How Victorian Spiritualism and Mystery Fiction Are Intertwined: An Exclusive Guest Post from Paraic O’Donnell, Author of The House on Vesper Sands

This story is so rich with description of the setting, it feels like you’re living in Victorian England. And with such a brilliant cast of characters, you’ll want to follow every single one of them, no matter how brief or extended their stay in the story. Gideon Bliss and Inspector Cutter would have starring roles if there were ever such thing as a “Victorian buddy plot movie.” Here, Paraic O’Donnell explores some of the more haunting themes he drew on for his stateside debut and what it is about the Victorian era that still fascinates us today.  

Why do the Victorians still fascinate us? And by us, I mean writers and readers generally, but especially lovers of mystery.

For me, it comes down to what mysteries are about. Yes, they’re about unmasking killers and discovering the truth, but while those parts can be fun, they’re really just surface details. What mysteries are truly concerned with is uncertainty.

This uncertainty can take many forms, but we recognize it even if we’re not conscious of doing so. That’s because all of us are uncertain — of what is right, of what keeps us safe, even of what we are. And the Victorian period encapsulates this tension in a way that makes it more than just a backdrop or setting. Because it has been depicted so often, on the screen as well as the page, it has a way of seeming familiar while keeping the truth at a remove.

I’m not just thinking of the obvious examples, like the well-worn myths about Victorian morality: The Victorians weren’t scandalized by the sight of table legs, and they certainly weren’t uniformly prudish or sexually repressed. What makes them fascinating, at least to a novelist, are not fixed ideas that seem strange to us, but doubts that look very much like our own.

Roger Kenny Photography

For a start, the Victorians didn’t think of themselves as Victorians. They inhabited their own present. It’s true that they were preoccupied with the past, or at least with the versions of history that flattered them, but they were also deeply conscious of their modernity. They were remaking the world, in ways both magnificent and brutal, and that gave them a lot to think about. You might even say it haunted them.

In this crucible of modernity was formed the very stuff of mystery stories. The newly wealthy demanded protection, which required a professional police force. This in turn fed the new mass media, which produced lurid crime coverage on an industrial scale. It also gave rise to another novelty: the detective story. Those narratives continue to shape how we dramatize violence and attribute morality.

The Victorians even refashioned death itself, devising rituals that remain familiar, as well as some — like the macabre photographs in which living relatives posed alongside the dead — that are no longer quite so fashionable. It’s not hard to understand why. In their great industrial cities, epidemics raged and pretty much any unskilled occupation could kill you. Death wasn’t just inescapable; it was always close by.

This prompted not just practical measures — like the first crematorium, which opened in Woking in 1878 — but new ways of thinking about death. Many more people were now literate and socially mobile. And if the great and the good could enjoy an afterlife, spoken of long after their remains were stowed beneath Westminster Abbey, then why couldn’t everyone?

It’s not a coincidence that the spiritualist movement arose against this background. As with so much of Victorian life, its trappings seem familiar. But it wasn’t all trembling tables in genteel parlors. In the figure of the medium, the intermediary between this world and the next, all kinds of change and unrest were embodied.

Because here, for once, patriarchal stereotypes worked to the advantage of women. If they were naturally predisposed to selflessness and sensitivity, it followed that women could more readily take on this role. Just as significantly, any woman could possess these “gifts,” whatever her circumstances. And a woman who could command an attentive audience was a woman with influence. She might appear to surrender her own voice to the dead, but what she really did was to infuse that voice with authority.

Spiritualism, in other words, was a movement that democratized mysticism. From the fears and anxieties of the respectable classes had emerged a new and subversive source of power. I drew on these themes in my novel, The House on Vesper Sands. I even included a séance scene, and not just to dispense some subtle clues. It was a way of allowing their world — the world of the dead — to speak to ours.

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