Pre-Raphaelites in the Spirit World

The Séance Diary of William Michael Rossetti

by J. B. Bullen (Volume editor) Rosalind White (Volume editor) Lenore A. Beaky (Volume editor)
©2022 Others XII, 176 Pages


«This is a new and scholarly study of William Michael Rossetti’s séance diary, which is a fascinating first-hand source for the Rossetti brothers in the 1860s and offers a new perspective on the relationship between the Pre-Raphaelite circle and the spiritualist world.»
(Jan Marsh)

«As quirky and unsettling as the table-turnings it documents, this meticulously edited and annotated séance diary features guest-appearances from the spirits of John Polidori, Elizabeth Siddal and Gabriele Rossetti, among many notable others. Essential reading for anyone interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, Spiritualism, and the Victorian paranormal.»
(Dinah Roe, Reader in Nineteenth Century Literature, Oxford Brookes University)

William Michael Rossetti’s séance diary is a remarkable document in both the history of Pre-Raphaelitism and nineteenth-century spiritualism. In this previously unpublished manuscript, Rossetti meticulously recorded twenty séances between 1865 and 1868. The original motive was the death, in 1862, of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddal. He felt a profound sense of guilt about her and began these séances to reassure himself that she was happy in the afterlife. Messages came from many spirits within the Pre-Raphaelite circle and provide an unprecedented record of spiritualist activity in the late nineteenth century. Questions and answers fill the pages of the diary, many of them communicating uncannily accurate information or details that could be known only to the participants.
This book also includes another unpublished document showing spiritualism in action. It comprises a long letter to Dante Gabriel Rossetti written in 1856 from the artist and spiritualist medium Anna Mary Howitt recounting her interactions with the spirit world and her (sometimes violent) experiences as she became aware of the extent of her psychic powers. Both sections of this book provide an original insight into the cult of spiritualism and throw considerable light on the interactions between members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle and beyond.

Table Of Contents

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Figure 1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Portrait Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal (1850–1860, n.d.). Pen and brown ink with ink wash on laid writing paper, 17 × 10.4 cm. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0.

Figure 2. Punch, 18 August, vol. 39, 1860, p. 63. In the public domain.

Figure 3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, How They Met Themselves (c. 1850–1860). Pen and ink on paper, 27 × 21.3 cm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Reproduced with permission.

Figure 4. Elizabeth Siddal, The Haunted Wood (1856). Gouache on paper, 12 × 11 cm. National Trust, Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton. Reproduced with permission.

Figure 5. The Davenport Brothers, from Anon. The Davenport Brothers, the World-Renowned Spiritual Mediums: Their Biography, and Adventures in Europe and America (1869), p. 231. In the public domain.

Figure 6. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (1864). Oil on canvas, 76.5 × 51.1 cm. In the public domain.

Figure 7. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (c. 1864–1870). Oil on canvas, 86.4 × 66 cm. In the public domain.

Figure 8. William Michael Rossetti, Memorandum by Himself [Diary of Séances]. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Library Rare Books and Special Collections. Fol. 50. Reproduced with permission.

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Figure 9. Anna Mary Howitt, Letter to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Library Rare Books and Special Collections. Fol.10.1.v. Reproduced with permission.

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We would like to thank Mr Charles Rossetti for permission to publish the Séance Diary, and the staff librarians at the New York Public Library, the University of British Columbia Special Collections, especially Chelsea Shriver, Krisztina Laszlo and Weiyan Yan, the staff of the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the British Library, London. Thanks also to the Techne AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership and the centre for Victorian studies at Royal Holloway, London. Many scholars and academics around the world have offered invaluable help, advice and information, including Michael Belgrave, Ruth Livesey, David Latham, Peter Lamont, Jan Marsh, Paul Moon, Roger Pettie, Andrew Stauffer, Rowan Strong, Angela Thirlwell, Mandy Treagus, Greg Young and the Master and Fellows of Kellogg College, Oxford. We would also like to extend our thanks to Mollie Tearne for the cover design.

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A Note on the Texts

Both texts that make up this volume are held in the Special Collections of the University of British Columbia. For some years the university has felt unable to allow publication of the diary because of copyright issues, but it transpired that this was owned by Mr Charles Rossetti of Dulwich, London, who, when contacted, was happy for us to go ahead. The transcription, annotation and introduction to the Diary was done by J. B. Bullen and Rosalind White. The transcription, annotation and introduction to the letter from Anna Mary Howitt to Dante Gabriel Rossetti was done by Lenore Beaky.

Principal Abbreviations

DGR Dante Gabriel Rossetti

EES Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal

FC Fanny Cornforth

JM Jane Morris

WBS William Bell Scott

WMR William Michael Rossetti

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William Michael Rossetti’s séance diary is a remarkable record of Pre-Raphaelite involvement in the nineteenth-century spiritualist movement. Between November 1865 and August 1868, Rossetti diligently recorded about twenty private séances within Pre-Raphaelite circles, involving friends and acquaintances, providing us with an intimate snapshot of events during a period of intense spiritualist activity in Britain.1 In the 1860s, personal recollections of spiritualist experiences abounded, mediums both British and American flourished, and spiritualist journals were widely read and highly popular. Though William Michael’s diary comprises twenty séances, there is considerable evidence that he was involved with other sessions outside the period of his séance diary.2

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William Michael was the brother of the more charismatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He was a civil servant by profession, a man of considerable probity, rational, careful and meticulous. Writing of his spiritualist experiences, he later confessed that he did not know ‘what to infer about the phenomena, still less whether “spirits” have anything to do with them’,3 adding: ‘I must however in candour say this much – that I think movements and rappings do really take place without any intended or conscious action of the bystanders to produce them.’4 He may have had his doubts, but there were moments in the period covered by this diary when he was sufficiently impressed by the events he witnessed to continue experimenting with sympathetic friends.

William Michael may have been cautious in his judgements, but his brother, Dante Gabriel, was a very different character. From childhood he had a sense of the occult; all those who were close to him recognised this, and throughout his life his interest in other-worldly phenomena was fuelled by the considerable cult for spiritualism in Britain. Sometimes, he adopted supernatural themes for his work in the form of ballads or stories. ‘Michael Scott’s Wooing’, ‘The King’s Tragedy’ and ‘Rose Mary’ all involve prophecies and predictions, whereas both ‘The Orchard Pit’ and the ‘Doom of the Sirens’ invoke the famed power of mythical women. The scientific or pseudoscientific interest in clairvoyance and mesmerism in the eighteenth century contributed a more urgent and less fanciful dimension to the experience of the occult. This was given an even greater sense of immediacy by the controversial practice of spiritualism which, by the 1850s, had created a cult that was impossible to ignore. Spiritualist practices were substantially encouraged by people attempting to contact dead relatives or friends, and almost all the major participants were driven by this motive. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was no exception. His personal involvement in spiritualist séances began in 1858, but in 1862 after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Siddal,5 he began to try and make contact with her in the afterlife.

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By no means do all the séances in William Michael’s diary involve attempts to contact Lizzie Siddal, but her presence is a recurrent one. Consequently, notwithstanding William Michael himself, Dante Gabriel makes the most frequent appearances in the diary though not at every instance in which the ‘spirit’ of Lizzie Siddal was recorded. Consumed by a resolve to speak to his wife, Dante Gabriel acted as éminence grise for this project because, in contrast to almost all the other participants, he came to it as a believer in the possibility of communication with the dead.6 Throughout the séances, many other dead family members, friends and acquaintances communicated messages. Often, they were inaccurate or muddled, but in some cases the details were startlingly correct. Sometimes those facts were corroborated by participants who had exclusive access to the information in the messages, and in a few cases, we have been able to confirm the accuracy of the details through our own archival research.

The tone and mood of these séances vary considerably, but they are not always sombre nor serious. Some are intense and questioning; others take on the complexion of an evening’s entertainment and, on at least one occasion, joking and talking (instigated by Dante Gabriel) trigger the collapse of supernatural contact altogether. Unlike many of the séances conducted in this period, none of those recorded in the Pre-Raphaelite circle were influenced by Christian spiritualism and none of the participants invoked any religious sentiments. The sessions were entirely secular affairs in which a total of forty-two named participants took part at ten separate locations (See below pp. 107–113). The largest number, six, took place in Rossetti’s studio at 16 Cheyne Walk, while three took place at the home of William Bell Scott and three at the home of the medium Mary Marshall. In all, seven people can be identified as mediums – the professionals: Mary Marshall; her niece, Mary Marshall Jr; Elizabeth Guppy; and possibly Samuel Guppy – and the amateurs: Louisa Parke, Charlotte Fawcett and Fanny Cornforth.


XII, 176
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Pre-Raphaelites Spiritualism Victorian Occult Dante Gabriel Rossetti séance Pre-Raphaelites in the Spirit World J. B. Bullen Rosalind White Lenore A. Beaky
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XII, 176 pp., 8 fig. col., 1 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

J. B. Bullen (Volume editor) Rosalind White (Volume editor) Lenore A. Beaky (Volume editor)

J. B. Bullen has had a long-standing interest in the relations between the arts in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. He is the author of (among other books) The Pre-Raphaelite Body (1998), and Rossetti Painter and Poet (2011). He is a Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford. Rosalind White is a Victorianist based at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her PhD thesis, In My Mind’s Cabinet, is an intimate exploration of natural history that examines the lives of its practitioners beyond the impact of conventional watersheds. She has been published in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies and the collection A Cultural History of Insects in the Age of Industry (2021). Lenore A. Beaky is Professor Emerita, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her PhD thesis, The Letters of Anna Mary Howitt Watts to Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1974, Columbia University), explored Howitt’s personal and professional life as a painter and spiritualist. She has published articles in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies and the volume Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia (1990).


Title: Pre-Raphaelites in the Spirit World
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