Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance
By Georgiana Houghton
From the publisher’s website: Spanning the years 1870–1881, Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance documents the everyday, yet astonishing, experiences of spirit activity within the domestic space of the Victorian parlour. Through the intimacy of her diary-like prose, Houghton conjures cosy images of spirits laying the table for tea in what she called the “interblending of the heavenly and the mundane”. She is equally comfortable communicating with her beloved pet dove as she is with the archangel Gabriel, living an unassuming yet spiritually rich life, filled with people of this world and the next. Houghton narrates her experiences of séances and trance mediumship with close friends, discusses her own automatic spirit drawings, and offers an autobiographical glimpse into her day-to-day business.
This critical edition, edited by Sara Williams, includes:
Introduction; author biography; select bibliography; explanatory footnotes; appendices on ‘Houghton in the Spiritualist press’, ‘Automatic spirit drawings’ and ‘Houghton’s spirit photography’
Sara Williams is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of English, University of Hull, where she completed her PhD ‘The Maternal Gaze in the Gothic’. Her research focuses on Victorian spirit photography and memorial portraiture, epistemologies of hysteria, Christian mysticism and Mariology and the everyday Gothic. She has published on the novel and film versions of The Exorcist and the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft, and her next project considers motifs of cannibalism in Catholic female hagiography.
Further details can be found at www.victoriansecrets.co.uk. The book is available in both paperback and Kindle editions.
Evenings at Home. Victorian Secrets, April 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1906469269
Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles
Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) is best known for her book with the snappy title Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. Interblended with Personal Narrative (E. W. Allen, 1882), and the plates from it, featuring sitters with sprit extras, have been frequently reproduced. The year before, Trübner had published a more general book by Houghton on her involvement in the Spiritualist movement, Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance, and E. W. Allen reissued it alongside Chronicles. Evening at Homes has now been republished by Victorian Secrets, and they have added some of the context necessary to understand how, despite Houghton’s rather sad and straightened circumstances, she could remain positive about her own life and the life to come. The volume has been edited by Sara Williams, who is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of English, University of Hull. She has provided an introduction, a chronology, basic bibliography, and a useful selection of articles by and about Houghton and her work from the contemporary press (including a review by H. P. Blavatsky of Chronicles that appeared in The Theosophist), as well as annotating the text.
Houghton was a spinster who lived in genteel poverty, with her mother until the latter’s death in 1869. That was a terrible year which also saw the deaths of Georgiana’s brother George and of her nephew Charlie, the son of her beloved sister Zillah who had died in 1851. What stands out in the chronology is the extent to which death touched her: of the ten Houghton siblings, seven predeceased Georgiana, and her interest in Spiritualism was sparked in 1859 by the possibility of mediumistic communication with Zillah. Her Spiritualism was always consonant with her strong Christian beliefs, and Biblical references are scattered throughout Evenings at Home. As Houghton, quoting herself in conversation, says, “…we both look to the Bible as the original evidence of Spiritualism and as still to be our landmark.” Mediumistic and scriptural communications were for her mutually reinforcing.
Evenings at Home is a record of Houghton’s activities covering the years 1870–1881. It is a valuable source for understanding the Spiritualist movement during this period, though Houghton’s complete absence of critical insight into her experiences as a sitter in the séance room means that her accounts need to be treated with extreme caution. Spiritualism was a gregarious pursuit, and Houghton clearly enjoyed the status she had obtained within the movement. As well as the social aspect of séances, which included stopping for supper and a chat, she was ‘at home’ one afternoon each week, when she would receive like-minded visitors with whom she could discuss her brand of theology. She describes séances with friends such as Mrs Guppy of “aerial transit” fame, and by employing an autobiographical approach she was able to demonstrate how strongly her ardent Spiritualist beliefs provided a framework for her life. She felt that “the heavenly” was for all of the week, not just Sundays.
Her two books complement each other, because while Evenings at Home refers to spirit photography (and in particular her close association from 1872 with spirit photographer Frederick Hudson, the focus of Chronicles), it emphasises her earlier water colours painted under spiritual influence. Their production was automatic, and Houghton disclaimed any conscious involvement in the content, which shifted from stylised fruits and flowers to pure abstraction, “sacred symbolism” as she calls it. A lengthy section of the book is devoted to the exhibition of 155 of her paintings which she organised in 1871, at considerable financial cost. The exhibition, entitled Spirit Drawings in Water Colours, went on for four months at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street in London. It was a mammoth undertaking, not only arranging the venue and catalogue, but framing the pictures for display, and removing them afterwards, a task she insisted on doing personally. She attended the gallery daily in order to discuss the pictures’ meanings and her method of production, to promote the doctrines of Spiritualism, and probably to have more company than would normally be the case in her domestic solitude. She describes some of these visitors, including the foolhardy Darwinist who attempted to convert her to evolution but whose “specious arguments … bothered me not for one moment.” Sadly, while many of her paintings were for sale, she only sold one, and her friends had to have a whip-round to help her out (her precarious financial position is a recurring theme of the book).
The drawings would now be characterised as outsider art, or even abstract expressionism before its time, and the marked contrast of their style to prevailing notions of realism in Western art perhaps accounts for their lack of success during her lifetime. Yet as Rachel Oberter notes in her 2005 article on Houghton (‘Esoteric Art Confronting the Public Eye: the Abstract Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton’ in the journal Victorian Studies, which reproduces some of the pictures, though unfortunately in black and white), Houghton’s watercolours in a sense were representational; she gave them specific titles, and for her the apparent randomness of line and colour represented a higher reality, interpreted through automatic writing by the spirit guides which had communicated the pictures to her.
Sara Williams quotes the ever-optimistic Houghton as she muses in Evenings at Home on the future:
“There have been three great epochs in my annals, divided into decades. In 1861, came the drawing mediumship, to open into all the rest.—In 1871, the exhibition of those ten years of work.—And now, in 1881, this most comprehensive labour of all! [i.e. Evenings at Home] — I cannot but speculate — what will the next decade evolve? what shall I do in 1891 ?”
Sadly this tireless worker for Spirit did not live to see 1891, but she has left, in the drawings, the photographs and the books, a window into the world as she saw it. Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance is a valuable document for anyone interested in the Spiritualist movement of the period, and, and it is good to see it back in print with the addition of supplementary material. Renewed interest created by Victorian Secrets’ initiative may even translate into further research into Houghton’s watercolours, and there is certainly scope for a full-colour book collecting together her surviving artworks and the automatic writing which accompanies them.