English 9190B

Weird Science: Psychical Research and the Late-Victorian Fantastic Weird Science: Psychical Research and the Late-Victorian Fantastic

Instructor: Professor C. Keep
Winter Half Course.

The late‑nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic revival of interest in the fantastic in Great Britain. In an age caught between, in Arnold’s words, “two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born,” many Victorians took an avid interest in automatic writing, astral projection, telekinesis, telepathy, faerie photography, and a host of other phenomena that suggested the possibility of a realm beyond the material, a realm that science seemed on the verge of disclosing much as it had the remote regions of space and the interior organization of the microbe. Major writers such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Vernon Lee, scientists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, and philosophers such as Henri Bergson and William James all dedicated considerable energy to such investigations. But perhaps it is Freud who best summed up the vibrant sense of promise that characterized this period of interest in the paranormal. “If I had my life to live over again,” he wrote in a letter in 1921, “I should devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis.” 

This course focuses on the ways in which late-Victorian fiction imagined the encounter between the scientific and the fantastic, those phenomena which challenged the limits of rational enquiry, such as telepathy, mesmerism, mind-control, shape-shifting, automatic writing, and, of course, ghosts, faeries, and vampires. The fantastic, we will argue, was not only of considerable literary interest in its own right, but was the cultural site through which such vexed categories as gender, class, race, and national identity were both contested and consolidated in the popular journalism, short stories, and novels of the period.