy, and bring them into our homes in the winter, and we celebrate the coming of spring with complex ceremonies involving brightly coloured eggs. In this age of so-called reason and enlightenment, we generally explain our involvement in these activities by referring to them as ‘pagan traditions’ absorbed into a ‘Christian heritage’, and so we are happy to continue to participate in them.

Robert James Lees was born at the time of the rebirth of British Spiritualism. The industrial revolution had led to a dramatic expansion of scientific discovery, and to an era in which superstition and a fast-expanding understanding of physical scientific facts existed side by side. In Victorian England, alongside the developing scientific principles of research and exploration, accusations of witchcraft were still commonplace and still taken very seriously. As we become more able to make sense of the physical and the tangible, the supernatural – and intangible – becomes even more mysterious.

Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution were published in 1859. They prompted, not only controversy and debate, but also a new age of philosophical thought. By the time the young Lees was beginning to explore his world, Darwin’s radical approach to the age-old assumptions, based on the faith of past generations, was influencing many areas of research. It was a time when a belief in the spirit world was accompanied by physical experiments in order to give the research a pseudo-scientific authenticity. Ultimately, this led to the setting up, in 1882, of the Society for Psychical Research whose investigators were inclined to talk about their experiences in the form of scientific prose, speaking, for instance, of ‘magnetism’ and ‘vibrations’.

An article by one psychic investigator, A.J.Davis, in The Herald of Progress, published in 1862, is a typical example of the type of phenomenon being investigated at that time, and the pseudo-scientific approach adopted by investigators. Davis precedes his report with a reference to previous research into the subject:

“We have positive knowledge of houses that have been ‘haunted’ and so absolutely that no family could be induced to live within their walls.”

In this particular article, which is one of many similar pieces, Davis recounts the story of a family in which an only son had committed suicide. Two small children had burned to death, and their mother had consequently thrown herself to her death from an upstairs window ‘in a fit of frenzy’.

“Years afterward, when these events had nearly vanished from the people’s memory, the dwelling was occupied by a new proprietor. One winter’s night, when the husband was gone from home, the family was awakened and frightened by the sounds of footsteps in the fatal chamber…. While they listened, a light female form glided across the room, before their very eyes, although the apartment was dark as midnight…”


Davis subsequently investigated this ‘haunting’, using the latest scientific methodology of the day. In his final report, he noted that he found the ‘electrical particles’ of the unhappy son and mother ‘still lingering’ in the mildew and atmosphere of the chamber. Adopting the scientific prose of the day, he concluded that:

“The bodily emanations of a person while in extreme distress of either mind or body, will, under certain states of the atmosphere, completely impregnate and saturate the particles of a room…. Precisely what combination of mental forces and electrical emanations is requisite to mediumise an apartment, we cannot say…”


In Victorian England, belief in a spirit world was supported by the search for physical proven evidence. Sometimes this led to the most absurd claims being given a false credibility because of the attention given to them by well-known writers and thinkers. Sir William Crookes was probably the first major figure to investigate spiritualism.

Some years later, no less an eminent writer and researcher than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, despite his grounding in medicine and science, and a mind broadened by a good education and by extensive worldwide travel, announced publicly in 1922 that he was totally convinced of the existence of fairies. He had ‘investigated’ in depth the now-famous photographic plates of the Cottingley ‘fairies’, which ‘proved’ that small beings with wings inhabited the back garden of the two young girls who had taken the pictures. In reality, the girls had created their fairies by using nothing more sophisticated than figures cut from cardboard. Although there is a certain charm and delicacy in the images, to many it still seems remarkable that such simple fakery could deceive the man who created Sherlock Holmes.

     

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© 2003 Stephen Butt