In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Supernatural

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies, Reference Works, and Bibliographies
  • Primary Works
  • Periodicals and Journals
  • Mesmerism
  • The Supernatural, Magic and Illusion
  • Occult Phenomena
  • The Supernatural and the Gothic
  • The Supernatural and Gender
  • The Supernatural in Literary and Cultural Theory

Victorian Literature The Supernatural
by
Rosario Arias
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0157

Introduction

The supernatural was an important aspect of Victorian society. It pervaded all forms of art and science, as well as Victorians’ daily lives, and its language and metaphors impregnated Victorian culture. The 19th-century understanding of the supernatural was hotly contested, including by theologians. As a result, the category of the supernatural was a slippery one, but it was commonly held that it encompassed both the otherwordly, the strange and the unseen, and the ordinary and the material. The supernatural was as important as the realm of the natural in Victorian times, as is proven by its relevance in political, cultural and religious history and in the incipient entertainment industry. Etymologically speaking, the term ‘supernatural’ refers to what is superior or above nature. However, there are several interpretations of the word ‘supernatural’ which are generally accepted by the critics: preternatural, spiritual or paranormal, and supernatural (the natural and the supernatural inhabit the same ontological space). In Victorian times these three interpretations coexisted. The supernatural belief was understood as a response to “Victorian crisis of faith” and also as part of a broader cultural discourse about scientific knowledge and modern society. The rapid secularization of the Victorian period also allowed for the emergence of new systems of beliefs that renegotiated ways of dealing with the spiritual and the material. In fiction, the fashion for the unknown and the otherworldly coincided with the burgeoneing interest in ghost stories, and it showed connections with sensation fiction, and the Victorian gothic. Authors such as Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, M. R. James, Rhoda Broughton, Henry James, Richard Marsh, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Vernon Lee explored the supernatural in its various guises in their works. Some of them openly expressed their belief in the supernatural. Also, the supernatural maintained close links with the professionalization of science and the establishment of psychology, and the advent of new media such as telegraphy, photography, and cinema, which were at first regarded as occult phenomena. This article mainly focuses on secondary critical material, organized in thematic sections that testify to the relevance of the supernatural in the Victorian period, from the emergence of spiritualism as a system of belief and its intrinsic connections with science and technology, to folklore, and finally to the persistence of the supernatural in contemporary imagination through the critical master trope of haunting and spectrality, as well as in “Neo-Victorianism” as examined in the article in Oxford Bibliographies in Victorian Literature by Jessica Cox.

General Overviews

There is no single overview of the study of the supernatural, as it comprises several movements, definitions and phenomena. Auerbach 2004, Pearsall 2004 and Luckhurst 2014 provide sound starting points. Brandon 1983 is an oft-quoted study with a wider focus, which, alongside Messent 1981, gives a useful cursory view of the field when it really started, in the 1980s. Although Smith and Haas 1999 is at times overlooked, for readers interested in the state of the field in the 1990s, it usefully supplements the earlier visions. However, Bown, et al. 2004 and Willburn 2006 provide, undoubtedly, the best overviews of the Victorian supernatural. Smajić 2009 and Hatter 2015 constitute valuable contributions to the topic of the supernatural and Victorian literature, particularly for those with an interest in supernatural realism.

  • Auerbach, Nina. “Ghosts of Ghosts.” Victorian Literature and Culture 32.1 (2004): 277–284.

    DOI: 10.1017/S106015030400049XE-mail Citation »

    An important and readable essay on the nature of ‘ghosts’ with useful sections such as “Womanly Ghosts” and “Spiritualism.” Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Bown, Nicola, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell. “Introduction.” In The Victorian Supernatural. Edited by Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell, 1–19. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    This introduction is a rigorous work that provides the best and most comprehensive understanding of the Victorian supernatural to date.

  • Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the foundational texts on the history of the “modern spiritualist movement.”

  • Hatter, Janine, ed. Special Issue: The Supernatural in the Long Nineteenth Century. Supernatural Studies 2.2 (Summer 2015).

    E-mail Citation »

    Varied and diverse, this special issue offers updated approaches to the supernatural in Victorian literature.

  • Luckhurst, Roger. “The Victorian Supernatural.” In Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    A succinct, and useful, account of the main aspects of the Victorian supernatural, including mesmerism and spiritualism. Particulary interesting is the brief section on the journalist W. T. Stead, who edited the Pall Mall Gazette and founded the Review of Reviews.

  • Messent, Peter, ed. Literature of the Occult: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although almost thirty-seven years old as of 2018, still an essential collection of essays which paved the way for the subsequent work in the field in the following decades.

  • Pearsall, Ronald. The Table-Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    A highly readable study that traces the history of the occult in the Victorian period. Highly recommended for a first approach to the field.

  • Smajić, Srdjan. “Supernatural Realism.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42.1 (2009): 1–22.

    DOI: 10.1215/00295132-2008-001E-mail Citation »

    An interesting piece on the 19th-century British novel and its alliance both with realism and supernaturalism since, arguably, supernatural realism is “one of realism’s most conspicuous manifestations.” Available online by subscription or purchase.

  • Smith, Elton E., and Robert Haas, eds. The Haunted Mind: The Supernatural in Victorian Literature. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection is useful taken as a whole and as an introduction to the main arguments regarding supernatural fiction in the late 20th century.

  • Willburn, Sarah A. Possessed Victorians: Extra Spheres in Nineteenth-Century Mystical Writings. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    An interesting study of the topic of spirit possession from many angles.

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