Hybrid faiths, occult religions, and esoteric beliefs: a review of Spirit Matters and The Occult Imagination in Britain

I was lucky enough to review two texts on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century spirituality for the British Association of Victorian Studies’ newsletter. They explore how Mesmerism, Spiritualism, occultism, and non-Christian religions such as Buddhism provided means for people from this era to reconcile old faith with the theological and philosophical challenges of modernity. I can really recommend both – take a look at my review here:

It is well established that the period between Victoria’s ascension to the throne and the final years of the Second World War was shaped by a fracturing of faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, the resulting widespread interest in occult beliefs and alternative religions is perhaps less known.

From alchemy, magic, Mesmerism, and Spiritualism to faith-reconciled scientific rationalism, new methods of maintaining or interpreting faith and national identity began to manifest within written and visual culture.

The first text reviewed here, Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain (2018), presents a series of case studies and moves semi-chronologically throughout the era under consideration to produce a ‘historical survey of how alternative religious thought developed in the course of the Victorian period’ (p. xii). J. Jeffrey Franklin suggests that the onset of modernity, the rising authority of science, and the West’s full exposure to non-Christian religion resulted in changed attitudes towards faith in Victorian Britain, which in turn led to the rise of heterodox and unorthodox religions and spirituality. Franklin suggests that ‘immense pressure came to bear upon traditional religious belief in nineteenth- century Great Britain [and] the struggle to retain faith generated evolutionary adaptation of it into an array of alternative religious positions’ (p. xvii). This, he states, resulted in the incorporation of aspects of Judeo-Christian religion into belief systems such as Spiritualism, occultism, and Buddhism, the ‘alternative’ religion that most impacted Victorian Britain. Further to this, scientific naturalism, for some, could also be reconciled with faith.

The works that Franklin examines, which largely fall under the categories of theological writing, Gothic romance novels, and travel writing, ‘tell a story about the origins of modern alternative religion and how they provided the necessary elements for the emergence in the twentieth century of New Age spiritualities’ (p. xii). From Anna Leonowen’s The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and William Knighton’s Forest Life in Ceylon (1854), to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the texts Franklin chooses to analyse ‘bear the influences of the major spiritual movements of the first half of the century’, namely Mesmerism and Spiritualism, after Swedenborgianism (p. xiii). Other influences were ‘the key historical events that influenced religion in Great Britain after midcentury’, specifically the rise of the British Empire and imperialism, the formation of comparative religious studies, the Darwinian revolution, and Broad Church Anglicanism within the Church of England (p. xiii). In addition, ‘the formation of new syncretic or “hybrid religions” near the end of the century’ impacted on the creation and reception of these texts (p. xiii).

Franklin’s opening chapter, ‘Orthodox Christianity, Scientific Materialism, Religions’, establishes a clear overview of the modes of spirituality in Victorian Britain, which he argues should be considered as a ‘collectively experienced cultural phenomenon striving to reclaim a spiritual certainty’, and not as disparate events and discourses as they have been considered in previous scholarship (p. 2). Building on recent work by Herbert Schlossbert, Sarah Canfield Fuller, and Benjamin Joseph Morgan, Franklin suggests that mainstream Christianity and materialistic sciences form a ‘triangular positioning’, with ‘Spirit’ being the term that he employs to signify the esoteric beliefs and practices of the era (p. 3). Spirit Matters presents a critical exploration of these various alternative spiritual discourses throughout its three main sections: ‘Challenges to Christianity and the Orthodox/Heterodox Boundary’, ‘The Interpenetration of Christianity and Buddhism’, and ‘The Turn to Occultism’.

Franklin’s exploration of the ‘cultural contest between spirit and matter’ culminates in a discussion of the spiritual crisis of the fin de siècle and the solution offered by ‘the founders of late-century hybrid religions’ (p. 142). His discussion of these occultisms – specifically Ancient Egyptian religion and orientalist characterisation – is echoed in The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947 (2018). This interdisciplinary collection explores the imagination as a significant force in practices and representations of the occult during this period. The historical parameters of this text traverse the era between the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875, which is also the birth year of the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley who died in 1947. In her introduction Christine Ferguson suggests that during this period, a time which is often associated with  secularization and science, Britain ‘experienced an unparalleled efflorescence of engagement with unusual occult schema and supernatural phenomena such as astral travel, ritual magic, and reincarnationism’ (p. iii). This occult revival concerned not only the spread of Theosophy but also the ‘rise of a great multitude of occult-inflected artistic movements […] including the romance revival, symbolism, the Celtic revival, surrealism,
and the neo-paganism inspired by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890)’ (p. 2). Such occultist practices were informed by discourses of ‘the imagination’, which was at once a ‘liability for the occult’ due to the era’s increasing emphasis on scientific scrutiny, as well as a ‘metaphysical advantage’ for practitioners (p. 4). The imagination could also function as ‘an arena of artistic production’, and Occult Imagination reflects the multitude of responses to the concept by authors, actors, and entertainers during this period (p. 5).

The first cluster of essays in Occult Imagination, ‘British Occulture Beyond the Metropole’, attempts to expand occult studies of this era beyond the usual focus on London, while the second, ‘Occulting the public sphere’, considers ‘how, and to what effect, esoteric beliefs, practices and figures entered the fragmented space of the public sphere’ (p. 10). ‘Women’s occulture’, the third section, presents case studies of Florence Farr, Pamela Colman Smith, and Dion Fortune, while the final section, ‘Art, fiction, and occult intermediation’, explores the impact of the occult on British fantasy and science fiction, and on Christian and Orientalist art. The wide-ranging nature of Occult Imagination, linking disparate events and creative works through common themes of spirituality and national identity, makes it a fascinating text.

Both books make extensive reference to other works on the occult. In her introduction, Ferguson contextualises the works in Occult Imagination by drawing on the recent writings of several scholars. Here, Ferguson establishes that Occult Imagination intends to build on Egil Asprem’s recent call (2017) for scholars to move beyond merely stating the importance of the imagination in esoteric thought, and towards ‘the production of more focused, granular and precise accounts of its function and effects at specific historical moments’ by focusing on the decades of the occult revival (p. 1, italics in original). As well as referencing earlier works from the last century of esoteric studies, she also acknowledges the contributions of scholars such as John Bramble, author of Modernism and the Occult (2015), as well as Christopher Partridge, who introduced the term occulture in his 2013 essay “Occulture Is Ordinary” – a concept which Ferguson states ‘allows us to better gauge the mobility of occult thought’ (p. 7). The work of Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (2009) is included to provide important historical context for occultism in the nineteenth century, while Franklin’s 2012 contribution to The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult is also referenced. Spirit Matters is similarly representative of recent work on the occult; amongst other examples, Franklin makes reference to David Gange’s 2013 work on Egyptology in British culture and religion, and the image of the vampire as representative of Christianity and corporate-state capitalism as discussed in Gordon Bigelow’s paper “Dracula and Economic History” (2008). Franklin also makes very good use of primary sources by the Victorian writers under consideration and employs an extensive application of older secondary sources relevant to the discussion of religion and the occult.  Read together, Spirit Matters and Occult Imagination chart the cultural responses to fragmenting ideas of national identity as informed by spirituality. Read in this order, they illustrate the myriad interpretations
and methods of reconciling old faith with the impact of modernity present in British society throughout the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century. These two texts are worthy contributions to this field of study.

The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947, edited by Christine Ferguson and Andrew Radford (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), £96 (hardback) 278pp., ISBN 978-1-4724-8698-1, and Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain, by J. Jeffrey Franklin (Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press, 2018), $49.95 (hardback) 264pp., ISBN 978-1-5017-1544-0.

[This story was first published in the British Association for Victorian Studies newsletter for July, 2019. on The British Society for Literature and Science website. It can be read here: bavs.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/BAVSNewsletter_19.1.pdf.]



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