Hail Mighty Readers,
We;ve been lucky enough to get a guest blog from the wonder Chris Womersly (whose latest book Bereft we reviewed earlier), who has let us know about the strange and teh wonderful world of writing. So without further ado, his piece on Spiritualism...
One of the (many) strange and wonderful things about writing a novel is the occasional outbreak of good fortune. The premise of my novel Bereft was always something of a ghost story, in which a man called Quinn Walker meets a girl he comes to believe is the ghost of his dead sister. A novel, then, about love and longing.
Around the time of starting to write Bereft, I became fascinated by millennium movements, in which people believe the end of the world is nigh and I felt compelled to set the novel in a period in which it might seem plausible the end of the world was close at hand. The year 1919 presented itself as a likely candidate; not only had World War One just finished but the Spanish flu pandemic was sweeping the globe, eventually taking more lives than had been lost during the war. For those of a religious persuasion, it might indeed seem as if the Horsemen of the Apocalypse were urging their steeds into a furious gallop.
I already relished the notion of a London wartime séance forming a crucial part of the narrative of Bereft (had, in fact, already written an early draft of the scene) when I stumbled across the curious fact of the rise in Spiritualism and spirit photography (in which photographers capture the image of dead loved ones hovering in the background of portraits) during the years of World War One.
Spiritualism, by this time, was not a new phenomenon; Victorian-era Great Britain had managed to fuse the seemingly contradictory interests in mourning and scientific inquiry into a ‘scientific religion’, which flourished upon its transportation from America in the 1850s. Despite its occult trappings – not to mention stern Biblical prohibitions against talking with the dead — Spiritualism was at the time not considered antithetical with Christianity and the new-fangled beliefs soon took root in Australia, where a young Alfred Deakin was among its most active adherents. During the 1870s, Australia’s future prime minister was an active member of Melbourne’s Spiritualist Motherwell Circle. He married a powerful medium and even acted as amanuensis for the spirit of author John Bunyan who, through him, dictated a book titled A New Pilgrim’s Progress, which was published in 1877 under a pseudonym.
Although interest in Spiritualism had faded in the early years of the 20th century, it gained a new lease of life, as it were, during World War One, when those freshly killed — and their corollary, those who mourned them — numbered in the millions. Grief on such a global scale was unprecedented; this most modern and industrial of wars had the curious consequence of sending those widowed and orphaned by it scurrying back to more superstitious modes of mourning. Among the more traditional religious notices of Australian metropolitan newspapers during the period are countless advertisements for séances, talks and presentations in suburban halls and churches. HOME OF RATIONAL SPIRITUALISM. Open platform. 7.15. Address by Mr Deacon from England. SPIRITUALISM FOR THE WORKING MAN.
Spiritualism had a number of powerful adherents in the UK. Prominent among them were: the Scottish creator of the rationalist detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge; poet WB Yeats; and Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection. Doyle — whose son Kingsley had been killed during the war — toured America and Australia and lectured to tens of thousands both during and after the war.
Belief in the afterlife was not confined to those on the home front. Among men in the trenches, stories of ghosts and spirits were rife. The most famous example is the 1914 tale of the Angels of Mons, in which hundreds of bowmen from the 1415 battle of Agincourt had appeared hovering over outnumbered British troops, provided them with covering fog and even inflicted arrow wounds on German soldiers. The tale began as a short story by writer and occultist Arthur Machen, but quickly took on a life of its own, to the point where soldiers present at the Battle of Mons reported seeing the Agincourt angels with their own eyes.
The novel I had in mind suddenly had several factual hooks on which I could hang my tale, not to mention the historical precedent of those so desperate to believe their loved ones had not been undone by death that they wrestled them back to life. As his mother asks of the main character Quinn Walker in Bereft: ‘Would you think it possible to imagine someone into being? With nothing but love?’
Do we require something from our dead? Ulysses, vainly attempting to embrace his mother in the underworld, cries out: ‘If we could throw our arms around one another we might find sad comfort in the sharing of our sorrows…’
And that, in the end, might just be enough.