- Trance Speakers: Femininity and Authorship in Spiritual Séances 1850–1930 by Claudie Massicotte
Trance Speakers illuminates the authorial and performative roles of the female medium in the spiritualist movement in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Canada. Claudie Massicotte explores conflicts between the authority and power of a spiritualist medium during a séance and the cultural belief that women were prime candidates for mediums, as they were considered empty, passive vessels through which spirits could be channelled. Women’s traditional nineteenth-century relationships with societal symbolic power are negotiated in these possessive roles as mediums. Massicotte examines the trance discourse from the mediums and delves into the realm of the unconscious to explore women’s subjectivity. She asks, with the help of feminist psycho-analysis, “[w]hat happens when the body speaks?” (17).
When the body of a female medium speaks, it challenges patriarchal authority and notions of gender identity and subjectivity. Massicotte argues that the performative knowledge of the past–the esoteric–produced by female mediums during séances opened new spaces for societal gender expectations and roles. Their performances conflicted with gender norms as well as notions of gender identity and their societal and psychological constraints. These women did not only speak the past in their performances, they also embodied it through their voices and movements. Thus, they disrupted modalities of traditional gender performance as well as patriarchal notions of which bodies are allowed to speak. [End Page 286]
Trance Speakers joins the field of gender history and religious movements, with the added critical and symbolic lens of feminist linguistic and psychoanalytic theory. As the author acknowledges, this book builds on previous work on the Canadian spiritualist movement–for example, Stan McMullin’s Anatomy of a Seance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). McMullin interprets the history of spiritualism and the occult by tracing sources from groups of believers in Ontario and Manitoba between 1848 and 1942. As he states, there is no full historical account of spiritualism in Canada. Massicotte’s work is geographically similar to McMullin’s in that most of her primary sources were also found in central Canada.
However, the historical narratives found in Trance Speakers are not repeated from Anatomy of a Seance, as the two texts have different purposes. McMullin’s text is explanatory and muses over the question of spiritualism as a religion and the boundaries of organized religion–a line of inquiry suggested by Ramsay Cook in The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1985). For her part, Massicotte focuses on women’s agency and modes of self-expression as mediums.
Trance Speakers follows international texts on women’s history, rights, and authority in spiritualism such as Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Nineteenth Century England (University of Chicago Press, 1989), and Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Indiana University Press, 1989). These two texts were foundational in their establishment of women mediums’ subversion of the nineteenth-century gendered power dynamics in their authoritative and central roles in the spiritualist and occult movement. Trance Speakers follows these texts in historical subject matter and gender history but extends the analysis of gender identity and subjectivity through its methodological and interpretive approach.
This text is original in its methodological extrapolation and interpretation of archival material. Massicotte goes beyond the expected linear historical account, as she juxtaposes psychological and literary constructions of feminine identification of the self against the trance performances of women mediums. She places the power of the narrative in the hands of the women she examines. This is not only a new approach to the analysis of women spiritualists, but it is a wholly feminist endeavour. The women’s speech and performances in trances are used and contextualized against the oppressive medical history of the hysteric in order to uncover new understandings of women’s subjectivity and agency as...