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  • The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859-1919
  • Sarah Willburn (bio)
The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859-1919, by Jill Galvan; pp. viii + 216. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010, $45.00, £29.50.

Serving as relay between the discourses of the occult and late-Victorian communication technologies, Jill Galvan's book shows these seemingly diverse networks to be links in the same chain. From George Eliot's The Lifted Veil (1859) to T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), modern communication technologies are shown to rely, both literally and figuratively, on a female intermediary. The heart of this study focuses on the 1880s and 1890s and a range of fictions that treat the female medium and her role in acts of telegraphy, phonograph-use, typing, spirit mediumship, and trance. The very prominence of the figure of the female medium shows the impossibility of the fantasy of communication untouched by emotion and, as Galvan argues, a feminized human presence.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the quality of Galvan's cogent readings of so many late-century popular fictions, including works by Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Grant Allen, Mae Cotes, Mary Corelli, Bram Stoker, and George Du Maurier. For instance, Galvan's treatment of James's In the Cage (1898) juxtaposes it to an earlier story by Justin McCarthy, "Along the Wires" (1870), to provide a lineage of the figure of the female telegrapher. Strikingly, this figure also embodies a class fantasy tied to the working woman. Finessing aspects of middle-class gentility encased in a potentially sexually available body, Galvan demonstrates both the [End Page 725] vulnerability and power of the Victorian female communication worker. In other chapters, Galvan shows the flipside of the ostensibly demure and passive female relay in the trope of the female detective posing as a typist in early-twentieth-century fictions by Tom Gallon and Dorothy Sayers. Galvan's work touches on both realist and Romantic works, treating texts that feature gothic or fantastic elements. Her chapter on Du Maurier's novels nuances the complexities of female mediation in the case of Trilby (1894) and of male mediation in the cases of Peter Ibbetson (1891) and The Martian (1897). Galvan also makes fascinating insights into nonfiction, yet fictionalizing, sources such as Morton Prince's The Dissociation of a Personality (1906), which examines hypnosis and even self-mediation in the case study of "Christine Beauchamp" and her four dissociated personalities (148). Galvan's readings are consistently rich and original.

The Sympathetic Medium bridges the gap between contemporary theories of the history of technology, such as Friedrich Kittler's formative Discourse Networks, 1800/1900 (1990), with studies of the occult and the role that the sensitive woman plays in the practice and cultural fantasy of mediumship. Perhaps The Sympathetic Medium could have been strengthened by a conclusion that catalogued the myriad and supple varieties of female channeling that Galvan addresses. The analysis Galvan provides shows a provocative, but far from unequivocal, trope of the female relay. The argument's framing does not fully capture the exquisite complexity (and occasional counterintuitive internal conflicts) of the close readings. In a few places, Galvan might have spent even more time teasing out diverse concepts (such as active and passive notions of femininity) and discrete types of mediation. Narrators, phone operators, entranced subjects, and spirit mediums overlap in concept but certainly are not interchangeable terms. A bit more parsing in places would make potentially equivocated concepts more evidently distinct. For instance, while Galvan considers the passive female spirit medium presented by Alex Owen and others, her work does not treat that figure's reverse. Many Victorian spirit mediums, such as Elizabeth Guppy, envisioned themselves as entertainers with distinct and magnetic personalities. Mediums were not only demure relays but also operated with an eye to theatricality. As often as not, female mediums did not seek to deflect attention, as recent works by scholars such as Susan Gilman, Daphne Brooks, and Marlene Tromp consistently show. Providing more ample contextualization for the figure of the female medium might better show in relief those...


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