08/11/2016

VICTORIA WOODHULL ~ THE FIRST WOMAN TO STAND FOR THE PRESIDENCY...

Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927

The VV has been musing on the life of Victoria Woodhull – who was (although few have heard of her now) the very first woman who made a bid to stand for the American presidency, as far back as 1872. 

Not that her attempt met with success. At that time women had no legal vote and, on the day of Grant’s re-election his female rival was safely imprisoned on charges of libel and pornography. But, what had preceded such ignominy?
Victoria's was a sensational life.  She was born in Ohio in 1838 and during her early years was part of the family's travelling medicine show. Always having a talent to draw a crowd, the little girl would preach and tell fortunes, even claiming the power to cure all ills while her father – the one-eyed Reuben ‘Buck’ Claflin – stood at the back of his wagon and sold bottles of his opium-based Life Elixir.

Buck Claflin in old age


At the age of fourteen Victoria fell ill, driven to the point of exhaustion after being deliberately starved by Buck as a means of enhancing  her spiritual ‘visions’. She later claimed that her father had sexually abused her when he was drunk, even trying to sell her as a whore. But then, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another shameless fraud: the apparently well-to-do doctor who was known as Canning Woodhull.
Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria’s hand in marriage, which offered the girl a means of escape from her father’s tyrannical grasping ways. But, once again she was misused. Her ‘Doc’ was no more than a worthless quack, an opium addict and womaniser. Unable to support his child bride, he was so drunk at the birth of their son that Victoria very nearly died, and blamed her husband evermore for the boy’s severe mental impairments.
When contemplating returning to Buck, Victoria came to realise that her place in the family ‘enterprise’ had been usurped by her sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and idiot son in tow she made her way to San Francisco ... where she hoped to realise a dream. 

As a small child, Victoria claimed to have had a vision in which the spirit of the Greek orator, Demosthenes, foretold of a glorious destiny in which she would grow up to lead the American people – a position that she was destined to hold in a city of water, and ships, and gold. 

San Francisco seemed to fit the bill, being the scene of the gold rush and also a sea port town. But dreams of success were soon to be crushed. While Canning spent every cent he owned in opium dens and on prostitutes Victoria was left with little choice but to support her family, working as a cigar girl in a bar, as an actress, and probably a whore.
Returning at last to Ohio, rather than joining Buck’s latest venture (running a dubious hospital from which he advertised himself as ‘America’s King of Cancers), along with her sister Tennessee, Victoria worked as a spiritual healer – though many have since come to suspect that the sisters also provided a somewhat more physical sustenance. 

Colonel James Harvey Blood 

While in such trade Victoria met a certain Colonel James Harvey Blood; a glamorous civil war hero who shared her belief in ‘other realms’ and who also supported her ‘destiny’ as a future ruler of America.  Leaving his respectable life behind, as well as his wife and daughters, he joined Victoria and Tennessee when they set out to make their mark in New York – another city of gold and ships.




At first, times were very hard and the sisters' spiritualist business was bolstered by the selling of contraceptive devices to the prostitutes. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother’s newspaper business and learning the tricks of that trade – with the publishing of pamphlets and magazines deemed to be a vital means of spreading the word of Victoria’s aims when she set her cap at the presidency.

Cornelius Vandervilt


Before that, the bad penny Buck Claflin turned up. Having heard that the widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt – then the richest man in America – was seeking the services of mediums, he contrived a means of introducing his daughters to the gentleman. Matters rapidly progressed. Victoria became Vanderbilt’s personal  medium with ’the ‘spirits’ offering financial tips which, in reality, were gleaned from gossiping bankers in brothels. Tennessee became Vanderbilt’s mistress – a natural progression of events after performing her ‘magnetic healing’ and curing the 'old goat's' niggling complaints.

A contemporary newspaper cartoon of Victoria and Tennie as Wall Street traders


Generously rewarded, the sisters caused a public sensation by going on to set themselves up as Wall Street’s very first female brokers - an enterprise that brought further wealth. 

With the aid of Colonel Blood, they then founded a spiritualist newspaper. Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly became their political voice – a voice that reached a great many ears, for the religion of Spiritualism was at that time one with a massive following, and it also offered a platform from which women could express their views. 

Victoria Woodhull addressing the House Judiciary Committee


Holding spectacular salons, Victoria was soon courted by the Women’s Movement who supported her bid for the presidency. She lectured to enormous crowds, usually under the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights. She even travelled to Washington where she was to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee in 1871.



It was all going rather well until the plans started to fall apart. With Buck’s criminal antics raked up by the press along with tales of her dubious past, ‘The Woodhull’ was soon being demonised as no less than ‘Mrs Satan’. A crippling series of court cases followed which led to her being sued and imprisoned time and time again. And her outspoken thoughts regarding 'free love' went on to cause yet more offence when it was revealed that she'd had an affair with the press man, Theodore Tilton.

Theodore Tilton

It was a complicated liaison. Tilton's wife had been sexually involved with a popular married clergyman whose name was Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher in turn had sworn to support Victoria's political campaign, but when the man had second thoughts Victoria then sought revenge by exposing his adultery, only to find herself immersed in the ‘Trial of the Century’.  

Beecher was to emerge unscathed, but the Tiltons were socially disgraced, and Victoria had been portrayed as a promiscuous pornographer. Her life and ambitions were ruined – politically, personally, and financially.



It was Vanderbilt who brought some salvation. When the old man died his heirs were keen to hush up the millionaire's immoral past. Victoria and Tennessee were given a generous settlement and with this they travelled to England, settling in London - another city of gold and ships in which they then reinvented themselves. Leaving their lovers and scandals behind, along with all dreams of the presidency, they still attained some degree of success. 

Victoria and John Biddulph Martin - happy and 'respectable' at last


Tenessee married a viscount and was afterwards known as Lady Cook. Victoria married John Biddulph Martin, a bachelor merchant banker and a man of considerable personal wealth. When widowed she was heartbroken, withdrawing to the Martin's country estate. But she  didn't  exactly give up on life! She became a passionate motorist, and founded an agricultural college dedicated to training women. She also funded a village school, and a famous country club – at which even Edward, the Prince of Wales, was said to be a visitor.



The VV wonders how Victoria felt when, at the age of eighty, universal suffrage was finally won – when the 'modern' world had all but forgotten the woman who'd caused a national sensation, after which she was known as the wife of the devil, and all but in exile when she died. 

For herself, she left these poignant words: ‘You cannot understand a man’s work by what he has accomplished, but by what he has overcome in accomplishing it.’

In her own way, and by her own means, Victoria Woodhull achieved a great deal. She was one of those brave Victorians who lived in a time when a woman was seen as no more than a man's possession. She paved the way for equality – though who knows if her ultimate hope will come true, when a woman will stand in the White House as the President of America.


For a related post: THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY

The VV has hardly scratched the surface of Victoria Woodhull's amazing life. Should any readers wish to investigate further there is a wealth of information on the web. As far as books are concerned, Other Powers by Barabara Goldsmith is an excellent resource which gives a full and well-researched view of  relevant historical events at the time. Mary Gabriel's Notorious Victoria is another fine investigation. And, for younger historians, Kathleen Krull's A Woman for President is a good starting point which has the added bonus of being brought to vibrant life by Jane Dyer's watercolour illustrations. 


BRAM STOKER AND VARNEY THE VAMPIRE...

The Vampire by  Philip Burne Jones


There are always rumours spread about that the Vampire genre has been done to death. But now and then a new writer emerges to inspire the readers yet again. Stephanie Myers created a frenzy with her series of teenage vampire books, before which Anne Rice's 'Vampire Chronicles' provided far more adult tales. And we all know Stoker's 'Dracula' and - well ... what had preceded that?


Vlad the Impaler

The medieval myth of the vampire or 'upir' originated in eastern Europe having been personified in actual living characters such as Vlad the Impaler, or Countess Elizabeth Bathory - the infamous mass murderer who was said to have bathed in her victims' blood.

By 1484 the 'Malleus Maleficarium', or witch hunter's bible, described how to kill the vampire scourge. After that, as the centuries drew on there were frequent waves of hysteria, with corpses being exhumed from graves to be staked through the heart, with their heads cut off.


The cover of the Penny Dreadful, Varney the Vampire


The myths took root in Western Europe and became an increasingly popular theme in poetry, plays and opera. By 1847 - the year in which Bram Stoker was born - Varney the Vampire emerged, when the fictional exploits of Sir Francis Varney were serialised in Penny Dreadfuls, otherwise known as Penny Bloods; what we would describe as comics now.

The 'Feast of Blood', in which Varney starred proved to be such a great success that its stories continued for over 2 years, with 220 episodes. They only finally came to an end when Sir Francis concluded the torment himself, by travelling to Mount Vesuvius and hurling himself into its flames.

If that has fired your appetite, you can read the Varney stories here.


Sir Francis Varney terrorises a victim


Most Victorian authors would have been well aware of Varney. The VV was recently amused when reading a Philip Pullman novel entitled  'The Ruby in the Smoke', in which a young character called Jim devours all the Penny Dreadfuls that he can get his hands on, after which he confides his own idea for a sensational vampire plot to a gentleman called Bram Stocker.

The real Bram Stoker had already had a long and successful career managing The Lyceum theatre in London. But, in 1897 he became a published novelist when his lurid story, Dracula (originally titled The Undead) was told by the means of journals and letters.




Bram Stoker claimed to have been inspired after visiting St Michan's church in Dublin where the vaults have a peculiar atmosphere that encourages mummification. There, to this very day, the 650 year-old body of a Crusader remains almost entirely intact.

In addition to such vivid imagery, at the time of writing Dracula, Stoker must have been all too aware of his own irreversible state of health. Although the cause of his demise was cited as being 'exhaustion', this term was one of the euphemisms employed when a person died of syphilis: a disease now treated effectively by the use of antibiotics but which, in the Victorian age, often led to a cruel and lingering death.

Perhaps that is why his classic work is so oppressively moving in its unique descriptions of sex and death; with its central obsession being that of a vile corruption of the blood.


\
Bram Stoker (1847-1912)

01/11/2016

GEORGE ALBERT SMITH ~ PIONEER OF EARLY FILM IN BRIGHTON ...



George Albert Smith 
January 4 1864 ~ May 17 1959


Before making his name in the world of film, GA Smith had already been involved in the visual entertainment trade. He performed as a stage hypnotist, a psychic, and a magic lantern lecturer. But his films are what he is remembered for best, particularly the technical expertise that led to him developing successful colourised moving films: a method that he called Kinemacolour.


Following the death of his father, George went to live in Brighton where his mother ran a boarding house. It was there ~ often in the Aquarium ~ that his stage illusionist act began. And perhaps his skill at deceiving the eye was what led Edmund Gurney, Honorary Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, to be entirely convinced that Smith was a genuine spiritualist and to employ him as his secretary. 


In 1892, Smith leased St Anne's Well Gardens in Hove. There, he then went on to develop the park as a popular seaside pleasure resort, gleefully described by the local press as: 'This delightful retreat ... presided over by the genial Mr G. Albert Smith, is now open ... In the hot weather the refreshing foliage of the wooded retreat is simply perfect, while one can enjoy a cup of Pekoe in the shade'.


The gardens were indeed elaborate, with hot air balloons, and parachute displays, a monkey house, a fortune teller, and a hermit living in a cave - not to mention the magic lantern shows which used clever scenery and lights to create dissolving picture shows, all of which were advertised at the time as being:"High Class Lecture Entertainments with Magnificent Lime-Light Scenery and Beautiful Dioramic Effects."


Many skills learned for this craft went on to be used in moving films - the interest that obsessed Smith after seeing the films of Robert Paul, after which he also joined forces with others in the local Brighton film industry; as well as securing a friendship with the French director, Georges Melies. 


By 1889, having acquired his first moving film camera from the Brighton-based engineer Alfred Darling, and with chemicals bought from James Williamson, a Hove chemist and fellow film pioneer, Smith erected a purpose-built glass house in the grounds of St Anne's Gardens, specifically for making films. Films such as The Kiss in the Tunnel, The Sick Kitten, The House that Jack Built, Grandma's Reading Glass, and As Seen Through a Telescope.



The Sick Kitten ~ click here to see this charming film



Many of his short comedy films (usually no more than a minute in length) starred the local comedian Tom Green, as well as Mr Smith himself, and his wife, Laura Bayley ~ with Laura being an actress who'd worked before in stage pantomimes and also in comic revue shows.




G A Smith and Laura Bayley starring together in A Kiss in the Tunnel
Click here to see the film



However, by 1904 Smith was to leave St Ann's Well Gardens and moved to Southwick in Sussex - the house he called Laboratory Lodge, which is where he was to concentrate on developing his colour film. Films that illustrated this are Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs, and A Visit to the Seaside - both created in 1908, resulting in Smith being awarded a Silver Medal by the Royal Society of Arts. 
More colour films were made until Smith and his long time partner/financier, Charles Urban were put out of business following a patent suit filed by William Friese-Green. This effectively ended Smith's career - after which he was sometimes said to be seen out on the Brighton seafront peering through his telescope - by then becoming a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.



A Visit to the Seaside - click here to view the film



However, he was not entirely forgotten in the world of moving film. In the late 1940's, and well before his death, G A Smith was given the honour of being made a fellow of the British Film Academy. And today you can learn more about his work by visiting the Hove Museum where there is a permanent display dedicated to his genius.

27/10/2016

HOLY TRINITY CHURCH IN WINDSOR


The church I describe in my novel The Goddess And The Thief is in fact a real one, situated in the centre of Windsor. 

It was originally founded with a gift of 200 guineas that came from Queen Victoria, after which it was built as a parish church to serve local army garrisons too - although the Ministry of Defence offers the church no funding at all. 


The foundation stone was laid by Prince Albert in 1842, and when entering the church today you will also be greeted by a life-sized marble statue of the prince.


It is said that Albert also designed the very fine painted ceilings - but sadly the structure is now at risk due to a theft that took place on the night of Monday October 25. During this wicked act several sheets of lead were stolen from some of the exterior roofing, during which process the interior has now been placed in danger.


Work to repair the now stripped roofs has been estimated at tens of thousands of pounds, and it seems that this damage was uninsured. The Virtual Victorian is therefore taking the unusual step of linking to a Pay Pal funding page set up by Holy Trinity to try and help to raise these funds, and therefore to save this historic church. 

If you could spare something to help the fund - however small that donation might be - I know that those who care for the church would be incredibly grateful. 

The link to donate is HERE

21/10/2016

THE TERROR OF SPRING HEELED JACK...




'Did you know there are hogs living wild in the sewers, breeding as fast as rats, and rats that grow to the size of dogs, that would tear out your throat and drain your blood if you so much as dared to cross their paths? And tonight I was reading of Spring Heeled Jack – a supernatural being who once caused a spate of hysteria among half the women of London town, tormenting them with his blazing red eyes and his fingers like claws and a mouth that could vomit blue tongues of fire. Imagine being confronted by that! The ugliest of customers! A Murderer. A demon from Hell! Well, that’s what all the headlines said. But never once was that devil caught because of the springs that were fixed to his boots, that gave him the power to fly over walls, after nobbling his victims half out of their wits – and some of them really did go mad, thereafter committed as lunatics.' 

From Elijah's Mermaid by Essie Fox


The VV assures you each word of that extract above is true ... and that she herself near died of fright when accosted last year by Spring Heeled Jack.

It occurred after visiting old friends (a most delightful evening, with apple bobbing and popping nuts, and staring at our reflections in mirrors in the hope of capturing a glimpse of the face of one's future husband - or wife), and when it was time to venture home, rather than hailing a hansom cab, the VV decided to take the air, walking alone through the narrow streets.

Oh, what a foolish decision that was, for with the air so murky and thick, and no moon to give the faintest light, the VV found herself quite lost;  chilled to the very core of her bones when so closely wrapped in that shrouding fog. She could have imagined herself anywhere, even the wilds of Exmoor...and that sudden hot breath upon her cheek that caused every fibre of flesh in her body to prickle and shiver with the dread - why, it might be the Hound of the Baskervilles!



When the VV dared to stop and turn, as the drifts of fog began to part she heaved an enormous sigh of relief, for she saw no rabid beast at her side, only an elegant gentleman attired in a long black evening cloak. But – oh – when he lifted his face and arms, when the cloth of that outer garment was spread, she would swear it was the devil himself come in place of the hell hound Cerberus. Even now she might faint to recall his eyes, two fierce round balls of gleaming fire – and how, when he opened his mouth to laugh a stream of pale blue flames shot out, and so rank and thick with the phosphorous she could hardly gasp a single breath.

And there the terror did not end. His body was clad revealingly, in some sort of tight white oilskin. Upon his head were two black horns. At the end of every finger was a claw of metal, sharp as knives. And then, with the VV about to collapse, with the hands of that demon reaching out and shredding her outer garments to ribbons, when he touched her exposed and trembling flesh, his own felt as clammy and cold as a corpse - at which point she finally found her voice, letting out a piercing scream that, luckily, stunned her assailant a while – just long enough for some residents to hear them and open up their doors. At that point the monster leered once more before jumping at least twenty feet in the air and clearing the railings of a park as if he'd grown two wings to fly - just as if he had springs in the soles of his feet.




You may laugh at such a description now. You may ask if the VV had perhaps been drinking a little too greedily of her friends' delicious Madeira wine. But then, she was not the only soul to witness the terror of Jack that night. 

Attempting to avoid the fiend when he suddenly ran into the road, a coachman almost crashed his cab and later describing the shock he'd had when seeing the fiend's vile features, and the sound of his chilling laughter. In Kensington, Hammersmith ... Ealing too ... several servant girls were traumatised; some wounded and scarred by the touch of his claws, one of them taking to her bed when the horror brought on a delirious fit. Many newspapers carried reports that in Stockwell, Brixton, and Camberwell innocent women had died of fright. The Times - perhaps somewhat tongue in cheek -  posed the question as to whether or not this could be the same ‘Spring Heeled Jack who had found his way to the Sussex coast’  where a gardener in Brighton had described his meeting with the growling fiend before it leapt over a high brick wall – though on closer investigation it transpired it could have been a dog.





Whether Spring Heeled Jack is real or the result of an urban rumour put about by - ahem - unscrupulous types, the tales of his exploits are taking hold on Victorian imaginations. There is quite a mass hysteria. The police are searching everywhere. There are even requests for the Lord Mayor of London to help in ensuring the ghoul's apprehension.

Even so, Jack refuses to fade away. Accounts of his daring exploits are becoming a regular feature in some of the Penny Dreadfuls. Local theatres hold dramatisations, and the character has now appeared in several Punch and Judy shows – with many a naughty boy or girl being warned that the spring-heeled bogeyman might well be sent to peer in through their bedroom windows late at night.

So, remember, as the nights draw in, lock your doors, close your shutters, and draw your drapes. And, if you must walk through gloomy streets beware any gentlemen coming near. Dear ladies, do heed this good advice. Keep your virtue and your wits intact. Avoid the glare of fiery eyes.


18/10/2016

A STORY FOR HALLOWEEN ~ HERNE THE HUNTER IN WINDSOR ...

Herne the Hunter, from a print by George Cruikshank


Once, quite some years ago, when the VV was wondering about in a Windsor High Street art gallery, she turned and suddenly gasped in shock when she saw a life-­sized bronze figurine of a man with the branching antlers of a stag upon his head.

That towering, powerful sculpture represented Herne the Hunter, the spirit of whom – to this very day ‐ is said to haunt Windsor Great Park and forest, and who, from time to time, even appears on the castle’s walls. 

Such a story may well have evolved from pagan tales of horned deities. The very first written record we have is that in William Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor – 

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter‐time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns; 
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch­‐kine yield blood, and shakes a chain 
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know 
The superstitious idle‐headed eld
Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.


Later, in Victorian times, William Ainsworth wrote Windsor Castle, a popular serialised romance in which he also alluded to Herne, creating the fearful figure whose tale is now thought of as legendary – and that myth the VV also used in the plot of her novel, The Goddess and The Thief, in which Herne plays a small but vital part as explained in the following extract –


Herne on the walls of Windsor Castle, from a Giclee print by George Cruikshank


    "...a silhouette could clearly be seen, theatrically lit by the low full moon then shining down through a gap in the clouds...and it wasn’t just the freezing air that came rushing in through the open doors that chilled me to the very bone. Below that luminous disc of moon, the creature’s naked arms were raised, and I could see more clearly then that, although his body was that of a man, from the straggling hair at his forehead there extended a pair of antlers, like those that branched from the stuffed stags’ heads seen mounted in the corridor. One of his hands was holding a chain. Such a clanking rattling it made. The other grasped a hunting bow, and when he opened up his mouth, the terrible screech that issued forth might well be the song of a banshee.
  When it stopped, through the silence, Victoria moaned, ‘Oh dear God! It cannot...it cannot be him.’ 
   ‘No, do not say it, Ma’am.’ Her gentleman swiftly responded, ‘Such tales...they are but legend.’ 
   ‘Well then, you must explain to me how it is that we all see him there. What else could it be but the spirit of Herne? And does Herne not come when the sovereign is threatened... threatened by treachery or death?’
    Mistress and servant stared at each other, locked in what seemed a moment of dread. And meanwhile, more voices rang outside as guardsmen emerged holding fiery torches, running this way and that along battlement walls while attempting to capture the ghoulish intruder. Gunshots were fired as he fled away, though none with hope of finding aim, not with the lash of a rising wind, and the veils of sleet then spiralling, through which the creature vanished as if wrapped in invisible magic.
    A terrible stillness fell in that room, through which I could not prevent myself from suddenly asking, ‘Who is Herne?’ 
  Still staring out through the window, the Queen spoke with little emotion at all, ‘He is a spirit...half man, half stag. The story says that, centuries past, he was once the chief huntsman at the court. One day, while out hunting he saved the king from being attacked by a stag at bay. But in doing so Herne was fatally wounded, and then his own life was saved in turn when a mysterious man appeared. A magician, he was said to be. He stepped from the bowl of a blasted oak and proceeded to cut off the dead stag’s head. That head he then placed on the hunter...after which the magician disappeared, leaving Herne miraculously cured... not so much as a scratch upon his flesh. 
   ‘But that gift of new life proved to be a curse, for Herne was never trusted again, reviled as being touched by black magic. In the end, they say the man went mad, and he died after having hanged himself from the very oak where his saviour appeared. They say that ever since that day his spirit has haunted the castle grounds. Always in the guise of a hunter. Always with the horns of a stag on his head. And, when he comes it is to warn of treason...or else the regent’s death.’ "





In reality, in the 1860’s, when Herne's oak in Windsor Forest (which had always been said to be the one spoken of in the gruesome tale) was uprooted and fell to the ground, Queen Victoria ordered that a new tree be planted to replace it. Wood recovered from the fallen oak was then used to make several small pieces of furniture, among them a cabinet for the Queen, and also this bust of William Shakespeare which is currently in the possession of the Windsor Museum.

Whether Queen Victoria really believed in the spirit of Herne, in recent times others have sworn that they have seen the Hunter's form. There are stories from the 1960's when some farm boys claimed to have found a hunting horn left on the forest floor. When one of them then blew it it made the most horrible blaring sound, after which they heard howling and hoofbeats as if hunters were galloping round them. And again, in 1976, a castle guardsman insisted that he saw a statue of Herne come to life, then walk away between the trees.

So, if you happen to be out and about in Windsor forest this Halloween, make sure to keep an eye open for Herne ... and do listen out for his hunting horn. 

04/09/2016

BEYOND THE TEMPORAL ~ SPIRITS AND FAITH IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND

The following article is taken from the body of a talk given by Essie Fox while at the 2016 Historical Novel Conference in Oxford. (Also speaking on this panel were Karen Maitland, Mary Sharratt, and Antoinette May. )


Dowlais Ironworks by George Childs. 1840


For our panel today I’ll be talking about the Victorian Cult of Death - a cult of misery and grief which, somewhat ironically, took hold in a time of great energy, with advancements in industry and science that created a bridge to our modern world. And yet, so many Victorians were torn between the new ideas thrown up by this revolutionary age, and the more superstitious pagan beliefs carried down from previous centuries.

Added to this was the sensation of Darwin’s theory of evolution which caused a challenge to the firmest faiths - but was also twisted by charlatans who travelled around with freak shows and claimed to show exhibits, such as mermaids brought from Feejee, which were really the mummified remains of a monkey’s upper torso sewn onto the body of a fish. A clever taxidermist’s trick.



Taken in by things like that, many Victorians also believed in ghosts - a belief that was partly influenced by authors such as Dickens, who had gone on a tour of America where he witnessed the traditions of Halloween and was particularly intrigued by morbid stories of the dead - after which he came back home again and wrote A Christmas Carol.




Robbie Burns’ poem ‘Halloween’ had fairies dance on moonlit nights. Why, even Queen Victoria took part in halloween parades when she was at Balmoral. And perhaps on those nights she also read the popular sensation tales, with spirits seen in mirrors, or women who wailed by misty graves, with eerie worlds of make-believe inspired by death, disease and sex, with crumbling castles and dripping crypts ... and perhaps a rotting corpse or two.

Ah, those pale limp corpses! How the Victorian authors loved them  - but then the mortality rate was high, and all too visible to see. While our ill are confined in hospitals, and even with loved ones who die at home being very quickly whisked away to undertakers’ mortuaries, the Victorians had no National Health Service. No inoculations to protect against fatal childhood diseases. No antibiotics to kill off infections considered as trivial today ... not to mention the complications faced by women during childbirth.



Death could strike at any time. Ruthless, swift, invisible, whatever your age or social class. And for those who strayed too far away from the path of moral righteousness there was the risk of syphilis - a scourge so well alluded to in Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula - when he writes of the vampire’s lust for blood, as something sensual and exotic. But also something sinister, corrupting the flesh and bringing death. In the nineteenth century, sexual diseases were rampant, and beneath the surface social veneer many immoral deeds went on, with the consequence of such ‘sins of the flesh’ becoming the time’s great leveller, not discriminating in the least between rich, or poor, or famous. So, illicit sex was linked with death. A nightmare! A real life horror tale - which is surely one reason why the age became obsessed with purity, taking their lead from the Queen, who, along with her husband, Albert, portrayed the ideal marriage.




But when Prince Albert died so young, at the age of only 42 (and not from syphilis, I stress) Victoria turned her misery into something of an art form, with the man she had adored in life then worshipped as a god in death – with the Queen so often heard to say that wished that she could die as well: to join him in Eternity.



While waiting for that eternity, her mortal flesh must still be clothed – and the fetish for mourning now took hold, with the queen remaining dressed in black until she reached her dying day. Mourning was an industry. People visited vast emporiums, which also placed their advertisements in the newspapers and magazines. (The mail order business is nothing new!) People who mourned seemed suspended between the world of the living and dead. They wrote on black-edged stationery, blew their noses on black-stitched handkerchiefs, even sometimes threaded black silk through the lace of their undergarments. They wore black jewellery made of jet - with the best of it from Whitby. (That link to Dracula again!) They tried to keep their loved ones close by wearing lockets with their hair... whereas today we are more content by looking back on photographs.

But, in the Victorian era, photography was very new. Even when studios opened up where personal portraits could be made, this was something of a luxury; an expense beyond most poorer folk– which is why some people at this time only had their pictures taken once ... and often after they had died, when the body would be washed and dressed, then posed as if still living, sometimes alone, and sometimes in the midst of the rest of the family; thus creating a personal memory to treasure in years to come.



In one of the least disturbing of the Post Mortem images I’ve seen, two children are standing at the side of the bed in which their sister lies where, due to the long exposure time, the living children look like ghosts - blurred, because they moved, whereas the little girl who died is very clear for us to see. But then, of course, she was quite still.


Such accidental blurring soon became a deliberate method used by photographer charlatans who claimed to take pictures of ghosts which hovered close while loved ones posed. I’m actually writing about this now in a novel about Edwardian film – with moving pictures being yet another Victorian ‘miracle’ ... when stage magicians often turned to the trade of directing feature films, using smoke and mirror tricks as the forerunners of those special effects we often take for granted now.

It was double exposure, nothing more. Still, it is astonishing to think how people were convinced. But then, we see what we want to see. We believe the things we want to believe - particularly in times of grief.


The Queen’s yearning for her husband meant that she simply couldn’t let him rest, often hiring spirit mediums who claimed to summon up the dead. But was she, along with so many more, really duped into believing that the souls of the dead could rise again - come home and have a chat with them? Well, with grand scientific discoveries, such as the harnessing of electricity, with X Rays to see beneath the flesh, or voices heard through the ether as they travelled along a telegraph wire – why should it not be possible to discover another invisible force, and to tap into the energies of those spirit souls beyond the veil?


I’ve covered some aspects of this cult in my Victorian novels. In The Goddess and the Thief we actually see Victoria meeting with some mediums. Indeed, while he was alive, she and Albert conducted séances. Gladstone, her Prime Minister had been a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research. And another acquaintance of the Queen who firmly believed in the spirit world was a certain Mr Brown; the gamekeeper turned confidente, who claimed to have a psychic gift through which to channel Albert’s soul. If only Victoria’s diaries had not been edited when she died ... since when she shares eternity, not only with Prince Albert's corpse, but with some keepsakes from John Brown. For, after being laid to rest her personal physician testified that the royal tomb at Frogmore contained not just the royal pair, but also a lock of John Brown's hair, a photograph, some letters, and a ring that had once belonged to his mother.

The Queen – like so many of her time - went to her grave a Christian. But she was also influenced by the eastern myths and religions encountered through the Empire’s reach - which also inspired stories such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which was based on the cursed Koh-i-noor, a sacred diamond that was said to have some supernatural powers.

I’ve also woven this into the story of The Goddess and the Thief  which features Alice Willoughby, who was born and raised in India, until at the age of eight she is sent away to England. There she lives with her Aunt Mercy, a fraudulent spirit medium, who forces the young and defenceless child to take part in séances she holds - as described here in this extract, which illustrates some of the tricks that fakes like Mercy might have played ...


I walked the path of Mercy’s ghost. I acted in her Mysteries. I became an apprentice in the trade for which she placed advertisements: discreet invitations in magazines for “Tea and Table Moving” ... for which she had me eavesdrop on those ‘guests’ who waited in hall. Nearly always women, nearly always old, exchanging confidential woes, and thus revealing vital clues. And later, when they had been called to sit beside the parlour fire, when the front door bell would chance to ring, requiring Mercy be called out on a matter of some urgency – that subterfuge was all it took for me to show my aunt the page on which I’d scribbled down the facts that I had learned while hiding: those names and sorrowful events that might then drip from Mercy’s lips.

When guests returned as regulars, when no more secrets need be learned, I wore the garments of the ghost, the hushing silks, the sheer black veils, the darkness of which obscured the face on which my aunt brushed silver paste, with ashes smudged around my eyes, to make me look half skull, half corpse. At other times a mask transformed my face into an infant child, whose tiny rosebud mouth would cry, ‘Mama - dear Mama. I am here!’

In daylight, it was pitiful to see those crude deceptions. I felt ashamed to play a part, to cause yet more unhappiness. But in the parlour’s darkness, the power of those wicked acts! Truly it was astonishing when, at Mercy’s given signal – a pre- arranged word, a certain look – her spirit guide materialised from behind ‘The Filmy Veil of Death’, which was generally the Chinese screen or the drapes in the dimmest corner ... from where I would float across the room, leaving a trail of apports behind – the blooms that might be Spirit-sent: as were the kisses that I gave. The touch of lips on tear-damp cheeks. The diversion of which allowed my aunt the chance to fling some sprays of dust from her pocket down into the hearth – where those chemicals would cause the flames to crackle purple, orange, red - exuding such a dense grey pall while I opened the door and left the room, during which my aunt would stand and chant:

Through the mists that hide the Light of God,
I see a shapeless form of Death.
Death comes and beckons me today to glimpse the sacred Summerland. 
And with commingled joy and dread, I hear the far-off whispers . . .




Were all those far off whispers real? Will we meet again in the summerlands? The only thing I know for sure is, oh, so very well expressed in the Latin ‘Memento Mori’ - which is: Remember You Must Die.