Social Work

Hilary Evans. Intrusions: Society and the Paranormal. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

The sub-title of this book suggested that it would be a sociological examination of alleged paranormal phenomena, and of society's reaction to them. However, in effect, if not intention, it turns out to be yet another 'history of psychical phenomena from the earliest times to the present day'. This is a topic which has been overworked already and, in the compass of just over 200 pages, many given over to illustrations, the treatment cannot be anything but superficial. This is especially so when one considers that huge tomes have been written about very narrow fields, such as sixteenth-century East Anglian witchcraft. Maybe this would not have mattered so much had the author provided references to them, but I searched the bibliography in vain for the works of Keith Thomas, Frank Podmore, Lawrence Moore, James Webb, Renee Hayes, Frances Yates, Norman Cohen, or even Brian Inglis.

The result is that the treatment is misleading in places. For example, Hilary does not make clear whether by 'society' he refers to the ordinary people or a small minority of the intelligentsia. For example, the so-called 'Age of Infidelity' had little impact on the vast mass of agricultural labourers, whose world view in 1750 was probably little different from that of 1550. If religious revivalists complained of 'infidelity' it was more likely to be a complaint against maypole dancing and village wakes than a predilection for Voltaire.

In assessing the growth of rationalism in the nineteenth century, the role of social climbing should not be underestimated. To believe in ghosts was to risk being tarred with the brush of 'lower classedness', a fatal step for a member of the rising Victorian bourgeoisie, who could not face the fact that his grandfather was an agricultural labourer. 'Superstition' was part of a whole melange of working-class life, which included the village wakes, gin and cockfighting, which tidy-minded Victorians attempted to clear up.

It is instructive to note that when the (outwardly) prim and proper members of the SPR collected ghost stories, they made sure to collect outwardly prim and proper ghost stories. Headless horsemen and shrieking spectres were far too working class; the proper Victorian ghost, like the proper Victorian child, was seen but not heard. Phantasms of the Living, by Gurney, Myers and Podmore, is a document which has been sadly underused by social historians. It gives a vivid and very moving portrait of an age of rampant child mortality, raging consumption, and the perpetual anxiety of families whose members served in fever-ridden colonies.

It is probably a mistake to regard the growth of spiritualism, at least in its earlier years, as a reaction to materialism. Rather it was a continuation of the secularising trend, as the mid-Victorian clergy clearly saw, with science pushing at the mystery of death while, at the same time, the birth-control propagandists were pushing at the mysteries of conception and birth. Spiritualism did not seek to oppose the new science; it regarded itself as part of the scientific advance. Clearly this situation changed when spiritualism ceased to be part of a working-class reform movement and became home to romantics outraged by mechanistic science, but unable to accept church doctrine.

I do not really share Hilary's view that grieving widows went to mediums 'in defiance of science' during the First World War. If they went in defiance to anyone it was more likely to be the local clergyman. The role of 'science' in general society was surely not that prominent. .

The value of Hilary Evans's book lies less in the information prov1ded than 1n its ability to provoke questions and discussion. On that level it succeeds. I hope Hilary will follow up with a book exploring a narrower field in much greater depth. -- Peter Rogerson, Magonia 11, 1982.


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