The Victorians preoccupation with death and their enthusiasm for the paranormal puzzle us today.
Perhaps earlier eras were focused on survival and had little leisure to be widely interested in things like séances, ectoplasms, and spirit photography. Later generations were certainly too skeptical.
But at the turn of the century, everything seemed possible. If people could ride in flying machines and sounds could be recorded and replayed thousands of miles away, who could say with certainty that it was impossible for a talented artist to photograph you and then discover the dearly departed beside you in the exposure?
Typically, spirit photography featured a grieving widow, or devastated parents of a young child who had come to a tragic end. These photographs were made by enterprising photographers who used photographic tricks like double exposures to create ghostly figures behind living persons. This became an easy way for unethical photographers to capitalize on individuals and families who were still reeling from grief.
William Mumler took this famous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband President Abraham Lincolnstanding behind her. Later Mumler was exposed as a fraud.
Edith Nesbit was an unconventional woman, a late Victorian writer, a socialist, a sometime-poet. In 1880, at the height of Victorianism in England, Nesbit married Hubert Bland when she was 7 months pregnant.
Their stormy marriage lasted 35 years until his death in 1914, and was punctuated with painful betrayals. Bland was described by his contemporaries as “an infamous libertine”. He was engaged to another woman when he married Nesbit, with whom he had a child.
The couple had four children together, but early on in their marriage, Nesbit miscarried and her best friend Alice Hoatson came to help out until Edith recovered. Though her husband’s indiscretions were known to her, Nesbit suffered a terrible shock when she discovered Hubert and Alice were having an affair, and Alice was pregnant.
Hurt and outraged, Edith demanded Alice leave. Incredibly, Hubert rebuked her for wanting to put Alice out, and instead convinced her to adopt the baby and to allow her former friend to stay on as their housekeeper. And Bland was not quite done: thirteen years later, he and Alice had a second baby together. Again Edith adopted the baby.
In 1905, Nesbit published a book of poetry called The Rainbow and the Rose. It contained a poem called APPEAL that was probably inspired by her husband. Nesbit is known for her novels, not her poetry, but this short poem is very good. It perfectly captures a tormented mind, trapped in an insane life.
By Edith Nesbit
Daphnis dearest, wherefore weave me
Webs of lies lest truth should grieve me?
I could pardon much, believe me:
Dower me, Daphnis, or bereave me,
Kiss me, kill me, love me, leave me,-
Damn me, dear, but don’t deceive me!