Pre-Raphaelites in the Spirit World
The Séance Diary of William Michael Rossetti
«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 In this previously unpublished manuscript, Rossetti meticulously recorded twenty séances between 1865 and 1868.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This book also includes another unpublished document showing spiritualism in action.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
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of Figures
- A Note on the Texts
- Part I William Michael Rossetti’s Séance Diary, 1865–1868
- Introduction (J. B. Bullen and Rosalind White)
- Séance Participants and Places
- Part II Letter from Anna Mary Howitt to Dante Gabriel Rossetti
- Introduction (Lenore A. Beaky)
- Series index
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 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.←vii | viii→
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.
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.
DGR Dante Gabriel Rossetti
EES Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal
FC Fanny Cornforth
JM Jane Morris
WBS William Bell Scott
WMR William Michael Rossetti
J. B. BULLEN AND ROSALIND WHITE
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←3 | 4→
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.←4 | 5→
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 (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- 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.