‘Addicted to the Supernatural’: Spiritualism and Self-Satire in Le Fanu’s All in the Dark

The cover to Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu
The cover to Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu

In the spring of 1848, the Fox family of Hydesville, a desolate New York hamlet, was nightly plagued by disembodied knocking. Events escalated on the evening of March 31, when John and Margaret Fox heard loud noises emanating from the room above in which their children, Katherine and Margaretta, were sleeping. This time the mysterious sounds appeared to indicate intelligence, apparently interacting with Katherine. When the child snapped her fingers or clapped her hands the entity, which she called ‘Mr. Splitfoot,’ would rap back in reply. Mrs. Fox bravely attempted to make contact, while her husband went for help. That night, a group of frightened neighbours watched Mrs. Fox communicate with the ‘spirit’ in the upstairs room, which knocked with such violence that one eyewitness, William Duesler, recorded that he ‘felt the bedstead jar when the sound was produced’ (qtd. in Capron and Barron 15). As the presence could only affirm, deny and enumerate, Mrs. Fox asked a series of speculative questions to determine its identity and intent. This séance revealed that the ghost was benign, and that of a murdered peddler (1).

In the heavily evangelized ‘burned-over district’ of Upstate New York, news travelled fast. Older brother David Fox soon devised a laborious alphabetical method of communicating with spirits (the forerunner of Elijah Bond’s ‘Ouija Board’), while older sister Mrs. Leah Fish began to market the family’s clairvoyance. This notoriety was greatly enhanced by the recent publication of Andrew Jackson Davis’ The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and A Voice to Mankind, in which the ‘Poughkeepsie Seer’ prophesized that ‘the truth that spirits commune … will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration’ (Davis v. I 675 – 676).  The Fox sisters demonstrated and, initially supported by radical New York Quakers, their ‘Spiritualism’ quickly became a national sensation. Frank Podmore, of the Society for Psychical Research, estimated that there were over a hundred practicing mediums in New York alone by 1850 (Podmore v. I 183), while Augustus de Morgan likened the spread of mediums to smallpox (qtd. in Brandon 43).

Like many British intellectuals, de Morgan was converted by the Boston medium Mrs. Maria B. Hayden, who performed séances in London in 1853 at a guinea-a-head. Mrs. Hayden brought the new and widely reported ‘faith’ to the United Kingdom, and she was soon followed by even more flamboyant mediums, most notably Daniel Dunglas Home. Despite sceptical voices, including Dickens (who denounced Hayden in Household Words), the fundamentally optimistic, pseudo-religious theatricality of Spiritualism found easy purchase in the Victorian psyche. But as tables tapped and tilted across fashionable Europe, one particular expert in the supernatural had had quite enough.

In the words of M.R. James, the Victorian gothic writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu ‘stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories’ (James vii). Dickens was an avid reader, and he also sought the Irish author’s advice on ‘spectral illusions’ (Gates 109). The symbolic and allegorical application of Swedenborgianism in much of Le Fanu’s writing indicated a sophisticated approach to the concept of life after death in reality and literature that Dickens greatly respected. Le Fanu’s supernaturalism was complex, a combination and deconstruction of the discourses of his core Huguenot values, radical Romantic philosophy, Enlightenment science, and the literary gothic tradition. It is therefore hardly surprising that the master of the supernatural should find the contemporary craze for Spiritualism trivial, if not downright annoying. Following Browning’s lead in ‘Mr. Sludge, “The Medium”’ (1864), Le Fanu set out to address the effects of ‘that foolish spiritrapping’ in his 1866 serial All in the Dark (Le Fanu 18) (2).

All in the Dark was serialized in the Dublin University Magazine from February to June 1866, sitting between Guy Deverell (1865) and The Tenants of Malory (1867). It was published by Richard Bentley in two volumes – rather than the more usual ‘three-decker’ format – and was not a commercial success, leading the author to confess to George Bentley that ‘I am half sorry I wrote “All in the Dark” with my own name to it’ (qtd. in McCormack 233). In an apparent stylistic digression, All in the Dark is an easy going Victorian romance. There is no intrigue, no torture, no suicides, libertines, mad governesses, mysterious rooms, and definitely no foul play. Instead, a young bourgeois Everyman must conquer financial insecurity and the English class system to win the hand of a lady.

There are, however, ghosts.

Le Fanu critics generally disregard All in the Dark. Nelson Browne dismisses it as ‘the history of a village wooing,’ adding that it ‘provides little to attract the general reader’ (Browne 56 – 57). Le Fanu’s biographer W.J. McCormack similarly describes it as ‘a colourless tale of village wooings,’ and finds it ‘universally disappointing’ (McCormack 232), while Norman Donaldson takes a hacking swing, asserting that ‘The consensus declares it to be the poorest of Le Fanu’s novels’ (Donaldson x).

This common, indifferent critique could, however, indicate a contextual misinterpretation. If anything, All in the Dark initially suffered from a branding problem, representing, as it did, a radical change of style on the part of the author of Uncle Silas, and one with which his public were not in tune. ‘I am now quite convinced it is a great disadvantage to give the public something quite different from what your antecedents had led them to expect from you,’ Le Fanu told Bentley, adding ‘although it may be better’ (qtd. in McCormack 233). The popular historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth had similarly suffered at the hands of his own author function a few years previously with his semi-autobiographical serial The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe (1852). A contemporary setting combined with a satiric deconstruction of his more familiar gothic style found no favour with his fans, and Ainsworth was forced to abandon his new style in favour of the formulaic romances that fed his family (Carver 346 – 347). Only Nicholas Rance seems to get the point regarding All in the Dark, placing the quirky novel within a ‘contemporary extra-literary debate’ concerning ghosts and the latest religious import from America. All in the Dark, argues Rance, is a ‘squib on spiritualism’ (Rance 60 – 61).

All in the Dark is no mere squib however. It is much more complex than the critical heritage allows. It is, indeed, a satire, and it enables Le Fanu to express his opinions on a credulous bourgeoisie ‘addicted to the supernatural’ (Le Fanu 37). In addition, the text also, rather more slyly, interrogates its author’s own work and the genre which it defines. All in the Dark is a Northanger Abbey for the Victorian gothic, but it is a parody that did not, apparently, suit the times, when ghost stories were voraciously consumed, and hauntings were reported in the press like any other news story. On closer reading, however, All in the Dark is at once both a gothic comedy and a serious cultural critique.

All in the Dark is abstractly narrated in the first person by an unidentified cousin of the protagonist, the orphan William Maubray. Maubray is at Cambridge, and is supported by his aunt, Miss Dinah Perfect of Gilroyd Hall, Saxton. Saxton is a real village in North Yorkshire, although the affected naming of the ‘Hall,’ in fact ‘an old red-brick house of moderate dimensions’ (Le Fanu 1), suggests either a Victorian bourgeois modernisation of the more traditional gothic space, or a downright pastiche. The Perfects are a once great but now waning bloodline, usurped by the Trevors of Revington who are, in turn, not as landed as they once were either. In a motif common to Le Fanu, both families can be read as symbols of the dying caste of the Protestant Anglo-Irish, while the setting resembles Southern Ireland over Northern England.

Maubray is in love with the rather frosty Violet Darkwell, Dinah’s other ward, but as a penniless student he cannot propose marriage. Violet, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of the wealthy Vane Trevor, and Dinah is hopeful of a union.  The novel’s principle proairetics therefore concern Maubray’s attempts to undermine Trevor, gain an independent income, and win Violet. This is the ‘village wooing,’ and is a pretty standard ‘rags to riches’ romance. Maubray eventually gets the girl, inherits Gilroyd, and gains a title. But the text is doubled. There is a parallel narrative inverting and subverting the realist.

Setting the scene for a contemporary gothic burlesque, the narrator describes the story as a ‘romance of the shrubbery’ in gentle suburban mockery of Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest (1791) (Le Fanu 44). He also cites The Monk by Mathew Lewis (1796), comically comparing the cadaverous Dinah to the ‘apparition of the Bleeding Nun’ (Le Fanu 27). In an Austenesque move, intertext combines with subtext in the relationship between Maubray and his aunt and her relationship with ‘those wonderful queer books from America’ (Le Fanu 37):

It was about this period, as we all remember, that hats began to turn and heads with them, and tables approved themselves the most intelligent of quadrupeds; chests of drawers and other grave pieces of furniture babbled of family secrets, and houses resounded with those creaks and cracks with which Bacon, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron communicated their several inspirations in detestable grammar, to all who pleased to consult them.

Aunt Dinah was charmed. Her rapid genius loved a short-cut, and here was, by something better than a post office, a direct gossiping intimacy opened between her and the people on t’other side of the Styx. She ran into this as into her other whimsies might and main, with all her heart and soul. She spent money very wildly, for her, upon the gospels of the new religion, with which the transatlantic press was teeming (Le Fanu 5 – 6).

Aunt Dinah has become a Spiritualist, and while Maubray privately considers this to be ‘All bosh and nonsense’ (Le Fanu 19) he is, however, a consumer of gothic narrative (no doubt including the work of Le Fanu):

The student, as I have said, had a sort of liking for the supernatural, and although now and then he had experienced a qualm in his solitary college chamber at dead of night, when, as he read a well-authenticated horror, the old press creaked suddenly, or the door of the inner-room swung slowly open of itself, it yet was ‘a pleasing terror’ that thrilled him (Le Fanu 40) (3).

This sensibility drives the ambivalently supernatural dimension of the plot, while also foregrounding the narratological receptivity of Victorian culture for the occult through their familiarity with the discourse of the literary gothic.

Dinah’s head, we are told, is ‘full of the fancies and terrors of a certain American tome,’ that is identified as the eight-volume Revelations of Elihu Bung, the Pennsylvanian Prophet (Le Fanu 5). This would appear to be a lampoon of Andrew Jackson Davis, while also an amalgam of American Spiritualist literature in general. If Le Fanu had a particular target in mind for ‘Elihu Bung’ it was probably Daniel Dunglas Home (1833 – 1886). Home was a Scottish émigré settled in Connecticut who went on to become, in the words of historian Ruth Brandon, ‘probably the most famous name in Spiritualism’ (Brandon 52). Home had followed Maria Hayden to England in 1855, and conducted hundreds of séances, attracting the endorsement of some very public figures, including Robert Owen, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, James John Garth Wilkinson (who edited Swedenborg), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Home was a natural showman, and was reported to levitate as well as communicate with spirits. He never charged his clients a fee – instead he accepted their ‘hospitality.’ Robert Browning detested Home, and based ‘Mr Sludge’ upon him, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described him as ‘a very great man’ (qtd. in Stashower 92).

Unlike Browning, Le Fanu is not so much interested in mediums as their influence on amateurs and dedicated followers of fashion. Dinah is doing it herself, in common with many Victorians who were following the advice of publications like the weekly magazine The Spiritualist, which suggested that:

Inquirers into Spiritualism should begin by forming spirit circles in their own homes, with no Spiritualist or professional medium present.  Should no results be obtained on the first occasion, try again with other sitters.  One or more persons possessing medial powers without knowing it are to be found in nearly every household (qtd. in Brandon 43).

In an insightful critique of the ‘effects theory’ of popular culture, Dinah’s irritating but essentially harmless beliefs become destructive when she believes her spirit guide, ‘Henbane,’ to have prognosticated her doom.

In popular history and, indeed, contemporary Spiritualism, ‘spirit guides’ are often associated with Blavatsky and Olcott’s Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875, but they have in fact been around much longer. ‘Henbane’ – literally a ruinous and/or poisonous chicken – indicates Le Fanu’s awareness that mediums claimed to pierce the veil via an intermediary, a ‘control’ or ‘spirit’ guide, a benevolent and sociable spirit who would facilitate introductions, locate, and steer dead relatives to séances. The fashion was for Native American guides, and this probably originated from the Shaker sects, many of whom believed that ‘Indian’ spirits visited them. The Shakers eagerly embraced Spiritualism while, ironically, their established belief in clairvoyance may well have influenced the Fox family.  It could also be conjectured that Fenimore Cooper may well have had some influence, Last of the Mohicans (1826) being one of the most widely read American novels of the nineteenth century (4).

Dinah’s absolute certainty that ‘“By half-past twelve o’clock to-morrow night I shall be dead!”’ leads her friend and physician Dr. Drake to diagnose ‘hysteria’ (Le Fanu 14, 24). While the narrator equally treats Dinah as basically delusional, he does note the psychology of fear and its very real effects on behaviour. ‘There seemed something real and grisly in Aunt Dinah’s terror,’ which ‘a little infected’ everyone at Gilroyd (Le Fanu 24). This is a serious point, although handled with humour, while still teasing the reader with supernatural semiotics. Gothic becomes slapstick when Dinah and Drake blunder into each other in the darkened drawing room, each taking the other to be the spirit guide: ‘Tall and thin, and quite unrecognisable by him, was the white figure at the door, with a taper elevated above its head, and which whispered with a horrid distinctness the word “Henbane!”’ (Le Fanu 29).

This scene is a subversion of Le Fanu’s familiar gothic application of chiaroscuro (a Renaissance term for light modelling in painting), as a textual metaphor and narratological device that, as Victor Sage describes, ‘dominates the twilight world in which his characters live’ (Sage 118). The effect is multi-layered. There is suspense, and the familiar competing frames of explanation that characterize a gothic narrative. In Sage’s terms, this is also a ‘transgressive’ moment,’ an ‘epiphany of darkness’ when ‘an older universe of “superstition” and barbarity rushes momentarily into the vacuum left by civilized, “modern,” reasonable doubt’ (Sage 4). Le Fanu’s gothic is replete with such moments, only here it is mise-en-scènically closer to Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus (1928) than the ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’ (1839).

We are constantly wrong-footed by Le Fanu. The arrival of Dr. Drake and his weird sister immediately suggests a creepy charlatan and his accomplice – in the manner of ‘Mr Sludge’ – or, at the very least, fellow readers of The Spiritualist. Le Fanu toys with us until the first séance, where Dr. Drake appears to be working the room in a form familiar to Victorian sceptics, as well as viewers of Most Haunted:

All being prepared, fingers extended, company intent, Aunt Dinah propounded the first question –

“Is there any spirit present?”

There was a long wait and no rejoinder.

“Didn’t you hear something?” inquired the doctor. William shook his head.

“I thought I felt it,” persisted the doctor. “What do you say, Ma’am?” addressing himself to Winnie, who looked, after her wont, towards her mistress for help.

“Did you feel anything?” demanded Miss Perfect, sharply.

“Nothing but a little wind like on the back of my head, as I think,” replied Winnie, driven to the wall

“Wind on her head! That’s odd,” said Miss Perfect … “very odd!” (Le Fanu 31) (5)

The question is put again, and answered by an upward heave of the table. ‘“Tilt, Ma’am,”’ triumphantly exclaims Winnie (the maid), while Drake gives Maubray’s foot a conspiratorial squeeze (Le Fanu 32).

Maubray doesn’t quite get it yet, and throughout the séance he performs a textual function not unlike Alcibiades’ sneezing fit in Plato’s Symposium. At the beginning of the candle-lit proceedings – as prescribed by Elihu Bung and which Dinah is taking terribly seriously – Maubray ‘exploded into something so like a laugh, though he tried to pass it off for a cough’ (Le Fanu 30). Maubray’s inability to disguise his giggles by noisily clearing his throat, constantly undermine the solemnity of the occasion to the point of farce. Drake is playing a more sophisticated game, which Maubray fails to understand, and the farce is increased by his attempts to subvert Drake’s subversion by refuting every supernatural communication the doctor fakes in order to cure Dinah’s death wish (another Le Fanu leitmotif). Dinah, meanwhile, tries to keep up. The scene is a masterpiece of comic timing, worthy of the author’s great uncle, Richard Brinsley Sheridan:

“Doctor Drake was changing his position just at the moment, and I perceived no other motion in the table nothing but the little push he gave it,” answered William.

“Oh, pooh! yes, of course, there was that,” said the doctor a little crossly; “but I meant a sort of a start – a crack like, in the leaf of the table.”

“I felt nothing of the kind,” said William Maubray.

The doctor looked disgusted, and leaning back took a large pinch of snuff. There was a silence. Aunt Dinah’s lips were closed with a thoughtful frown as she looked down upon the top of the table. (Le Fanu 32).

Drake finally manages to ‘excommunicate’ Maubray by recalling that he might have read somewhere that the spirits avoid unbelievers. With Maubray banished, the increasingly exasperated Drake asks Henbane ‘“Is her [Dinah’s] death to take place at the time then appointed?”’ He manufactures a response to his own question with such enthusiasm that he fires the table across the room, along with his slipper.  Dinah lets this go, but then disallows the goal on a technicality:

“That’s a tilt,” said the doctor, “that means no – a very emphatic tilt.”

“I think it was a jump,” said my aunt, sadly.

“No, Ma’am, no – a tilt, a tilt, I’ll take my oath. Besides a jump has no meaning,” urged he with energy.

“Pardon me: when a question is received with marked impatience a jump is no unfrequent consequence.”

“Oh, ho!” groaned the doctor reflectively. “Then it counts for nothing.”

“Nothing,” said Miss Perfect in a low tone. “Winnie, get the table up again” (Le Fanu 35).

Drake then proposes lexicographical communication, and manages to spell out ‘A-D-J-O-U-R-N-E-D,’ gilding the lily by adding ‘S-I-N-E D-I-E’ and almost spoiling everything:

“It ends with die?” said my poor aunt, faintly.

Sine die, Ma’am. It means indefinitely, Ma’am; your death is postponed without a day named – for ever, Ma’am! It’s all over; and I’m very happy it has ended so. What a marvellous thing, Ma’am – give her some more water, please – those manifestations are. I hope, Ma’am, your mind is quite relieved perfectly, Ma’am.”

Miss Dinah Perfect was taken with a violent shivering, in which her very teeth chattered. Then she cried, and then she laughed; and finally Doctor Drake administered some of his ammonia and valerian, and she became, at last, composed (Le Fanu 36).

The doctor’s relief is palpable – it is almost as if he looks furtively out of the text, catches the reader’s eye and delivers a pantomime wink.

Dinah, meanwhile, who ‘notwithstanding her necromancy, was a well-intending, pious Churchwoman,’ opens the Book of Kings and leads the group in prayer (Le Fanu 36). Throughout the novel, Dinah swayeth and wavereth between the Bible and Elihu Bung, the discourses of Christianity and Spiritualism wrestling for supremacy rather than synergy. In the second act crisis, when she disinherits Maubray, Dinah significantly reads from both texts for guidance, but places Elihu Bung on top of the pile.

Drake does wink, in fact, at Maubray, but the young man is beginning to take Spiritualism quite seriously because of its shared codes with the literary gothic: ‘“And you are convinced it’s true?” urged William, who, like other young men who sit up late, and read wild books, and drink strong coffee, was, under the rose, addicted to the supernatural’ (Le Fanu 37). Maubray wants to believe. He also, we are later told, ‘drew altogether upon the circulating library for his wisdom’ (Le Fanu 53). Drake’s response is, however, noncommittal, diplomatic and pragmatic: “Why, you see, as Shakespeare says, there are more bubbles between heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the philosophers … I wish to live at peace with my neighbours; and I’d advise you to think over this subject, old fellow, and not to tease the old lady up stairs about it’ (Le Fanu 38). Drake’s doctrine of tolerance could be the moral of the story, were Le Fanu not teasing so mercilessly.

Drake’s reverse psychology ultimately backfires however, as Dinah feels her beliefs to be vindicated and continues to consult Henbane on all matters. This leads to a rift with Maubray, when he refuses to follow Henbane’s pronouncement that he must enter the Church in order to satisfy a clause in an obscure family will that would grant him an income of fifteen hundred a year (Le Fanu’s standard way of evaluating social rank). It is difficult not to read Maubray’s horror as an indictment of all who use religion for profit, such as, for example, fake mediums: ‘“to go into the Church without any kind of suitability, is a tremendous thing, for mere gain, a dreadful kind of sin”’ (Le Fanu 104). This conflict pushes Maubray away from Gilroyd and into a Sheridanesque comic ‘double’ plot in which he works as a private tutor under an assumed name, and is mistakenly taken to be an aristocrat incognito by his employers, who try to marry off their daughter.

Regarding the supernatural, however, the impressionable Maubray continues to swing between incredulity and credulity in much the same way that his aunt oscillates between religions. This is a subtle and textured textual dialectic that encompasses Enlightenment Reason versus Romantic superstition, Anglo-Irish Protestantism against both Catholicism and nouveau-American Evangelism, novel and anti-novel (Realist versus Gothic), and the contemporary scientific debate on the nature of apparitions.

Moving from the comedy of the séance, Le Fanu puts Maubray through three major supernatural experiences at Gilroyd. Unlike the séance, these scenes are gothic and narratologically unstable, the style returning to that of The Purcell Papers – ‘I am now going to relate a very extraordinary incident,’ the narrator explains, ‘but upon my honour the narrative is true’:

He thought that he heard a heavy tread traverse the room over his head; he heard the same slow and ponderous step descend the narrow back stair, that was separated from him only by the wall at the back of his bed. He knew intuitively that the person thus approaching came in quest of him, and he lay expecting, in a state of unaccountable terror. The handle of his door turned … then the door swung slowly open, and in the deep shadow, a figure of gigantic stature entered, paused beside his bed, and seized his wrist with a tremendous gripe (Le Fanu 41).

This is episode is left tantalizingly unresolved while Maubray falls in love with Violet, tangles with Vane Trevor, and falls out with his aunt. The apparition returns towards the end of the story, after Dinah and Maubray are reconciled. The frame is the same as the first ‘vision,’ the narrator prefacing with ‘again he had a dream so strange that I must relate it.’ This time the apparition is Dinah’s ‘double,’ balefully moaning ‘“Oh, my God! William, I’m dead – don’t let me go!”’ (Le Fanu 272). As before, Maubray ‘distinctly felt the grasp of a cold hand upon his wrist’ which ‘vanished as he recovered the full possession of his waking faculties, leaving, however, its impression there’ (Le Fanu 275). The style of the classic Le Fanu ghost story is unmistakable – narrative frames of explanation compete while mise-en-scène is eerie and unsettling. There is no apparent trace of humour.

To contemporary Victorian readers, however, this scene would be familiar to the point of cliché. As Srdjan Smajić notes: ‘By the 1860s the strategy of providing suggestive evidence in support of the ghost-seers vision, yet leaving the question of the ghost’s existence undecided, was familiar and predictable – and open to parody’ (Smajić 53). This can be seen, for example, in the article ‘The Latest Thing in Ghosts,’ which appeared in Once a Week in 1862. (Once a Week was published by Bradbury and Evans, who also owned Punch.) Taking his lead from Poe’s ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’ (1840), the anonymous author (6) offers a creative writing master class on the genre, positing the following scenario as a springboard:

The ghost of a relative appears before you one night … The exact time of the visitation is 12.45 a.m. … When you can articulate, you gasp out, “Why, George! What is the meaning of this? How did you get here?”  The spirit shakes its head solemnly … rises from the sofa, gazing at you fixedly all the time, and disappears.  Now, if you understand ghosts – as everyone ought to by this time – you grieve for your friend at once, and prepare your mourning (Anon 102).

Poor old George, of course, dies on the stroke of 12.45 a.m. In this context, the supernatural components of All in the Dark are intentionally contrived to surreal and ridiculous proportions – the haunting is, in fact, hyper-real.

Following the rules, Dinah dies (of natural causes), shortly after the manifestation of her double. With a gallows humour that characterizes the narrative, Winnie is moved to comment that her mistress makes ‘“a very pretty corpse”’ (Le Fanu 297). The narrator then reveals himself again, in a Purcellesque prelude to the final act, adopting a legalistic, evidentiary perspective in the manner of the ipisissima verba that frame many of the Purcell and Hesselius stories:

I come now to some incidents, the relation of which partakes, I can’t deny, of the marvellous. I can, however, vouch for the literal truth of the narrative; so can William Maubray; so can my excellent friend Doctor Wagget; so also can my friend Doctor Drake, a shrewd and sceptical physician, all thoroughly cognizant of the facts. If, therefore, anything related in the course of the next two or three chapters should appear to you wholly incredible, I beg that you will not ascribe the prodigious character of the narrative to any moral laxities on the part of the writer (Le Fanu 319) (7).

Maubray is, again, haunted, although in an epistemological lampoon of gothic ambivalence that anticipates ‘Green Tea’ (1869), he wonders if ‘all the strong tea he had drunk with old Winnie that night helped to make him nervous’ (Le Fanu 325). Most notably, this episode plays with Poe, following, and sometimes paraphrasing, ‘The Raven’ (1845) as the increasingly nervous Maubray attempts to rationalize the phenomena that torment him. There is also a dash of Lewis Carroll:

“Oh! I see; nothing but the shadow, as I move the candle. Yes, only that and nothing more … The fire’s gone out; the room is cooling, and the wood of that ridiculous cabinet is contracting. What can it do but crack? I think I’m growing as mad as – ” he was on the point of saying “as poor Aunt Dinah,” but something restrained him, and he respectfully substituted “as a March hare” (Le Fanu 325 – 326).

In a room locked from the inside, Maubray awakes to find a boot he left outside the previous night placed upon his aunt’s final letter like an ominous paperweight. He reads the sign in the context of the Gothic/Spiritualist zeitgeist: ‘Here was a symbol such as he could not fail to interpret. The heel of his boot on the warnings and entreaties of his poor dead aunt! Could anything be more expressive?’ (Le Fanu 330). In the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round, Dickens will make a similar semiotic move in ‘The Signalman.’

As Gilroyd is ‘a haunted house, and he the sport of a spirit,’ Maubray turns to the Church for answers, seeking the advice of the Anglican rector, Dr. Wagget (Le Fanu 335) (8). Wagget’s opinion of ‘that spiritualism’ alchemically blends Enlightenment moral rationalism with a tacit admission that the Reformed Church relies as much on the supernatural as any other religion. On one hand he rejects the occult as dangerous, if not downright Satanic, while on t’other he keeps his metaphysical options open:

“I don’t say there’s nothing in it … there may be a great deal – in fact, a great deal too much – but take it what way we may, to my mind, it is too like what Scripture deals with as witchcraft to be tampered with. If there be no familiar spirit, it’s nothing, and if there be what is it? … nothing would induce me to sit at a séance. I should as soon think of praying to the devil … The spirit world is veiled from us … and we have no right to lift that veil; few do with impunity” (Le Fanu 299 – 300).

What is it indeed? Here, Dr. Wagget apparently serves a similar textual function to Le Fanu’s Father Purcell. As Sage has convincingly argued, the motives of the framing narrative of The Purcell Papers, in particular the priest’s commitment to accuracy, ‘are evidently not just scientific or a form of disinterested post-Enlightenment anthropology: they are magical and sublime and they involve evidences of the resurrection from the dead’ (Sage 13). Having delivered his warning to the curious, Wagget’s enthusiasm for ghost stories therefore gets the better of him:

“Ha! It is the very best case I ever heard of or read. Everyone knows, in fact, there have been such things. I believe in apparitions. I don’t put them in my sermons, though, because so many people don’t, and it weakens one’s influence to run unnecessarily into disputed subjects” (Le Fanu 332).

He finally compromises both belief-systems by concluding that: ‘“If these things be, they form part of the great scheme of nature, and any evil that may befall you in consequence is as much a subject for legitimate prayer as sickness or any other affliction”’ (Le Fanu 332). As it was in nineteenth century culture as a whole, the subject of apparitions remains, thus, unresolved, the position of the Church ambivalent.

By 1866, this was hardly a new debate. As Smajić has argued, an essentially Positivist discourse that ‘ghost sightings can effectively be explained in physiological terms, namely as optical illusions’ runs through Victorian culture, its origins in literature and science. Smajić traces this back to George Berkeley’s An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), and cites Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), and physicist Sir David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832) as influential ‘ghost-debunking works’ (Smajić 4) (9). When the narrator of Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ shows the haunted railwayman that ‘this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight … originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye’ he is indicating an awareness of the on-going scientific debate (Dickens 23).

The influence of Scott’s theory of the supernatural cannot be over-stated, and was certainly still common cultural currency in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Mackay, for example, still cites Scott’s Letters on Demonology at length when providing examples of spurious ‘haunted houses’ in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds (1852) – ghosts being, of course, very popular delusions just then. Scott was concerned with the emotional effects of apparently (though ultimately explicable) ‘preternatural’ experiences on character. As he wrote in his review of Frankenstein for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

the author’s principal object … is less to produce an effect by means of the marvels of the narrations, than to open new trains and channels of thought, by placing men in supposed situations of an extraordinary and preternatural character, and then describing the mode of feeling and conduct which they are most likely to adopt (Scott, ‘Remarks on Frankenstein’ 613).

The reference to ‘supposed situations’ signals the final removal of the fantastic from the gothic discourse as far as Scott is concerned, and informs much of his admiration for Radcliffe rather than Walpole or Lewis: ‘A principal characteristic of Mrs Radcliffe’s romances,’ he later wrote in the ‘Prefatory Memoir’ to The Novels of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe (1824), ‘ is the rule which the author imposed upon herself, that all the circumstances of her narrative, however mysterious, and apparently superhuman, were to be accounted for on natural principles, at the winding up of the story’ (Scott ‘Prefatory Memoir of the Life of the Author’ xxiv). Scott then applied this rationalisation of the supernatural to supposedly ‘real’ hauntings and apparitions in his Letters on Demonology. ‘Even Sir Walter Scott is turned renegade,’ James Hogg complained in ‘The Mysterious Bride,’ as ‘a great number of people now-a-days are beginning broadly to insinuate that there are no such things as ghosts’ (Hogg 943).

Le Fanu’s resolves Maubray’s haunting by calling the Ghostbusters. Drake and Wagget keep watch while Maubray retires. They polish off a bottle of Old Tom (lightly sweetened gin) – offering another layer of possible explanation for what follows – and Drake nods off, while Wagget significantly expounds on ‘the precise point on which two early heresies differed’ (Le Fanu 340). As fire, candles and Wagget dim, a sudden noise is heard, and: ‘On turning in the direction of the noise, the clergyman saw a gaunt figure in white gliding from the room’ (Le Fanu 341). The rector is ‘awfully frightened’ and subsequently refrains from visiting Gilroyd after nightfall (Le Fanu 348). The doctor is, however, made of sterner stuff and once more stands vigil. When the ghost once more appears, he gives chase.

George Henry Lewes went beyond Victorian optics and Scott’s epistemology, and took a semiotic approach to apparitions.  ‘When a man avers that he has “seen a ghost,”’ he argued, ‘he is passing far beyond the limits of visible facts, into that of inference. He saw something which he supposed to be a ghost’ (Lewes 383). Structurally speaking, the ghost, like the sign, is arbitrary, its meaning established through collective cultural connections. The revenant is an ancient cross-cultural myth and a gothic archetype. As noted recently in Tod Williams’ movie Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), for example, when people encounter the unexplained they frequently ‘go straight to ghosts.’ The chain of inference, in fact, would seem to have no end. The ‘Hammersmith Ghost’ of 1803, for example, turned out to be a cobbler with a grudge dressed in a sheet. Thomas Milward, a local bricklayer, was mistaken for the apparition by an amateur ghost breaker and shot. Milward’s corpse was taken to the Black Lion Pub, which is widely reported to be haunted by him to this day (Anon, ‘The Strange Case of the Hammersmith Ghost,’ par. 4 – 6).

D.D. Home was never exposed, and the debate regarding the veracity of his powers remains ongoing, although the published diaries of Viscount Adare, Experiences in Spiritualism with Mr. D.D. Home (1869), unintentionally reveal him to be dominating and manipulative, while his converts appear complete fantasists. Forty years after the Hydesville events, Maggie Fox confessed that she and Katie had contrived the mysterious noises using their feet and apples on strings. This statement was quoted at length by R. B. Davenport in The Death-Blow to Spiritualism (1888), but by then it was too late. Boston millionaire Marcellus Seth Ayer had founded The Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists in 1883, and the alcoholic Maggie was quickly discredited by the new church. Jack the Ripper was getting all the press anyway.

The Gilroyd apparition was, in fact, William Maubray, somnambulist, clad in bed sheets and nightshirt, the hand that gripped him his own. Dr. Drake had solved the mystery, testing his hypothesis and facilitating a cure through shock treatment: he woke up the ‘ghost.’ Maubray also finds a final written statement from his aunt, in which she renounces Spiritualism and resolves to ‘make for future the Bible my only guide’ (Le Fanu 353). The Reverend Dr. Wagget provides the moral to the story: ‘“If apparitions be permitted, they are no more supernatural than water-spouts and other phenomena of rare occurrence, but, ipso facto, natural”’ (Le Fanu 355). The family is no longer ‘in the dark.’

Le Fanu died fifteen years before Maggie Fox recanted, which is a pity, as he would no doubt have found her confession hilarious. All in the Dark takes ghosts out of the gothic and into the real world of charlatan celebrities and their credulous converts. At a deeper level, Le Fanu also explores the narrative form itself, his own work in relation to it, and the borderlands between faith, fact, and fiction.  Autobiographically speaking, Maubray’s financial insecurity mirrors Le Fanu’s own, and before the deus ex machina of the inherited title, he considers writing with an insight that suggests the voice of the author over his character:

Literary work, the ambition of so many, not a wise one perhaps for those who have any other path before them, but to which men will devote themselves, as to a perverse marriage, contrary to other men’s warnings, and even to their own legible experiences of life in a dream (Le Fanu 244).

There is also an echo of the mature author in Dr. Wagget, a complex man who loves to hear and tell ghost stories (10). James Joyce similarly dramatized – and satirized – himself in youth (Stephen Dedalus) and middle age (Bloom) in Ulysses (1922) (11). Narratologically, Le Fanu is also following the inward turn of the nineteenth century gothic, in which, as Rosemary Jackson demonstrates, ‘there is a gradual transition from the marvelous to the uncanny’ (Jackson 24).  The gothic fictions of De Quincey, Poe, and Le Fanu all progressively make the psychological move, in a transitioning cultural paradigm where the supernatural is giving way to the natural but is not yet fully displaced.

McCormack reads All in the Dark as a failed attempt at ‘bourgeois realism,’ arguing that the author was ‘ill-suited’ to adopt the ‘new style’ to which this novel allegedly aspires (McCormack 232). Yet this would be a paradigm shifting without a clutch. Le Fanu knows exactly what he is doing. He is satirising the supernatural, and using the narrative codes against themselves, just as the discourses of science, religion, fantasy and realism are colliding in the public arena. All in the Dark catches the epistemological crisis of mid-Victorian culture perfectly, and is as much a part of Le Fanu’s elegant gothic project as The Purcell Papers and In a Glass Darkly.

For Gracie


Adare, Viscount (Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin). Experiences in Spiritualism with Mr. D.D. Home. London: Thomas Scott, 1869.

Anon. ‘The Latest Thing in Ghosts.’ Once a Week: An Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Art, Science & Popular Information, 6 (June 1862) pp. 99 – 103.

Anon. ‘The Strange Case of the Hammersmith Ghost.’ Real British Ghosts. Available from: http://www.real-british-ghosts.com/hammersmith-ghost.html (Accessed January 14, 2011).

Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.

Browne, Nelson. Sheridan Le Fanu. London: Arthur Barker, 1951.

Browning, Robert. ‘Mr. Sludge, “The Medium.”’ Dramatis Personae. London: Chapman and Hall, 1864.

Capron, E.W. and Barron, H.D. Explanation of the Mysterious Communion with Spirits. New York: Auburn, 1850.

Carver, Stephen. The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist: William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805 – 1882. New York: Edwin Mellen, 2003.

Davenport, Rueben Briggs. The Death-Blow to Spiritualism. New York: C.W. Dillingham Co, 1888.

Davis, Andrew Jackson. The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and A Voice to Mankind. 3 Vols. Boston: Colby & Rich, 1847.

Dickens, Charles. ‘The Signalman.’ Mugby Junction, The Extra Christmas Number of All the Year Round. London: Chapman & Hall, 1866.

Donaldson, Norman. ‘Introduction to the Dover Edition.’ In J. Sheridan Le Fanu, The Rose and The Key. New York: Dover, 1982.

Gates, Barbara T. Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Princeton: University Press, 1988.

Hogg, James. ‘The Mysterious Bride.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, XXVIII (174), (December 1830) pp. 943 – 950.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1981.

James, M.R. ‘Prologue.’ In J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery. London: G. Bell, 1923.

Le Fanu, J.S. All in the Dark. London: Downey & Co, 1898.

Lewes, George Henry. ‘Seeing is Believing.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, LXXXVIII (540), (July 1860) pp. 381 – 395.

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. 2nd. Ed. London: National Illustrated Library, 1852.

McCormack, W.J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Paranormal Activity 2. Dir. Tod Williams. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. 2 Vols. London: Methuen, 1902.

Rance, Nicholas. Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Sage, Victor. Le Fanu’s Gothic: The Rhetoric of Darkness. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Scott, Walter. ‘Remarks on Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, 1818.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine I (2), (March 1818) pp. 613 – 620.
Scott, Walter. ‘Prefatory Memoir of the Life of the Author.’ The Novels of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe. London: Hurst, Robinson & Co, 1824 pp. i – xxxix.

Scott, Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. London: Routledge, 1884.

Smajić, Srdjan. Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists. Cambridge: University Press, 2010.

Stashower, Daniel. Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. London: Penguin, 1999.

Stefanidakis, Rev. Simeon. ‘The Hydesville Events, March 31, 1848.’ Available from: First Spiritual Temple http://www.fst.org/spirit4.htm (Accessed January 5, 2011).


  1. The Rev. Simeon Stefanidakis of the First Spiritual Temple cites a signed affidavit written by Mrs. Fox on April 4, 1848, in ‘The Hydesville Events, March 31, 1848.’ This may originate from interviews conducted by a Mr. E. Lewis of New York, who published a pamphlet on the phenomenon within days of its occurrence.
  2. All in the Dark is not an easy novel to locate, so I am working from the single volume Downey & Co edition of 1898.
  3. ‘A pleasing terror’ is a phrase nowadays attributed to M.R. James, and is the title of the Ash Tree edition of his complete supernatural writings. It is quoted from James’ article ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’ published in The Bookman in December 1929. Le Fanu is paraphrasing Byron: ‘thy breakers – they to me/Were a delight; and if the freshening sea/Made them a terror – ’twas a pleasing fear’ (‘The Dark Blue Sea,’ Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage).
  4. James Fenimore Cooper regularly attended Leah Fox’s New York séances, as did Washington Irving and Henry Longfellow.
  5. The Spiritualist also advised that a cool breeze was often the first sign of a presence at a séance.
  6. Possibly ‘Charles Felix,’ recently identified as Charles Warren Adams.
  7. See Sage (2004), Chapter One, for a detailed analysis of Father Purcell’s rhetorical strategies.
  8. In the majority of supernatural narratives, haunted protagonists invariably turn to priests rather than Anglican ministers like Dr. Wagget. This is a deeply embedded cultural code signifying Catholicism and, therefore, superstition. See, for example, William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist (1971), and Jay Anson, The Amityville Horror (1977).
  9. Brewster attended one of D.D. Home’s London séances, and was not impressed.
  10. McCormack also makes some biographical connections worth pursuing, but not the ones I identify (McCormack 232 – 233).
  11. The ‘dirty deed’ in ‘Phornix’ and ‘Fiendish’ (Phoenix) Park that underpins Finnegans Wake is also intertextually related to Le Fanu’s novel The House by the Churchyard (1863).

G.W. Crawford, Jim Rockhill, and Brian J. Showers eds, Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu  (New York: Hippocampus, 2011)

Reproduced by kind permission of the editors and publishers.


Copyright © SJ Carver 2011, 2013

2 thoughts on “‘Addicted to the Supernatural’: Spiritualism and Self-Satire in Le Fanu’s All in the Dark”

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