Thursday, 15 April 2021

The Rossetti Brothers' Seances


In the early 1860s  - a decade I have inhabited for some years now - much of British society was taken up and taken in by a craze for self-styled Spiritualist seances.   More or less serious endeavours o receive communications from dead relatives and celebrities, seances involved a darkened room, a moveable table and a group of which one member was identified as the 'medium', to whom messages were put.  Responses chiefly in the form of 'yes' and 'no' were typically received through raps or tilts heard and seen by all, from 'spirits'  who were initially identified through questions.

As a fashionable parlour game, this was harmless; for many it was proof [of a kind] of the existence of an afterlife as then promised by some varieties of Christianity that promoted 'reunion in heaven', now that traditional belief in heaven was severely compromised by geological and Darwinian thinking that quite destroyed the creationist view of the universe.  Seances as such were distinct from the wide Spiritualist movement, which claimed to apprehend an invisible realm beyond the terrestrial.  Messages from 'beyond' were eagerly sought by the bereaved.  It was wholly fanciful, though not wholly fraudulent - mediums could be as baffled as anyone about the nature of the apparent communications.

William Michael Rossetti, the level-headed, rational, atheist brother, was most involved in the seances.  Dante Gabriel was already intellectually sympathetic to occult and superstitious notions, but less persuaded by the mediums, professional or amateur, and indeed rather irreverent towards the spirits.  Possibly he felt real ghosts could do better than table-tilting and knocking.

William's records of the seances in various houses round London in 1866-67 read like the minutes of inconsequential meetings with motley participants.   Long known of from WMR's personal archive preserved by his daughter and descendants until given to Dick Fredeman and sold by him to the university of British Columbia, the full transcript of the Seance Diaries has now been edited by Barrie Bullen, for publication by Peter Lang.

The majority of the communications came from a spirit identifying as Elizabeth Siddal, who had died in 1862.  Sadly for posterity, she failed to reveal anything substantive about her afterlife, or even her previous life, and no details on whether her death was suicidal or accidental.  The Rossettis on one occasion communicated with their late father, but gave up [in some disgust?] when his spirit proved unable to understand or speak Italian - in life professor Rossetti seldom used English.

Also included with the Diaries is a completely crazy epistle from fellow artist Anna Mary Howitt to Gabriel Rossetti in 1856, which over 8000 rambling words offers a garbled version of Georgina Houghton's later exegeses of the Spirit's rhetoric, and illustrates the gravity of Howitt's psychic breakdown - surely not caused by but certainly coinciding with Ruskin's critical censure of her painting of the rebellious Boadicea. 

It remains the greatest regret that this canvas was destroyed, and that Howitt's earlier works, The Castaway and Gretchen at the Fountain, which apparently both sold, do not survive either.  And a pity that no spirits from beyond the grave offer to describe them to us.

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