- Spirits and Spirituality in Victorian Fiction by Jen Cadwallader
“By 1850 the ghost story had become clichéd,” Jen Cadwallader tells us right at the opening of Spirits and Spirituality in Victorian Fiction (1). It is a comment that will feel very familiar to scholars of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular fiction. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, the gothic novel had no doubt become clichéd. And by the middle of the 1860s, the same could be said of the sensation novel. One of the difficulties of writing about popular genres is that, by virtue of the commercially over-exposed character of the material, there is always a vague sense of belatedness. And yet, these genres seem to remain marketable despite their clichés. Of course, there is no real mystery in any of this. The relationship of popular genres to the logics of the market makes this simultaneous sense of novelty and obsolescence perfectly legible as an effect of the commodity form and the commercialization of print culture. But from this perspective, all studies of popular fiction genres tend to look a bit similar. The challenge for a scholar like Cadwallader is to make the material seem new again. In this respect, the drive to scholarly originality has more than a faint echo of the material it is encountering.
One way of addressing this is to circumscribe the field in a way that also limits anxieties of confluence. “Despite the ubiquity of the ghost story in Victorian popular culture, until recently literary scholars and historians have largely neglected the genre,” Cadwallader writes (2). This might be true if one focuses on the ghost story in a strictly literal sense. But, in fact, the range of scholarly writing on the Victorian supernatural, on spiritualism and its various manifestations, on psychical research, and on the Victorian gothic is vast, often theoretically sophisticated, and often adventurously interdisciplinary. Cadwallader’s study is, to a degree, enabled by the insularity with which she has defined its object of study. Even the decision to replace “ghosts” with “spirits” in the title of the book orients to a very specific focus: the relationship “between the production of ghost stories and popular Christian beliefs” (3). In an age of apparently rapid secularization which undermined Christian cosmology and offered new, psychologically or physiologically based theories of religious or visionary experience, Cadwallader argues, the persistence of the ghost story was an important way of renegotiating, or at least exploring, the relationship between the theological and the material. The premise is strong, but the conclusions are a little bit under-whelming. Cadwallader shows us how the topicality of the ghost story consists in its indeterminacy. It rejects both “Christian doctrine” and “psychological theories” that connected ghost-seeing with “mental maladies,” and instead arrives at a kind of undecidability that grants “greater agency to the individual in determining experience’s intrinsic worth” (6).
This argument is initially pursued through two impressively detailed chapters, the first on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the second on Charles Dickens. Cadwallader provides her readers with a very useful and readable guide to the ghost stories of these writers. Anyone interested in the supernatural dimensions of Le Fanu or Dickens could use these chapters as starting points, and as gateways into the periodical-based or less canonical fiction of these authors. Along the way, we also get some interesting contextualization [End Page 514] on the relationship between intemperance and ghost-seeing in regard to Le Fanu, and on the accelerated temporalities of nineteenth-century life in regard to Dickens. Cadwallader’s third chapter opens out onto the question of gender, but also narrows its focus to explore the ways in which specific texts by Margaret Oliphant—“The Library Window” (1896)—and Rhoda Broughton—“The Man with the Nose” (1872)—engage with the misogynist underpinnings of pseudo-medical theories of visionary experience that anchor ghost-seeing in corporeal disorders. Cadwallader’s introductions to these often ignored writers and her glosses on Henry Maudsley, Herbert Spencer, and...