Not my own thoughts, but rather the beginning of Colloquies with an unseen friend (1907), the collected (by the intriguing Walburga, Lady Pageta) automatic writings of one Fidelio, a rather well-informed spirit (friends with Plato dontcha know!); a book I catalogued the other day and one which evinces the mindset of the potential audience for these strange fictions we’ve been meeting.
So is it, as one modern commentator (call them A) on the period believes, that this strain of fantasy was to the mainstream literature of the day what psychic research is to science (capital S)? That is to say, if you are said modern commentator, that it produced nothing but “debased or sentimentalized supernaturalism, things that go bump in the night.” Bit dismissive there, A. Or maybe there is a more positive reading? Well, here comes commentator B who has this to suggest, that these works might represent “the most concrete, if somewhat vulgarized, manifestation of definitive trends in the major fiction of Lawrence, Joyce, Conrad, Hardy and Woolf: the fascination with darkness and irrationality, the focus on unorthodox states of consciousness and perception, the projection of apocalypse and chaos, and above all the preoccupation with the timeless ‘moments’ and ‘visions.’”
Well, to show my hand and start wrapping things up, I’ll borrow from Commentator B again, who posits a paradoxical positive feedback loop sort-of-thing by deciding that “what is sought after – the otherworldly – makes us realize how much we need the worldly; but the more we know of the world, the more we need to be rid of it.” And after all, this was a time when people’s feelings towards the world around them does seem to get pretty confused. It’s the anxious transitional period at the start of the new century, a period of social and political change as another siècle is fin. And while there are Belle Époques and Gilded Eras being lived, England and a large slice of the world will soon move from this era of relative peace and prosperity through to the horror of two great wars and into a modern world beyond.
One final note to ring out though, and that is how unfortunate it is that both commentators agree to class these works as debasements and vulgarisations of something apparently finer, the implication of which is to ascribe them a throw-away nature. Alright, so some of them may be tosh, but to subordinate them all, to ignore wholesale the ‘vulgar’, would be to miss the chance to get a better idea of a historical people, not to mention you’d miss a cracking yarn or two. Where would we be without such popularist material to study? he cries. Well, I’d be out of a job, but luckily the collection in the Tower with its odds and non-academic ends – including many of these works, waiting, their wyrd worlds trapped forever in their pages – gives us that chance. And me a job!
As Modern Commentator A:
Samuel Hynes, The Edwardian Turn of Mind (London : Pimlico, 1991).
and as Modern Commentator B:
Jack Sullivan, Elegant Nightmares (Athens, OH : Ohio University Press, 1978).