19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 16 (2013)

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‘Two Minds With but a Single Thought’: W. T. Stead, Henry James, and the Zancig Controversy

Paul Horn

Abstract


In 1906, two writers of disparate repute watched, and then wrote about a series of notorious performances by the London telepathists Julius and Agnes Zancig.  One was W. T. Stead, the pugnacious purveyor of New Journalism and hugely influential in shaping public opinion; the other was Henry James, the author of a great number of highbrow, complex, and ultimately poorly selling works of prose fiction.  James wrote in a letter of his impression of ‘the reality of their performance’ in the face of accusations of fraud based on a supposed ‘very wonderfully elaborated code of signalling’ between the pair.  A persuasive factor was the rumour, told to him by the actor and theatre manager John Hare at a party, that Stead had proved the Zancigs’ telepathic powers during private tests at his own home.  Stead published his own defence of the Zancigs in the Review of Reviews, covering in detail their performance at the Alhambra Music Hall, and, indeed, the tests that seem likely to have been the subject of the gossip heard by James.  What is especially remarkable about Stead’s article is that its description of the physical reality of telepathy is strikingly reminiscent of the instances of wordless communication that occur between the sensitive protagonists who populate James’s fin-de-siècle novels.  The aim of my paper is to use Stead’s and James’s shared interest in the Zancigs as a starting point from which to explore how the two writers’ authorial voices, ostensibly so different to each other, become closely imbricated as they converge on the topic of thought transference.  In this way, I hope to show that in addition to the operation of rumour among their social milieu, Stead and James were connected by their appreciation of a more occulted form of communication, which would help define their apparently distinct contributions to fin-de-siècle culture.


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