In The Dark – guest post from Linda Stratmann

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Sharing a taste for the Victorian gothic and the spine-shivering stories of M.R. James, Linda Stratmann is my guest to talk about the world of the spiritualists – the world of the heroine of her mystery series, Mina Scarletti…

In the 1870s, the decade in which I have set my Mina Scarletti mysteries, spirit mediums were a popular diversion. Hardly any serious investigation had been made into their claims, and the field was open for charlatans to make a living and sometimes a fortune, out of the curiosity and grief of others.

The spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century began in 1848 with a game played by two bored sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, aged 12 and 15 in Hydesville New York. They created bumping and tapping noises using an apple on a string or cracking their toe joints, and claimed that they were in touch with spirits. The sisters became a sensation and began to give séances before large audiences. It wasn’t long before other people suddenly discovered that they too had mediumistic powers.

By the early 1850s spiritualism had arrived in the UK as an exciting novelty and party entertainment. Rappings and knockings conveyed important messages on the subjects of love and money. The fickle Victorian public was always looking for something new, however, and the next craze was for table tipping. This was rather more dramatic than bumps and bangs since the tables around which the visitors sat seemed to take on a life of their own, trembling, tilting and even rising up into the air. Spirits, who seemed to be crouching underneath the tables usually in the vicinity of the medium’s foot, would also convey messages by knocking the table legs.

This new diversion became so popular that the celebrated physicist Michael Faraday subjected the animated furniture to rigorous testing, and established that the lifelike motion was caused by unconscious movements of the sitters. On occasions when tables actually rose into the air it was thought that they had been given a little lift with artfully concealed wires and the help of an accomplice.

As the years passed, interest waned, and the public was hungry for new excitement. The time was ripe for the arrival from America of 22-year-old Daniel Dunglas Home in 1855. Home was a talented clairvoyant and medium whose speciality of levitation soon brought him fame, and he was deluged with gifts and given free accommodation. Importantly, Home knew that knockings and tappings just weren’t enough any more. His sitters wanted visual stimulus; they wanted to see the ghosts. For these effects it was essential that séances were conducted in near darkness. Home produced glowing spirit hands and looming faces that his clients recognised as lost loved ones. His reputation was severely dented however, when an elderly widow took him to court in 1868 after he had induced her to make over her considerable fortune to him. The court ordered him to return the money and he decided to continue his career abroad. There was however, no lack of mediums willing to take up the luminous mantle.

The ultimate in ghostly appearances was the full body manifestation and was a particular speciality of the female medium. She would retire to a cabinet or behind a curtain, and the sitters would then be encouraged into the lusty singing of hymns. The purpose of the singing was supposedly to reassure onlookers of the religious purity of the proceedings. Its actual purpose was to mask the sound of the medium changing her costume. She would emerge, radiant in the draperies she had previously concealed under her voluminous skirts, diaphanous fabric that glowed in the dark due to an application of oil of phosphorus. Sitters were easily deluded into believing that they had seen a spirit dressed in gorgeous robes. There was an important warning however. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to light the gas lamps, or take hold of the figure. The divine creature, it was explained, was actually composed of material drawn from the medium’s body. She might speak, even take tea with the sitters, or offer kisses to the gentlemen, but any excessive light or attempt to take hold of the figure could cause the spectral material to rush back into the medium’s body so fast that she would die. When sceptics who were determined to expose imposture did try to grasp the apparition, they found it to be all too solid and the medium very much alive.

The professions of medium and stage magician were not far different and before long special equipment was being manufactured for the production of supposedly supernatural effects. In 1864, American brothers Ira and William Davenport toured Britain with a sophisticated new act. They had a specially constructed cabinet, and were securely tied up inside together with some musical instruments, which were heard to play and even seen to fly through the air.

A watchmaker called John Maskelyne saw the Davenports’ performance and felt sure that with the aid of a trick cabinet he could easily duplicate their act. He was so successful that he went on to become a highly celebrated stage illusionist.

Most scientists were skeptical of psychical phenomena and did not wish to involve themselves in investigating them, but there were a few who embarked on serious studies. These early investigators felt that there was a possibility that they were seeing evidence of a wholly new branch of science, something that would one day be validated and accepted. The thrill of potential discovery could well have made them a little too eager to believe what they were unable to prove. Those mediums who later admitted that they had defrauded the public said that scientists, with their enquiring minds and keenness to understand phenomena, were the easiest subjects to dupe. In1882 the Society for Psychical Research, which included both believers and sceptics, was formed ‘to conduct scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models.’ It still exists today.

It is tempting to think that the Victorians were gullible, but they were looking for certainty in an uncertain environment. The eye is easily deceived in darkness, and they had no means of recording events, relying instead on memories of fleeting glimpses, unable even if they dared to try, to cast a rapid bright light on the proceedings. The Victorian dark séance did not survive the invention of the pocket torch.

Linda can be found at her website www.lindastratmann.com

and you can buy her books here –

Mr Scarletti’s Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 1

Mr Scarletti’s Ghost

The Royal Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 2)

The Royal Ghost

An Unquiet Ghost (Mina Scarletti Mystery Book 3)

An Unquiet Ghost

The Roaring Girls – some thoughts on women in historical fiction

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Aphra Behn, sketch from a lost portrait 

Isn’t it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren’t maternal, or meek, or submissive enough – that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees – they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better! 

Five hundred years ago – three hundred, two hundred years ago – women weren’t allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.

You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don’t get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, there are very few examples of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars – maybe that’s because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it’s because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it’s because many 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I’ll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman – as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll – and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…s

(An aside: Dr Mark Stoyle has done some recent fascinating work into the female soldier of the civil war period, covered in a recent Guardian article)

But it’s not really till the 18th century that we start to see the “mannish” woman appear – Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough’s Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts – what’s interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered – or undeclared – for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren’t permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…”Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”

And now, four hundred years later, we’re still seeing this denied in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old romantic favourite, who’s not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company – she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He “makes” her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right – they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?
Seriously?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM a while ago (just thought I’d drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) – he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women’s freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men’s work, men’s equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too.

And that’s fine, if that’s what works for you, but it’s not right for everyone. We’re still promoting the idea of binary genders – of girlie girls and butch men – and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can’t have romance, you can’t have adventure, you can’t be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called “Flesh + Blood” in which Rutger Hauer’s mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other’s backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it’s not relevant to the plot, it’s just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion – but it’s two men who are in love with each other.

Does that matter? Yes. They’re a pair of aggressive street bravos who’ve systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him.
Does it matter that it’s two men? No. Or it shouldn’t. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in “A Wilderness of Sin”, “There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of.”

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you’re going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far.

We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.