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  • Female Mediumship
  • Catherine Wynne
Jill Galvan . The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859-1919. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. 224 pp. $45.00

Critical interest in female mediumship and its allied phenomena is long-standing and a generation of scholars has placed such phenomena alongside cultural, scientific and technological enquiry. Jill Galvan's book extends this analysis through examining the relationship between women, technology and the occult from the latter half of the nineteenth century into the first two decades of the twentieth century. Galvan focuses her attention on reading the role of women vis-à-vis developing communication technologies in relation to séance and spiritualist culture. Women, indeed, were key operatives in occult and technological media.

In The Sympathetic Medium, then, Galvan commences with the notion of "woman-turned-communication-device" by deploying Marie Correlli's The Soul of Lillith (1892) as her opening example. Lillith is controlled by her male operator to derive messages from cosmic realms and Galvan questions whether she is a "personified telegraph" or a "séance medium." More broadly, Galvan's thesis analyses women's work as transmitters of messages, not only in the spirit realm, but increasingly in the late nineteenth century as telegraphists, typists and telephone operators.

The introduction continues by charting the critically well-established rise of mesmerism and spiritualism and the founding in Britain of the Society for Psychical Research. Galvan links such emergences with the technological developments in communication technologies and women's roles in these industries. Such analysis implicitly connects the argument with the rise of the New Woman. Through various examples of how technological devices were used by psychic investigators, Galvan "reads women's operating, typing, and séance channelling not as separate functions but as different expressions of the same one." Women, culturally defined as sensitive and sympathetic, became, Galvan posits, "exemplary go-betweens" both in the "physical and bureaucratic world," where technologies such as telegraphy were required to bridge distances between individuals and in the "existential" world where separation was marked by death. This approach to notions of occult and technological channelling offers a thoroughly interesting and well-focused engagement with the subject. [End Page 266]

Galvan organises her study around five chapters. Chapter one centres on Henry James's In the Cage (1898) but commences its discussion with an analysis of a little-known Justin McCarthy short story and with interesting contextual material on female telegraphers, typists and secretaries at the end of the nineteenth century. In McCarthy's "In the Wires," the telegraphist Annette Langley has an intuitive ability to "imagine what others feel," a peculiar sensitivity stimulated by the nature of her work. As such, Langley's representation coheres with the professional telephone operator that emerged in the 1880s. Galvan explains how Britain's National Telephone Company "viewed the operator's almost preternatural sensitivity to others as an imperative" describing how its recruitment leaflet sought operators who had "'insight into knowing what people mean to say when they cannot say what they mean to say.'" While the heroine's peculiar sensitivities win her a doctor-husband, In the Cage offers, as Galvan analyses in fascinating detail, James's problematization of the sympathetic operator. Here she draws on the interactions of class, sexuality and the psychic realm. The telegrapher's dreams of "psychical entunement" with the upper classes whose messages she transmits "never fully eclipses her feelings of class abjection or her recognition of how her patrons must see her," since Galvan reads the story as an involved and conflicted conversation about female mediation.

Chapter two focuses on late-Victorian Gothic arguing that the "mediating woman" in these texts represents a "matter of psychical instrumentality." Here the discussion commences with female automatism. Women, as nineteenth-century spiritualists propounded, were "particularly well disposed to automatism, offering little impediment to the spirits channeled through them." Equally, "typing and other late Victorian scribal functions ... became associated with an automatic state of reduced or fragmented attention." Crucially, Galvan contends, the automatic or "unthinking" female worker took on an "added utility" as the information processed "would not be devalued in either being exposed to or corrupted by the intervening medium." Similarly, the spirit...


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