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The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England

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A highly original study that examines the central role played by women as mediums, healers, and believers during the golden age of spiritualism in the late Victorian era, The Darkened Room is more than a meditation on women mediums—it's an exploration of the era's gender relations. The hugely popular spiritualist movement, which maintained that women were uniquely qualified A highly original study that examines the central role played by women as mediums, healers, and believers during the golden age of spiritualism in the late Victorian era, The Darkened Room is more than a meditation on women mediums—it's an exploration of the era's gender relations. The hugely popular spiritualist movement, which maintained that women were uniquely qualified to commune with spirits of the dead, offered female mediums a new independence, authority, and potential to undermine conventional class and gender relations in the home and in society. Using previously unexamined sources and an innovative approach, Alex Owen invokes the Victorian world of darkened séance rooms, theatrical apparitions, and moving episodes of happiness lost and regained. She charts the struggles between spiritualists and the medical and legal establishments over the issue of female mediumship, and provides new insights into the gendered dynamics of Victorian society.


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A highly original study that examines the central role played by women as mediums, healers, and believers during the golden age of spiritualism in the late Victorian era, The Darkened Room is more than a meditation on women mediums—it's an exploration of the era's gender relations. The hugely popular spiritualist movement, which maintained that women were uniquely qualified A highly original study that examines the central role played by women as mediums, healers, and believers during the golden age of spiritualism in the late Victorian era, The Darkened Room is more than a meditation on women mediums—it's an exploration of the era's gender relations. The hugely popular spiritualist movement, which maintained that women were uniquely qualified to commune with spirits of the dead, offered female mediums a new independence, authority, and potential to undermine conventional class and gender relations in the home and in society. Using previously unexamined sources and an innovative approach, Alex Owen invokes the Victorian world of darkened séance rooms, theatrical apparitions, and moving episodes of happiness lost and regained. She charts the struggles between spiritualists and the medical and legal establishments over the issue of female mediumship, and provides new insights into the gendered dynamics of Victorian society.

30 review for The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England

  1. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    Alex Owen’s first book The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Univ. Chicago Press, 2004) examines the intersections between the rise of the Spiritualist movement and the roles played by women within it – and the wider issue of the “Woman Question” from 1860 onwards. Owen examines in some detail the religious background to Spiritualism, and the growth in both secular and Christian Spiritualist organisations and its relationship to Swedenborg & Mesmerism. In e Alex Owen’s first book The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Univ. Chicago Press, 2004) examines the intersections between the rise of the Spiritualist movement and the roles played by women within it – and the wider issue of the “Woman Question” from 1860 onwards. Owen examines in some detail the religious background to Spiritualism, and the growth in both secular and Christian Spiritualist organisations and its relationship to Swedenborg & Mesmerism. In examining the rise in the popularity of Spiritualism, she relates it to the growth of social reform movemements – examples being the British National Association of Spiritualist’s stated aims to be that of “To cause the Rights of Women to be recognised in full” and the medium Emma Harding Britten using her “spirit inspired” lectures to assert that women should be allowed to enter the professions. The relationship between suffrage & other social reform movements and esoteric movements in the 19th century is also a concern of Joy Dixon’s book so The Darkened Room complements it nicely. Owen shows that women were considered at that time to be innately predisposed towards mediumship due to their “feminine virtues” (one of which was passivity). Yet, she says, women as mediums not only reinforced the Victorian stereotypes of femininity, they also challenged them, insofar as women mediums became “voices of authority” and frequently gained an independent income. She also looks at class issues, discussing one particular case in a middle-class household where the female medium was a servant. Part of Owen’s argument is that women played a central role in the early Spiritualist movement as mediums, healers and pioneers, yet unlike their male counterparts, they were less prone to writing up their experiences for public consumption and becoming ’spokespersons’ for spiritualist causes. Owen also discusses how women mediums were dismissed by the burgeoning medical establishment as suffering from hysteria (she devotes one chapter to examining the case of a middle-class woman who was incarcerated in various asylums for over a decade on the basis of her practice of automatic writing). Early psychologists such as Janet and Hartmann described mediumship as indicative of hysteria or multiple personalities, yet it was the investigation of mediumship which spurred Frederick Myers to form his theory of the “subliminal mind.” Again, the tensions between medical “professionals” and spiritualist healers are perhaps a continuation of the conflicts studied by Owen Davies in Cunning-Folk. These tensions also shaped emerging sexological discourses.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Marjolein

    What I like most about this book is that it is not just a very interesting account on how spiritualism worked to undermine the gender construction in the Victorian era, but that it also gives ample examples of the methods employed by Victorian spiritualists. I would highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in Victorian spiritualism.

  3. 5 out of 5

    SR

    Solid. interesting reading, as the politics espoused are 25 years old - but the history is great, and the points made about the movement as it affected (and was affected by) women, both positively and negatively, made for a great deal of interesting thoughts to chew on.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bill Wallace

    Overall a very fine book that comes at familiar material from a different analytical viewpoint. Such dissatisfaction I have with it involves its multiple, and occasionally complex, attempts to make sense of spiritualism from a feminist perspective, some of which I found more successful than others. I read this hoping for some insight into the impulses that caused so many mid-19th Century female pioneers of equal rights also to embrace spiritualism and mesmerism and there was plenty of that histo Overall a very fine book that comes at familiar material from a different analytical viewpoint. Such dissatisfaction I have with it involves its multiple, and occasionally complex, attempts to make sense of spiritualism from a feminist perspective, some of which I found more successful than others. I read this hoping for some insight into the impulses that caused so many mid-19th Century female pioneers of equal rights also to embrace spiritualism and mesmerism and there was plenty of that history to satisfy me here, though that is not the book's primary purpose. I was less thrilled with the chapter of Freudian and post-Freudian interpretations, perhaps because I'm less familiar with conventions of psychological historical analysis and got lost in some of the jargon. When dealing with this material, one of an author's greatest challenges is whether to take a "believer's" stance or a purely naturalistic one. Ms. Owen tried to walk a neutral line but I felt that too ften she gives the mediums the benefit of the doubt as to the integrity of their intentions and their actions. Small quibble though. It's also worth noting that this book focuses almost entirely on British spiritualism and a book with an American focus would be quite different and probably more sensational. Although I liked this book just fine and enjoyed most of it a great deal, I would still like to read a more straightforward social history of spiritualism as it relates to the progressive movements of the nineteenth century, and will keep hoping to find one.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Amelia

    An interesting book for the history of spiritualism in England, where it was not as widely popular as it was in the United States. It's a very academic text, as such I would not recommend it for the casual beach read. I found Owen's argument about Victorian middle-class British women finding freedom and power in spiritualism, all while staying true to the two-spheres cultural norms of the time, interesting- but I am still not sold on its mass appeal as there were not a lot of British mediums. Th An interesting book for the history of spiritualism in England, where it was not as widely popular as it was in the United States. It's a very academic text, as such I would not recommend it for the casual beach read. I found Owen's argument about Victorian middle-class British women finding freedom and power in spiritualism, all while staying true to the two-spheres cultural norms of the time, interesting- but I am still not sold on its mass appeal as there were not a lot of British mediums. There is a lot to think about in relation to the "woman question" in Victorian England, but I thought of this as more of research touchstone than as a favorite text.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Zanna Russell

    So far, amazing. I just need to devote more time to it.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mēgan

    A must read if you're interested in the British and American Spiritualism movements. A must read if you're interested in the British and American Spiritualism movements.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jan-Erik

    A seminal work on the relationship between mediumship and gender dynamics, Owen's quasi-classic feels as relevant today as it did upon its first release. A seminal work on the relationship between mediumship and gender dynamics, Owen's quasi-classic feels as relevant today as it did upon its first release.

  9. 5 out of 5

    suzy

  10. 5 out of 5

    Emily Chandler

  11. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ada Hoffmann

  13. 5 out of 5

    Maria

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lacey Coffin Greene

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tiziana

  16. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  17. 4 out of 5

    Judy

  18. 5 out of 5

    Lexi

  19. 5 out of 5

    Zachary Harless

  20. 4 out of 5

    Georgina Merry

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lesley

  22. 5 out of 5

    Julie Staniford

    Definitely one to dip into for research purposes.

  23. 5 out of 5

    John J. O'Hara

  24. 4 out of 5

    Robyn

  25. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

  26. 4 out of 5

    Peggie Taylor

  27. 5 out of 5

    Niamh Boyce

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Christian

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Dolbeare

  30. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

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