Today, I’m sharing another NetGalley read, although this book was released shortly after I reviewed it, and is now available for purchase. Ever since researching the spiritualism movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s for my novel Cusp of Night, I’ve been fascinated by the subject. When I saw Out of the Shadows offered on NetGalley, of course I had to request it!
Queen Victoria’s reign was an era of breathtaking social change, but it did little to create a platform for women to express themselves. But not so within the social sphere of the séance–a mysterious, lamp-lit world on both sides of the Atlantic, in which women who craved a public voice could hold their own.
Out of the Shadows tells the stories of the enterprising women whose supposedly clairvoyant gifts granted them fame, fortune, and most important, influence as they crossed rigid boundaries of gender and class as easily as they passed between the realms of the living and the dead. The Fox sisters inspired some of the era’s best-known political activists and set off a transatlantic séance craze. While in the throes of a trance, Emma Hardinge Britten delivered powerful speeches to crowds of thousands. Victoria Woodhull claimed guidance from the spirit world as she took on the millionaires of Wall Street before becoming America’s first female presidential candidate. And Georgina Weldon narrowly escaped the asylum before becoming a celebrity campaigner against archaic lunacy laws. Drawing on diaries, letters, and rarely seen memoirs and texts, Emily Midorikawa illuminates a radical history of female influence that has been confined to the dark until now.
Thank you to Counterpoint Press and NetGalley for this wonderful ARC. The moment I saw it, I knew I wanted to read it, and I was not disappointed.
I developed a fascination with the workings of spirit mediums of the nineteenth century while conducting research for a series of novels some years back. Since that time, I continue to read anything I can find related to the Spiritualist movement of the Victorian age. I’m fascinated by how these mediums commanded fervent followings and packed lecture halls. Many were gifted theatrical performers able to communicate through spirit rapping, table tilting, channeled writing, and conjuring. Some were escape artists. When Spiritualism was at its peak during the Victorian age, it clashed with medicine and science, fields dominated by men.
The author of Out of the Shadows, doesn’t set out to judge one way of another if the women in her book were fraudulent swindlers preying on a gullible public, true believers of their cause, or a little of both. She examines their lives from family background through the rise of their fame—for each of these ladies certainly obtained it—and, in two cases, to their ultimate downfall. Throughout, we see the mark these women made on society during a time when females were relegated to existing in the shadow of men. Or, as Midorikawa says in the book—in the attitude of the day, men were the “lofty pine,” women viewed as the “clinging vine.”
Anyone familiar with the Spiritualist movement knows it began with the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York. Two young teenage girl—Maggie and Kate—who began communicating with spirits through rapping sounds. Thus it’s only fitting Midorikawa starts her research there, fleshing out how both girls went from obscurity to fame under the guidance of their older sister, Leah (who would eventually join their act when the sisters packed lecture halls for their performances). We see the growth of the movement as other mediums follow, not only in America but across the Atlantic in Britain, too.
As the author shows us, Spiritualism gave voice to women who were able to combine the supernatural with more pressing concerns of their day. We meet Emma Hardinge Britton who addressed the need for equality between men and women along with her talks on spiritualism. Georgina Weldon championed the Lunacy Laws of Britain, after almost being unjustly incarcerated in an asylum herself (anyone associated with spiritualism could easily be seen as demented). Georgina’s relentless pursuit of those who sought to have her committed would ultimately help bring reform.
Each woman’s life is meticulously detailed, yet shared in a manner that keeps the reader flipping pages. This is a fascinating and in-depth look, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the development of spirit mediums, or even the morals and attitudes of the Victorian era.