For Books’ Sake Halloween: Spirituality and Divination
28th Oct 2014
Spirituality and divination, magical practices, psychic powers, and mystical experiences abound in recent fiction – from mediumship in Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, to the planetary alignments that order the fates of Eleanor Catton’s characters in The Luminaries.
Many contemporary women writers, among them the critic and Tarot reader Jessa Crispin, have also been adopting divinatory traditions in their own working lives – sometimes specifically as aids to literary technique, or as creative prompts. Yet this current trend is only the latest phase in a long tradition of women writers’ engagement with magic and the paranormal…
The novelist and feminist activist May Sinclair developed her literary career as one of the late nineteenth-century ‘New Women’, taking advantage of improvements in educated women’s access to academic studies and professional careers.
The same, fin-de-siècle period saw the emergence of the then often intersecting disciplines of psychoanalysis, and parapsychology – and Sinclair became expert in both, developing a serious enough interest in unexplained phenomena to be elected to the Society for Psychical Research in 1914.
She also regularly attended séances, where she requested her long-deceased brother to send her signs (which she believed he did). Sinclair achieved lasting success with Uncanny Stories, short speculative fictions based on her experiences as a mystical thinker and psychic investigator.
Sinclair traced her fascination with spiritualism back to an experience of seeing a ghost in childhood – as she recalled in a letter to H. G. Wells, the lover of another reportedly psychic woman writer, Rebecca West…
Originally named Cicely Fairfield, West took her pen-name from the anti-heroine of Ibsen’s 1886 drama Rosmersholm, in which a troubled household is haunted by a phantom white horse.
West believed that she had inherited clairvoyant abilities from her mother – and in England during the Second World War, found she could sense when German air raids were impending.
Her letters report other uncanny experiences, such as the sensation of oppression she felt during the hours before she learned of Wells’s death (which had occurred when West’s discomfort passed). Psychic phenomena also occasionally feature in West’s novels.
While Harriet Hume centres upon a telepathic concert pianist, in The Fountain Overflows a family of psychically-gifted women read minds, tell fortunes, and rid a relative’s house of a poltergeist.
Mary Butts and Sylvia Plath
While West claimed not to be greatly interested in the supernatural, some of her contemporaries took a more practical approach. For Mary Butts in the 1920s, and Sylvia Plath in the 1950s, magic and divination were expressions of creative ambition during post-war periods when – although religious orthodoxies and gender roles were being questioned – a conscious, rational mentality associated with the male-dominated fields of science and industry was valued over more intuitive and imaginative modes of perception.
Both Butts and Plath hoped that their occult experiments might release subconscious material for successful creative use. Butts developed visualisation skills and her will to creative power in ceremonial magic rituals learned from notorious occultist Aleister Crowley (and mostly involving forms of meditation, but also opium, to which Butts became addicted).
Plath researched the imagery of the Tarot card deck, and joined her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes in sessions at the Ouija board where they contacted ‘spirits’ for inspiration for their writing.
In some ways, Butts and Plath’s occult experiments succeeded. Butts developed a theory of creative inspiration based on her sense, acquired during rituals and ‘automatic writing’, that insights were best gained by relaxed, oblique mental approaches, rather than by direct, focused concentration.
This idea informed the subtly suggestive, Modernist narrative style of her best fictions – including Armed With Madness, a novel about a group of young bohemians’ re-enactment of an ancient fertility myth. Plath’s Ouija questionings produced a title prompt for her beautiful poem ‘Lorelei’; while the importance of Tarot imagery in her Ariel poems is widely recognised.
However, both authors became troubled by the extent to which their occult explorations were controlled by men. Butts ultimately dissociated herself from the abusive and manipulative Crowley, and later converted to Anglo-Catholicism — finding in it echoes of the ancient Greek mystery religions that fascinated her.
Plath, meanwhile, was made anxious by uncertainty as to whose subconscious – hers or Hughes’s – dominated at the Ouija board, dramatizing her part-unnerved, part-sceptical responses to their proceedings in ‘Dialogue Over a Ouija Board’ and ‘Ouija’.
For ambitious nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women experiencing (sometimes unconscious) insecurities around establishing creative authority, the mysterious traditions of magic, clairvoyancy, and divination seem to have provided alternative languages in which to explore or affirm their aspirations.
Today, women writers are finding in astrology and other esoteric traditions a scope for imagination and formal innovation perhaps not being enabled within the established literary and artistic cultures. Like the myths and folktales now also being revived, magical lore and divinatory arts simply offer new stories for a future that will need them.
Jenny McAuley has taught C18-C21 Literature in English for various colleges at the University of Oxford since 2009. She is also a freelance writer and researcher, with particular interests in Romanticism, and women’s writing of all periods. You can follow her on Twitter at @jenny_mcauley
[Picture credit: Ariel Grimm on Flickr]