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Aviva Briefel’s article, “Freaks of Furniture”: The Useless Energy of Haunted Things,” from Victorian Studies newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Aviva elaborates on the historical “epidemic” of spirits communicating through domestic objects.
By the early 1850s, tables and chairs in British households were making an array of unpredictable movements and noises. The mania for table-turning and rapping had migrated from the United States to England following the widely publicized case of Margaret and Kate Fox, two young sisters in Hydesville, New York, who in 1848 claimed to have communicated with spirits through knockings in their house and furniture. After emigrating to London in 1852, the American spiritualist Mrs. Hayden instilled a passion for séances that was soon fueled by other mediums. This “epidemic” (“Spirits and Spirit-Rapping” 30) was well established in Britain by 1853, when communing with the dead through objects became all the rage.
Whether solicited through an organized séance led by a (more or less) professional medium or acting of their own volition, domestic things suddenly, and often erratically, became animated. As an article from the Westminster Review describes the state of affairs:
[T]here is hardly a piece of domestic furniture that does not perform the most extraordinary and equally well-attested feats. Tongs and pokers leave their places, and pile themselves on the tops of beds; plated candlesticks, bent upon suicide, beat themselves to pieces on the floor; in a bedroom, to which no one is supposed to have access, lay figures are found made up of articles of clothing, stuffed to represent men and women in different positions, some with bibles in the attitude of prayer; brushes and tumblers of water rise from their places, dash through the window-panes, and fall in the street. Such movements, in many cases, are quite spontaneous, no one demanding or expecting them. Sometimes they seem to arise from mere superabundance of energy, as when a lamp jumps from the mantelpiece to the middle of the floor; sometimes from a love of practical joke, as when pitchers full of water pass through rooms, and empty themselves into beds, or when a tea-kettle goes and hides itself in a cellar; sometimes, as if from a frenzy of drunken violence, as when saucepans and broom-handles, without the slightest provocation, make desperate assaults upon bedsteads, not always a very gentle race, as we have just seen, and come off with fractured limbs for their pains. (“Spirits and Spirit-Rapping” 43)
Such accounts of spirit mishaps, whether delivered with skepticism or belief—or, as was often the case, with a little of both—depict the chaos that ensues with the animation of household objects. Haunted things misbehave. They throw interiors into disarray, pull juvenile pranks, irreverently mimic human behavior, and, in the case of the suicidal candlesticks, self-destruct. These “freaks of furniture,” as an article from Punch refers to them (“Clerical Table-Turners”), attest to the dangerous energy that could be released from ordinary objects.
My essay contends that the animation of manufactured things became central to discussions about labor in the mid-Victorian period. Drawing from contemporary debates on spiritualism, design reform, commodity production, and energy conservation, I argue that believers in ghosts and skeptics generated a productive framework to come to terms with the fraught labor histories hidden in everyday objects. This piece is part of a book manuscript, titled “Impossible Ghosts: Material Culture at the Limits of Evidence,” that examines several contexts in which materiality at once tests and upholds the Victorian belief in spirits. In addition to the topic of this essay, animated furniture, I explore spectral gifts brought during séances, spirit hands, ghostly clothing, and phantom transportation as important focal points in understanding the surprisingly substantial world of nineteenth-century spiritualism. It is one thing to believe in ghosts, but quite another to prove that they can bring gifts of food or flowers, wear clothing composed of tangible fabrics, touch the living with warm hands, or ride in spectral carriages and coaches. At the same time, these material phenomena provided tactile, and often portable, evidence for believers of the existence of an afterlife. My book project studies the arguments of believers and skeptics alike, arguing that at their intersection there emerge discussions of material culture and political economy that illuminate the everyday (but no less elusive) world of Victorian England.
“Clerical Table-Turners and Spirit-Rappers.” Punch 31. December 1853: 266.
“Spirits and Spirit-Rapping.” Westminster Review. January 1858: 29-66.
Aviva Briefel is Professor of English and Cinema Studies at Bowdoin College. She is author of The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century (Cornell UP, 2006) and The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination (Cambridge UP, 2015), and coeditor of Horror after 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror (U of Texas P, 2012). She is currently working on a manuscript titled “Impossible Ghosts: Material Culture at the Limits of Evidence.”
More from Victorian Studies 59.2
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“Freaks of Furniture”: The Useless Energy of Haunted Things
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The Making of Modern English Theology: God and the Academy at Oxford, 1833–1945 by Daniel Inman; Victorian Christianity at the Fin De Siècle: The Culture of English Religion in a Decadent Ageby Frances Knight
Review by: Timothy Larsen
Disillusioned: Victorian Photography and the Discerning Subject by Jordan Bear
Review by: Daniel A. Novak
Carrying Off the Palaces: John Ruskin's Lost Daguerreotypes by Ken Jacobson and Jenny Jacobson
Review by: Brian Maidment
Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture by Simone Natale
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Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland by John McCourt
Review by: Elsie B. Michie
Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the British Novel by Lorri G. Nandrea
Review by: Virginia Piper
Healing with water: English spas and the water cure, 1840–1960 by Jane M. Adams
Review by: Amanda E. Herbert
Vice and the Victorians by Mike Huggins
Review by: Susan Zieger
Murder, Mayhem and Music Hall: The Dark Side of Victorian London by Barry Anthony
Review by: Peter Bailey
On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell Shock by Tiffany Watt Smith
Review by: Philipp Erchinger
Jewish Feeling: Difference and Affect in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Women's Writing by Richa Dwor
Review by: Linda M. Shires
I Hope I Don't Intrude: Privacy and its Dilemmas in Nineteenth-Century Britain by David Vincent
Review by: Peter W. Sinnema
Romance's Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction by Talia Schaffer
Review by: Claudia Nelson