Tag Archives: Victorian England

Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Victorian Spiritualism

On April 1, 1848, modern Spiritualism was born in Hydesville, New York. That day, teenage sisters Margaret and Kate Fox announced that they had communicated with the spirit of a man who had been murdered in their house years before. A report of the incident first appeared in the New York Tribune, and it was reprinted soon after in both American and European newspapers.

Spiritualism Takes Hold in England


The Fox Sisters

The roots of Spiritualism stretch back to the eighteenth-century works of Emmanuel Swedenborg. But the incident with the Fox sisters ignited unprecedented interest in the phenomenon of communicating with the dead. Spiritualism would enrapture leading thinkers of the day, along with celebrated authors like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Meanwhile, Charles Dickens came out as a staunch opponent–despite his own interest in the also-questionable practice of mesmerism.

Spiritualism in its modern form emerged in Britain in 1852. That year, Maria Hayden traveled to London and offered her services as a medium. She conducted seances, complete with table rappings and automatic writing. But Spiritualism was far from new in England; Queen Victoria herself had subscribed to the belief as early as 1846. By the 1860’s Spiritualism had exploded into a full-fledged counterculture; it had its own newspapers, societies, treatises, and pamphlets. Seances–complete with table tapping, table tipping, automatic writing and levitation–were conducted in even the most genteel social circles.

Victorian England was ripe for just such a movement. Though it was an era of great scientific discovery, it was also an era of turning away from organized religion and confronting uncertainty. To fill the void, many Victorians turned to the supernatural, mesmerism, electro-biology, Spiritualism, and other relatively new pursuits. These new practices thoroughly blurred the lines between religion and science, and even proponents of Spiritualism were divided about how to characterize it.

From Fiction Writer to Leading Spiritualist

Doyle_McCabePublic_Debate_SpiritualismElizabeth Barrett Browning famously subscribed to Spiritualism, much to the chagrin of her skeptical husband, Robert Browning, who was dragged to seances with her on multiple occasions. But the Brownings were far from the only authors at the seance tables; Christina Rosetti, John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Rudyard Kipling participated in seances. But it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who would delve so deeply into Spiritualism, he would turn away from fiction almost altogether.

Conan Doyle encountered Spiritualism as early as 1866, thanks to a book by US High Courts Judge John Worth Edmonds. The judge, who claimed he’d communicated with his wife after she died, was one of the most influential Spiritualists in America. Conan Doyle was by now already famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But he hoped to be remembered for something entirely different, so he turned away from his famous protagonist to study Spiritualism. Conan Doyle presented his first public lecture on Spiritualism in 1917, and he would eventually travel throughout Great Britain, Europe, and America educating audiences about the practice. He even trekked to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in the name of Spiritualism.

Fairy_PicturesWhile Conan Doyle was respected in Spiritualist circles, his blind devotion led him headlong into ridicule on more than one occasion. He was taken in by Frances Griffith and Elsie Wright’s forged photographs of fairies. Conan Doyle, accepting the photographs as authentic, wrote a few pamphlets and The Coming of Fairies (1922), which made him a bit of a laughingstock. Later, Conan Doyle invited his friend Harry Houdini to attend a seance,with his wife Jean, acting as medium. Jean claimed to have contacted Houdini’s mother and “automatically” wrote a long letter in English. Unfortunately Houdini’s mother had known little English. Consequently the famous magician publicly declared Conan Doyle a fraud.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Conan Doyle persisted, remaining an avid Spiritualist until his death. Once he passed away, claims surfaced that he and his wife had arranged for communication from beyond the grave. On July 7, 1930, five days after Conan Doyle’s death, a seance was held at Royal Albert Hall. The presiding medium, Estelle Roberts, claimed that she’d relayed a message from Conan Doyle to his wife…but was drowned out by the overzealous organ player.

Dickens Ridicules Spiritualists

Although Conan Doyle was devoted to Spiritualism, he was careful not to sully Sherlock Holmes with such a controversial ideology. Thus whenever Holmes encounters potentially supernatural phenomena, he remains nonplussed and seeks a rational explanation. After all, as the famed detective says in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” Charles Dickens would surely have agreed.

Dickens grew up reading penny weeklies like The Terrific Register, which he said “frightened the very wits out of [his] head.” The register’s pages brimmed with tales of ghosts, murder, incest, and cannibalism. Meanwhile, the English tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas–coupled with Dickens’ own (lucrative) habit of publishing new stories at Christmas resulted in Dickens’ publishing plenty of ghost stories of his own.



Dickens called Eliotson “one of my most intimate and valuable friends” in this letter to ‘The Boston Morning Post.’

That didn’t stop the Inimitable from openly dismissing Spiritualism as unmitigated quackery. He frequently attacked Spiritualists in both Household Words and All the Year Round. In “Well Authenticated Rappings,” (Household Words, 1858), Dickens questions why spirits would return to communicate with the living, only to make idiots of themselves by tapping out banal messages rife with orthographical mistakes.

Yet even Dickens got pulled into a movement of highly questionable validity: mesmerism. Named for its creator, Anton Mesmer, mesmerism was the belief that the universe was full of an invisible magnetic fluid, which influenced all life and could be manipulated more easily with magnets. Prominent doctor John Eliotson was one of the leading proponents of mesmerism (also known as magnetism and animal magnetism). Eliotson was eventually shunned from the medical establishment as a result.

Dickens actually became a practicing mesmeric doctor, successfully putting both his wife and sister-in-law into a trance. During his family’s trip to Italy in 1844, Dickens also mesmerized the alluring Augusta de la Rue, who suffered from, as she called it, a “burning and raging” in her head. The attention he lavished on M. de la Rue was sufficient to evoke jealousy from Dickens’ wife, Catherine. Meanwhile, Dickens was less successful in his attempt to mesmerize his friend Charles Macready.

Dickens_Edwin_DroodDickens and his fellow mesmerists believed, as Eliotson did, that the practice represented a genuine improvement in the field of medicine–unlike Spiritualism, which served no such therapeutic function. Thus he felt perfectly justified in lambasting Spiritualism while simultaneously espousing a practice that, as modern readers, we might find laughable. 

Ironically enough, Dickens was a frequent target of mediums. His final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood has inspired many an author to attempt its end. But in 1873, printer Thomas James penned an ending for the book. He claimed that Dickens had dictated the ending from beyond the grave, calling the book The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Complete). Part second of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. By the spirit-pen of Charles Dickens, through a medium.

Ultimately both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens illustrate the Victorian predilection for the supernatural and strange. 

Related Posts:
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
The Six Hoaxes of Edgar Allan Poe
All Posts-Charles Dickens


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George Alfred Henty, Controversial Author of Juvenile Fiction

George_Alfred_HentyThe late nineteenth century was truly a golden age in children’s literature. As the concept of childhood evolved, didacticism fell out of style and children’s authors focused more on stimulating their readers’ imaginations with exciting, engaging tales. George Alfred Henty was one of the most popular figures of the era. His historical adventure stories appealed to both children and young adults, but Henty was a controversial figure even in his own time.

From Soldier to Special Correspondent

Henty was born on December 8, 1832 in Trumpington, outside Cambridge. A sickly child, he entertained himself by diving into books and remained an avid reader all his life. Henty attended Westminster School, and then Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself as a sportsman. But Henty left school before earning a degree; he and his brother decided to volunteer for the Army when the Crimean War began. Henty was assigned to the Army Hospital Commissariat. Conditions at the front were horrible, and Henty sent his father detailed letters about the appalling state of affairs. His father submitted the letters to the Morning Advertiser, which published them enthusiastically.

Henty_Rujub_JugglerSeeing little promise of promotion, Henty resigned from the Army in 1859. He married Elizabeth Finucane shortly thereafter, but the union would be a short one; Elizabeth died in 1865 after a long illness. Left with children and unsure of his career path, Henty decided to begin writing for the Standard newspaper. By 1866, he was working as a special correspondent. During his career, Henty would cover the Franco-Prussian War; the Carlist Rebellion in Spain; the Turco-Serbian War; the opening of the Suez Canal; and the Dreyfus Trial.

Meanwhile Henty loved to regale his children with adventure stories at dinnertime. He decided to put the tales on paper and wrote his first children’s novel, Out of the Pampas, in 1868, naming the main characters after his children. Griffith & Farran published the book in 1870 (though the title page lists the year as 1871). Henty went on to write over 100 books, not only children’s fiction, but also adult novels and non-fiction. However, his children’s fiction was most popular, even inspiring other authors to emulate him. Captain Frederick Sadlier, Percy F. Westerman, and Herbert Strang (the pseudonym for George Herbert Ely and Charles James L’Estrange) all tried their hand at juvenile adventure tales in the “Henty style.”

Overt Racism and Imperialism

To research his books, Henty would check out numerous books from his local library. His protagonists were usually intelligent, plucky, and modest young men–and occasionally women who were living through historically difficult times. The books were full of action and drama, appealing to young readers. But they also raised ire among many of Henty’s Victorian contemporaries–after all, Henty was hardly an unbiased author.

Henty_Frederick_Great_Seven_Years_WarDuring his own lifetime Henty was frequently accused of being xenophobic and racist. An enthusiastic imperialist, Henty also drew criticism for glorifying British imperialism. His In the Reign of Terror (1888) and No Surrender! A Tale of the Rising in La Vendee (1900) were decidedly hostile toward the patriots of the French Revolution, and in True to the Old Flag (1885), Henty took a Loyalist stance regarding the American Revolutionary War. With Lee in Virginia (1890) also raised eyebrows for supporting the “aristocratic” Confederacy of the Civil War.

In the 1990’s, Henty’s books were taken up by conservative Christians and home-schoolers because of their wholesome protagonists. But these stories are also frequently criticized for being jingoist and promoting racism. A Roving Commission,or Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti (1900) is overtly racist, making it an inappropriate text from which to teach that period of history.

Collecting George Alfred Henty Books

Henty has remained a popular figure among book collectors because his stories are so captivating and his works were so prodigious; in total, Henty penned 144 books, myriad short stories, and numerous pieces for several periodicals. Collectors usually rely on the second edition of Peter Newbolt’s GA Henty, 1832-1902 for bibliographic guidance. George Manville Fenn published a biography of Henty in 1907, but the work is generally considered too dispassionate. Thus the Henty Society is publishing a new biography, due out this year.

Henty’s books often have intricately designed bindings, often appealing to collectors in their own right. It’s quite rare to find these books in their original dust jackets, so most collectors settle for jacket-less copies in the best condition possible.

Though George Alfred Henty never became a household name in children’s literature, he nevertheless left an indelible mark on the genre. Henty’s books will continue to delight readers and collectors alike for ages to come.