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The Occult, the Female Body, and Disrupted Domestic Space in Victorian Popular Fiction, by Anna J. Brecke, University of Rhode Island

Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex

From the table rapping Fox sisters to celebrated mediums in the latter half of the century, spiritualist and occult interests in the nineteenth century were always the purview of women and domestic space. By the latter half of the period, the winter ghost story, icon of the Christmas Annual that depicted hauntings at home, was a staple form of popular entertainment and the popular supernatural genre had become known as a woman’s genre. These Victorian ghost stories and other supernatural fiction frequently relied on the disruption of already feminized domestic or home-spaces for their spine-tingling effects. The contradiction between a Victorian cultural mindset that sanctified home spaces and the penetration of those spaces by occult forces, lends this genre an inherent sense of unease predicated on the uncanny domestication of unnatural forces. Reading nineteenth century assumptions about the relationship between women’s bodies and domestic space might allow us to consider the necessary role that corrupted female bodies play in the popular supernatural domestic genre. I would argue that the fundamental connection between the ideologically domestic and the female body is essential to women’s supernatural fiction. The assault by spirits, vampires or other unknown creatures on women’s bodies or through women’s bodies has implications in these texts that reflected a growing nineteenth century understanding that “space” is cultural-- not confined by physical space-- and that linked conceptual domesticity to female bodies. Short supernatural fiction by Rhoda Broughton and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Florence Marryat’s novel The Blood of the Vampire, depict intimate connections between corrupted female bodies and disrupted domestic spaces caused by a supernatural presence.
The complicated relationship between Victorian women and the supernatural, in which women act as spiritualists and mediums, as well as authors of supernatural fiction and as female characters in that fiction, is one that is well-established. In The Darkened Room, Alex Owen explores “the nineteenth century idea that femininity was crucial to the entire enterprise of Victorian mediumship” and calls spiritualist events like séances and public lectures a “spectacle of femininity gone awry” (ii). In fiction, the supernatural, but especially the ghost story, has been touted as a location for expression of uniquely feminine and often transgressive experience or sexuality due to what Clare Stewart calls the genre’s ability to explore “dangerous territory which would have been closed off completely in other contexts” (112). Stewart’s examination of the woman’s ghost story focuses on the possibility they allow for subversive political or social commentary through an exploration of women’s minds, but she does not address the effect that a supernatural presence has on the body. This seems an oversight when one considers the import Victorian medical science and pseudoscience placed on the connection between body and mind. Also writing about ghost stories by women, Nick Freeman points out their ability to "[combine] a surface narrative, which seemed to reaffirm conservative notions of order, with a less easily deciphered set of considerations which challenged or criticized the very notions the stories' closure seemed to endorse" (187), and Alison Jaquet has argued that in Ellen Wood's supernatural fiction "uncanny shadows, hauntings and prophecies are inextricably linked to the domestic sphere, troubling Victorian homes and tormenting domestic spaces" (244). In The Sympathetic Medium, Jill Galvan examines the role that biological assumptions about “natural” femininity contributed to the idea that the inherent passivity associated with femaleness made women natural conduits for passing unadulterated information from the spirits to the living.
I would like to complicate this established relationship by considering the effect caused by disrupted or disturbed female bodies in these texts, and the associative effect on domestic spaces. There are multiple ways to look at domestic spaces as being inseparable from the bodies, typically female, that inhabit them in this type of fiction. If we read domestic bodies and domestic spaces as co-dependent, then we can also read the corruption of those bodies as disruption of the sanctified domestic space that played such an important role in Victorian identity myths. When the supernatural penetrates a domestic space, it often does so in the guise of a female body or by affecting a female body. Thus the disruption of home space or domesticity in supernatural fiction becomes a feminized problem.
John Ruskin and Coventry Patmore both establish the transactional relationship between environment and the body through the necessity of a woman in the house to make that house a home. Victorian images of domestic tranquility and industry presided over by the “angel in the house” are in sharp contrast to contemporary images of bachelor rooms. The presence of a woman becomes a requirement for the idealistic conceptual home that carries a much greater significance than the physical space of a house. Ruskin particularly expands the boundaries of home space outside the house by relying on the female body to create a feeling of home. In Sesame and Lilies he considers the concept of “home” as not a physical space, but the cultural space occupied by an appropriately socialized female body called “a true wife.” He says, poetically, “and wherever a true wife comes, this home is always round her… home is wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far round her”@ whether she is located in the physical confines of a house or not. Home is defined as a sanctuary from the corrupting or disturbing influence of modern life. Nina Auerbach sees this passage in Ruskin as shifting the mid-Victorian iconography of the 'angel in the house' outside the four walls of the home and uses it to read Dickens’ Little Nell as “angel in the house” without a house. Auerbach argues that although “we cannot doubt that [Dickens’] Little Nell is an angel… for roughly two-thirds of the novel she is also a houseless, doughty little pilgrim” (82). Although he does not use this terminology, Ruskin is describing the transactional nature of bodies and their environment.
I am reading this passage alongside William James’s argument in Psychology: a Briefer Course in which he theorizes a transactional material “me” which includes “the sum total of all that [a man] can call his. Not only his body and psychic powers, but his clothes, his house, his wife and children, his ancestors, his reputation, his works, his lands, his horses, and yachts and bank-accounts” (44). For James, the Self is a body existing in cultural spaces that are extensions of the physical and identity is the sum total of these spaces, the body that inhabits them, and the mind inside that body. He makes a point to connect conceptual cultural spaces like “family” or perceived “reputation” of the individual which rely on social and cultural norms to the materiality of the body. Like Ruskin, James includes both physical and cultural space in his definitions of identity.
For the purposes of this paper, I am also considering domestic space as existing outside the home and am aligning this work with theories like Butler's performativity and Shannon Sullivan's argument in Living Across and Through Skins that bodies exist in a transactional relationship to their environment. The domestic is transactional space: it is the family space, the marriage space or the relational spaces between parents and children or spouses. Some texts I am looking at do happen in a house, but not all houses are homes and not all homes are houses. Domestic borders are malleable and expansive, adhering to a woman’s body and following her as she moves through public or private space. In supernatural fiction, expansion of the domestic or home-space is seen in the way these cultural spaces are disrupted equally within or without of a house.
In Rhoda Broughton’s “The Man with the Nose,” honeymooners Elizabeth and her nameless husband are disrupted by the after-effects of mesmeric experience in Elizabeth’s past. The specter of the man with the nose penetrates their marital relationship through Elizabeth’s encounter with a mesmerizer, who chose her because “he said [she] should be such a good medium” (16). This reasoning echoes Galvan’s argument that cultural connotations of the feminine made women appear to be better suited to psychic or spiritualist transactions. Elizabeth recounts her experience: “I believe I did all sorts of extraordinary things that he told me—sang and danced, and made a fool of myself—but when I came home I was very ill, very—I lay in bed for five whole weeks, and—and was off my head, and said odd and wicked things that you would not have expected me to say—that dreadful bed! shall I ever forget it?” (16). Elizabeth’s mesmerizing follows the pattern of a demonstration of the mesmeric arts that was commonly attended as entertainment. A main feature of these spectacles, still seen in contemporary hypnotist performances, was the participation of an audience member. Elizabeth carries the aftermath of her mesmeric experience within her body, causing the eventual dissolution of her marriage.
The bodily reference in this text can also be read as anxiety about the sexual relationship Elizabeth is about to embark on with her husband. It seems not accidental that her mesmeric illness reflects a fear of “that bed” which she will never forget. She rejects Killarney as a honeymoon location because the fleas there will make her body unattractive to her husband, but it is the after effects of mesmerism that come to interrupt the way her husband relates to her body. Attempting to speak of the experience causes Elizabeth’s “supple body to shiver” and “[tremble] exceedingly” (16). Broughton makes a point that this is “mid-July” and Elizabeth is not reacting to any external stimuli. The cause of her shivering or trembling lies within her own body. Each appearance of the Man with the Nose is marked by Elizabeth’s physical reactions. Her teeth chatter, she is cold in warm places, she suffers from tremors, shudders, and quivers. The marriage bed becomes a location of horror as Elizabeth is haunted nightly by the Man with the Nose. Alison Jaquet argues that in the domestic ghost story “supernaturalism often becomes an alternative discourse with which to express feminine desires and fears” (247). Here Elizabeth’s “fear” of the man with nose could easily be read as fear of sex that manifests in Broughton’s use of language that could indicate physical expression of fear or of pleasure-- trembling, shivering, panting. The primary home-space that is disrupted by mesmerism in this supernatural domestic tale is the home-space of marriage and frequently the physical space between the couple. The tale concludes with Elizabeth having been carried off by the Man with the Nose during her husband’s absence, never to be seen again. The promised home of their marriage dissolves and the husband ends the tale as a bachelor once more, or perhaps a widower.
Florence Marryat’s psychic vampire Harriet Brandt is a mesmeric figure whose bodily, often sensual or sexual, relationships disrupt the domestic arrangements of those around her. Her body, with its mesmeric ability to draw the life-force out of people she feels affection for succeeds in disrupting the families of two mothers, Margaret Pullen and Baroness Gobelli by causing the deaths of their children. Harriet’s powers also destroy her own domestic space when she accidentally kills her own husband. The dissolution of two parent/child relationships and one marriage make The Blood of the Vampire a text that is about failed home-spaces as much as it is about the surface narrative of vampirism. In the text, medical professional Dr. Phillips explains that Harriet’s condition “may render her love fatal to such as she may cling to” by making “Harriet draw upon the health and strength of all with whom she may be intimately associated” (79). Dependent on the intimacy of physical proximity, Harriet’s vampiric actions often mimic maternal or nurturing behavior towards children or lovers. She takes an “evident pleasure” in “playing nursemaid” to little Ethel Pullen and walks the line between maternal and courtship behavior with the Baroness’s teenaged son Bobby, who at times rests his head on her shoulder and at others put his arms around her waist. In a reversal of motherhood, the pinnacle expression of Victorian femininity, Harriet draws sustenance from children and dependent figures instead of the other way around. The deaths of the Pullen baby and Bobby are caused by physical proximity to Harriet and her affection for them that draws their strength.
Marryat creates an interesting parallel between the two grieving mothers. Margaret Pullen is the epitome of appropriate femininity in this text. She is kind, generous, giving, unassuming, and primarily concerned with the health and safety of her child. Baroness Gobelli is as “unnatural” a woman as possible. She is brash, dirty, abusive and vulgar, and bullies her son rather than nurturing him. However, both women are allowed surprisingly similar space to mourn their dead children. Faced with the dead child, each woman collapses, suffering the secondary physical consequences of Harriet’s mesmeric power. Despite their wide differences, the Baroness and Margaret are depictions of selfhood bound up in their claims to maternity, the aspect of James’s “material me” that comes through family, children, and ancestry. The physical locations of each death are also worth considering. Ethel Pullen dies in a simulacrum of home, a Brussels hotel catering to English tourists, and Bobby dies in his own house, a questionable domestic space that has been disrupted by spiritualism, which the Baroness feigns as a pretext to practice the more lucrative art of blackmail. Baroness Gobelli’s “Red House” is an example of house that is not a home space. Those who are not in the know about her actual occupation speak of the devilish arts and the mystical power she holds, creating a sense of unease in place of comfort of the home. As a false medium, the Baroness alludes to the already feminized practice of mediumship, but corrupts both it and the home-space through her decidedly unfeminine immorality as a blackmailer and her general vulgarity. Her body is ill suited to being one of Galvan’s “sympathetic mediums” lacking as she does the passivity required to take on that role. Both child deaths in the text occur in spaces that we might read as domestic through the nature of their function, but that are not home-spaces and do not provide Ruskin’s sense of sanctuary.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s short supernatural fiction tends to walk the line between ghost story and vampire tale, occasionally drifting into science fiction, but, like her novels, it relies on the corrupted domestic to create tension and titillate her reader. A tale like “The Shadow in the Corner” is an example where the supernatural operates specifically on the female body in domestic spaces, and her medical vampire tale “Good Lady Ducayne” carries another connotation of the reversal of nurturing behavior.
Titular character Lady Ducayne, like Harriet Brandt, is a mockery of the inherently nurturing Victorian woman. Her vampirism comes closer to science fiction than the supernatural, as she relies on medical technology to transfuse younger blood from her companion Bella Rolleston into her older body. That she preys exclusively on young women who are in her care could be read as a corruption of a parent/ child relationship, similar to the way Marryat presents Harriet’s psychic vampirism. The young women in Lady Ducayne’s employment are there as companions to her, reading and keeping her company. The professional position of companion already blurs the lines between family member and employee. It seems possible to read Lady Ducayne as both guardian and employer so that her use of her companions as material for her transfusions is uncomfortably reminiscent of a mother feeding on a child. It goes without saying that the process of medical vampirism is one that draws more attention to the bodies involved than the supernatural vampirism in which blood is taken as food. Medical vampirism requires a repeated surgical act as blood is taken from a healthy body to an unhealthy body. Here, the supernatural does not succeed in completely destroying domestic spaces-- Bella recovers and marries-- but its attempts to do so are still perpetrated by the corruption of a female body.
Similar to “The Man with the Nose,” Braddon’s “Shadow in the Corner,” features a home-space and its dissolution at the hands of ghost through the introduction and corruption of a female body. Bachelor Michael Bascom has lived a solitary and scholarly life at isolated Wildheath Grange with his servants Skegg and Mrs. Skegg. Although not of the middle class usually associated with the angel in the house, Mrs. Skegg is nonetheless presented as a picture of middle class domestic management, much like the housewives imagined by Sarah Stickney Ellis or Isabella Beeton. She is described as “[ruling] over the solitude of a kitchen, that looked like a cathedral, and numerous offices of the sculler, larder, and pantry class… She was a good plain cook, and ministered diligently to her master’s wants.” This picture of well-ordered domesticity is beginning to break down due to Mrs. Skegg’s encroaching old age and the text opens with her requesting the hire of a “girl” to help with the housework, but her husband offers Bascom the warning that it will be hard to find someone willing to take on the position “because [the] house is known to be haunted.” The introduction of the girl Maria into this home is briefly beneficial, but she quickly becomes the way in which the ghosts of the house come to light and domestic order is ruptured. Bascom notices a change to her physicality, her “lips had lost their rose-bud hue; the pale blue eyes had a frightened look, and there were dark rings round them, as in one whose nights had been sleepless.” Maria reveals that she has been troubled at night by a sensation of terror with a physical manifestation. She says “I felt weighed down in my sleep as if there were some heavy burden laid upon my chest.” This physical manifestation of a spirit, both in Maria’s account of what is happening to her at night and her increasingly deteriorating appearance, is dismissed by the other characters as women’s superstitious nonsense.
Even when Bascom offers to spend the night in her room and has a similar experience, Skegg refuses to believe it. Ultimately, Maria dies, whether by suicide, according to the coroner, or at the impetus of the ghost who haunted her regularly, is unclear, but what we do see is that the comfortable, if odd, home-space of Wildheath Grange dissolves after her death. Braddon writes: “The girl’s melancholy fate darkened the rest of Michael Bascom’s life. He fled from Wildheath Grange as from an accursed spot, and from the Skeggs as from the murderers of a harmless innocent girl.” Following what seems to be a pattern in his genre, it is the introduction of Maria, a young woman, into this home and the subsequent action on her body by a supernatural force that achieves this disruption of the domestic in this tale.@
Yet another reason to consider the consequences of disrupted female bodies in these popular texts might be the lack of consideration popular fiction received in Victorian studies until fairly recently. Popular fiction made up the majority of fiction published in England the mid to late nineteenth century, and yet few of the authors of this work have remained in print or been included in the major body scholarship on the period. However, examining representations of gender, especially femininity, in these texts may reveal a very different set of codes for the feminine or womanhood than the prescriptive and frankly unrealistic angel in the house. The subtext of supernatural domestic fiction is one in which we see a nuanced and varied range of femininities that were perhaps only acceptably expressed under the guise of the unbelievable. The relationship between women’s bodies and domestic space in this supernatural fiction is one that bears consideration for not only these alternative femininities, but the inherent transactional nature of the female body and the space it occupies.  
Works cited
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