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

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‘Julia Says’: The Spirit-Writing and Editorial Mediumship of W. T. Stead

Sarah Crofton

Abstract


In his work on Spiritualism, W. T. Stead wrote as both a commentator and a practitioner. In the same office, by the same hand, he penned editorial pieces for his occultist journal and engaged in spirit-writing. Stead claimed to serve as an amanuensis for the spirit of the late Julia Ames and printed her first-person accounts of the nature of life after death in the pages of Borderland.

When he channelled Julia, Stead was following the current zeitgeist of modern Victorian occultism. In the previous half-century, spirit-writing had become firmly established as a key practice of Spiritualism.  It was a literary tradition as well as a cultural one. Spirits who manifested through the written word propagated tropes and repeated narratives. One can trace common turns of phrase, philosophies, rhetorical tricks, shared metaphors, and myths of literary production across a broad range of channelled missives through different schools of occultist thought at the fin de siècle. Stead was quick to internalize many of these, and ‘Julia’ was nothing if not solidly generic.

The literary nature of occultism both fuelled and thwarted Stead’s attempts to use the press to legitimize study of the ‘other world’. Stead envisioned Borderland as an open court in which proofs of occultist phenomena could be publicized and judged on their own merits. Building on his wider ideas of the value of periodical literature as an open court (as expressed in his ‘Government by Journalism’, for example), Stead believed that a journal dedicated to collecting and assessing occultist claims would be the first step in a social mission to bridge the communication gap between the living and the dead, and to do so in a way which would render such links demotic and quotidian. Instead, the pages of Borderland quickly filled with anecdotes and ghost stories. The magazine’s editorial authority could draw attention to the familiar tropes and recurring narratives of the many testimonials collected, but no more. As others before him had discovered, the memetic nature of occultist writings and their reliance on veiled allusion left an editor no room to offer definitive iterations of believers’ claims.

It was through the figure of Julia that Stead found his justification for expanding his occultist project. When he finally opened the bureau which he hoped would help to make mediumship a public social service, it was Julia whom he named director. In this paper, I analyse the power with which Stead sought to imbue Julia. I consider her as an amalgamation of the ideas of others writers whose works Stead the editor had discussed in Borderland, and as a rhetorical trick by which he overcame his aporia in the face of the polyphony of occultism. By acknowledging the vehemence with which Stead professed his belief in Julia, but also examining the fiction which fuelled her, this paper aims to shed light on the broader context of Stead’s Spiritualism and its links to his editorial projects.


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