Those Spooky Victorians

When remembering an era associated with pomp and circumstance, one mustn’t forget that Victorians also had quite a deep-seated interest and fascination with the supernatural, the macabre, and anything mystical.

By Bretton Weir

Fall is officially upon us as we enter into the dawn of October. With Thanksgiving around the corner and then Halloween shortly after that, I, like many, tend to embrace the changing seasons by outfitting myself in the chunkiest of knitted wool sweaters and trading in the iced coffees for chai lattes. And while pumpkin spice everything fills the stores, I still like to take a few moments and appreciate the chilling air that always accompanies the changing of the seasons. 

An illustration of Victorians toying with their supernatural fascinations. Photo: Ranker

In my many years as an enthusiast of history, I have always had a fascination with Victorian sensibilities; and of those sensibilities, their fascinations with the macabre, the mystical, and the superstitious seem to have a particular poignancy this time of year. In the spirit of the season, a look at the supernatural and superstitious side of this era is in order.

Why Were Victorians So Superstitious?

In order to effectively answer this question, I think it is important to look at the context in which Victorians were living. The industrial revolution was booming and this brought on a period of rapid change and enlightenment; however, with all of this change going on, one could argue that there was a push-pull between existing staunch religious ideals and a new insidious curiosity for the truth. This combination, therefore, often resulted in the manifestation of superstitious beliefs as rationale and reasoning behind “unexplained” events.

Queen Victoria in mourning.
Photo: MySendOff

Also, death was a pretty major part of the life of a Victorian and one would be remiss to not mention that this likely had something to do with the sensibilities of the era. In many instances, the obsession with the macabre can be closely related to the Victorian’s treatment of death and the afterlife — post-mortem portrait photography, for instance, or even retaining locks of hair from the deceased were ways in which people could remember and mourn the passing of a loved one. Not to mention the number of post-death rituals that were to follow one’s passing, notably the wearing of black as a sign of mourning, made famously by Queen Victoria herself as she descended into a four decades-long period following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

The Style of Victorian Spookiness

Victorian superstitions and interest in the macabre provided not only a framework for explanations of the unexplained, but also a certain aesthetic to the era. For instance, if one were to examine some of the popular literature, e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published 1818) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (published 1897), key gothic horror elements and tropes plague the narrative and themes of these two iconic novels.

Victorians Embracing the Macabre

A Victorian Seance. Photo: The Victorian Seance

While sadness and loss were the roots of many Victorian rituals, there was also an aspect of entertainment and curiosity, notably through the use of Ouija boards and partaking in Seances as a means to communicate with spirits beyond the grave.

While the accuracy and realness of these affairs is certainly up for debate, the essence of them are perfect zeitgeists into the era’s fascination with and passion toward the supernatural that can very easily transcend through time and beyond.

“The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name”

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright known for his unmatched wit and, infamously, for his sexuality, defined what it is to be unapologetically proud.

By Serena Ypelaar

There were no Pride parades in his day, but Oscar Wilde’s openness on the streets of London arguably comprises the Victorian equivalent.

Growing up in Merrion Square in Dublin (which I just visited last month), Wilde moved to London and settled there for much of his life. He’s celebrated as a gay icon, but it’s little known that he was once in love with the woman who would become Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe. Wilde was devastated when she chose to marry Stoker over him. He proposed to two other women before marrying Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons. It’s said that Wilde loved Constance, though of course he’s best known to have engaged in relations with numerous men. Today we’d probably call him bisexual, but Wilde considered himself “Socratic” when it came to love.

Oscar Wilde grew up in this house at 1 Merrion Square, Dublin. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Wilde was proud of his identity – and quite open with his sexuality especially by the standards of the time. Yet even he had to hide who he was to avoid persecution in the form of a criminal trial. In 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, a homophobic law in the United Kingdom which made same-sex relations illegal for men.

Wilde wasn’t officially out yet when he toured North America for his lecture series on aestheticism in the early 1880s; but as he dressed himself flamboyantly and tended to push the envelope with his sardonic and witty manner, he had cultivated a considerable reputation. The Marquess of Lorne, 9th Duke of Argyll and fourth Governor General of Canada, even declined to meet Oscar Wilde lest ongoing rumours of his own suspected homosexuality be exacerbated. All the while, Wilde had not a care in the world what people thought of his effeminacy.

In 1882 (aged 27), he watched a lacrosse match from the Lieutenant Governor’s box in Toronto, Canada, and was said to have remarked to the Toronto Globe newspaper on his great appreciation for “a tall, well-built defence man”. While Wilde had no qualms about public displays of same-sex interactions, having once kissed a waiter in a restaurant (and possibly Walt Whitman too), such actions were unforgivable in the formal courts back in England.

Oscar Wilde in 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Photo: Wikimedia

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s most famous lover, wrote a poem titled “Two Loves” (1894), which ends with the phrase “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” The line was used against Wilde in his trial when he was charged by Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who suspected the two gentlemen’s romance and abhorred it. Queensberry demanded that Wilde cut ties with Douglas, persisting despite Wilde’s insouciance.

Queensberry: “I do not say that you are [homosexual], but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.”

Wilde: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

An 1894 exchange between The Marquess of Queensberry and Oscar Wilde at Wilde’s residence, 16 Tite Street, London

Unwisely, Wilde pressed charges against Queensberry when the latter left a calling card at Wilde’s club reading “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”. Incensed by what he took for a public accusation of sodomy, Wilde sued for libel, but it was this legal action which led to Queensberry’s acquittal and counter-suit against Wilde. Having procured evidence of Wilde’s liaisons with male prostitutes alongside letters to Douglas, Queensberry had cornered Wilde. Douglas’ poem was interpreted as a euphemism for sodomy, which Wilde denied, but evidence was stacking up against him. Out in society, his dandyish reputation and conflicts with Queensberry caused him little harm, but taking the feud to the courtroom proved to be Wilde’s undoing. He was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. His imprisonment from 1895 to 1897 spurred his decline, and in 1900 he died of meningitis in France – but not before being reunited with Douglas for a time.

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas with Oscar Wilde in 1894. Photo: Wikimedia

In continuing to be himself at all costs, Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily brave in the face of so much discrimination. And yet he had to resort to denying his same-sex encounters in the name of self-preservation. He was incarcerated for his defiance of society’s norms, and he fell from public regard. It wasn’t easy to be queer in the 1890s. Society may have taken strides toward equality and respect since, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy now, either.

What does Wilde’s life over 100 years ago tell us about Pride today? Namely that there are still obstacles to freedom, love, and tolerance, but that the LGBTQ2+ community deserves the right to a parade. Not just the organized Pride parades that take place around the world, but the mere act of parading down the street during day-to-day life: open, out, and free, living authentically without retribution. So-called “Straight Pride parades” happen every single day with the simple privilege of going out into the world without discrimination. The LGBTQ2+ Pride parade should happen every day too – because queer individuals have every reason to be proud.

What the Dickens? Christmas the Scrooge Way

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic favourite when it comes to the Christmas spirit, and he entwines a fictional biography with class commentary.

By Serena Ypelaar

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

This phrase from Charles Dickens’ well-loved Christmas novella cleverly establishes the intersection of life and death, as the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner comes to warn him off his cold-hearted ways. A Christmas Carol (1843) illuminates the importance of generosity during the festive season, but it also serves as an excellent form of fictional biography.

In the book, Dickens exemplifies the writerly adage “show, don’t tell” and spins a compelling illustration of a man’s life without resorting to long-winded character monologues. Where a lesser author might have their protagonist prattle on at length about their upbringing in a style that bores most readers, Dickens instead shows us almost firsthand how miser Ebenezer Scrooge became the person he is.

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Ebenezer Scrooge (Alistair Sim) watches events of his past as shown by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) in the 1951 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”. Photo: The Guardian

It’s a fascinating combination of realism and supernaturality, with the Ghosts of Christmas Past appearing to guide Scrooge (and us) through a revival of his past. Not a retelling, but a re-experiencing. But what does Dickens want from us when taking us through fictional Scrooge’s lifetime? An understanding of the character is the obvious answer, but it also goes a little deeper than that. He wants us to foster empathy for not only Scrooge, but those he deprives.

Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, illustrated by John Leech. Photo: Wikimedia

From an interpretive perspective, the flashback device serves to place us directly in Scrooge’s shoes, therefore holding us accountable. By using Scrooge as an overarching symbol of avarice (especially during the holidays), Dickens warns against the danger of greed. In his customary fashion, he prompts us – through experiencing Scrooge’s life alongside him – to ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Do we donate to those in need at the holidays? Many of us do, but many of us don’t. We fret about shopping and wish lists but fail to consider those for whom (like the Cratchits) a big family dinner would mean the world.

It’s fascinating to consider that Dickens predated the commercial bastardization of Christmas by almost century, as we now sit at a point where Christmas for many people is defined by dollar signs (or pounds, for that matter).

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, who walks with a cane, as illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Cratchits cannot afford adequate medical care for Tim. Photo: Wikimedia

So when we read A Christmas Carol or watch an adaptation (my family and I favour the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim), we’re prompted to examine our own behaviour. In damning Scrooge for his constant refrain of “bah, Humbug”, are we ourselves really focused on the true meaning of Christmas? We can interpret Dickens’ work many ways, but the one immovable theme at the core is that Christmas calls us toward togetherness, kindness, and compassion. Dickens wishes us a Merry Christmas, certainly, but he doesn’t let us off easy when it comes to our own thoughtfulness. That much is clear when he stresses the final two words of Tiny Tim’s famous refrain: God bless us, every one.”

The world may be an unequal place, as Dickens knew well, but his works inspire us to do whatever we can to reset the balance and share what we have.

In parting, Merry Christmas, and thank you for reading The Mindful Rambler! Sending you all the best wishes – take care of each other.

Leaving you with a wonderful Dickens parody on the television series Quacks, starring Andrew Scott as the writer himself!