‘Preaching to the Nerves’: Reading the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Periodicals and the Modern Tabloid Press

Verity Burke is a PhD student at the University of Reading, considering anatomy, epistemology and the popular imagination in nineteenth-century scientific, medical and literary texts. Her wider research interests include Charles Dickens, medical jurisprudence and the body. Verity works with the Francis Cole Archive of Early Medicine and Zoology, and she loves a good taxidermy squirrel. Come say hi on Twitter @VerityBurke_.

Eek! There are ghosts in my royal palace! Expectant parents claim they can see baby’s dead grandmother! Knives hurled across the kitchen and words spelled out with pebbles in the bathroom…[1] While these may sound like plots from a Victorian sensation or Gothic novel, they’re actually titles from articles in contemporary sensationalist magazines and tabloid newspapers. With a vast audience, ghost stories attract all kinds of attention, but the inclusion of such stories in these publications tends to encourage snobbery and disparaging remarks, and in this sense, perhaps we haven’t much moved on from the nineteenth century.

For the Victorians, the genre of the supernatural also had cultural ramifications; by the mid-nineteenth century, with science and technology advancing, and spiritualism pressing its case, the supernatural had become a loaded subject. Concurrent with these developments was an explosion in print media, allowing a dissemination of information and fiction to new classes, and creating an environment in which ideas could be transmitted through new media. Many authors publishing in these periodicals registered these contemporary cultural anxieties and incorporated them into their fiction and journalism, leaving a surviving imprint or ghostly echo of these concerns; as Louis James notes, ‘a periodical, because it selects and orders information in a specific way, becomes a microcosm, to a lesser or greater extent, of a cultural outlook.’[2]

Like our contemporary magazines, the periodical held a fraught cultural and intellectual position in the nineteenth century. Writers recognised its importance as an affordable medium to the lower and middle classes, as a resource ‘whence the streams of pure and useful knowledge flow; and that the numbers who thirst for it … can thus slake that thirst.’[3] Aileen Fyfe’s contention that ‘publishers relied heavily on periodicals to carry advertisements and reviews of books, [while] readers used the periodicals … to get advice on what and how to read’ exemplifies popular opinion on the periodical as a means of infiltration into the public consciousness.[4] Many contemporary authors raised this issue in articles heavy with the rhetoric of addiction and titillation, enjoining these fears of new literacy to the supposedly impressionable working class and their voracious appetite for reading. Just as Jamie Oliver recently raised eyebrows by asserting that working class families spend their money on big televisions rather than food, Fanny Mayne’s concern that the working class ‘will deprive themselves of their necessary food, and spend their last halfpenny in the indulgence of their literary propensities’ couples this addiction with the strongly emphasised warning: ‘reading is a sensual gratification.[5] Metaphorically, the sensational press acts

‘A Ghost with a Revolver’, The Illustrated Police News, October 10 1885

‘A Ghost with a Revolver’, The Illustrated Police News, October 10 1885

as an unhealthy influence on the nervous system; the language of addiction conjoins the new supernatural fiction of medical disorders and loss of individual control to the very press that fears and mimics its influence. This fear of physical invasion, of a sensational story that has the power to infect the body, echoes into our own modern-day ghost ‘haunted womb’ narratives or ‘ghostly sexual encounter,’ with the cynic reacting as if the sensational has literally penetrated the body (and the mind).

Henry Mansel’s famous condemnation of sensation novels continues Mayne’s concern about the physical side-effects of reading through his assertion that such literature ‘“preach[es] to the nerves.”’[6] While Mansel applies his criticism to the sensation novel, the ghost story holds equal claim to inducing a physical reaction in the reader; the shiver down the spine, the raised heart-rate, and the sweaty palms of terror can be likened both to the language of addiction applied to the periodical, and the terror of the supernatural story, creating a parallel with the sensations often equated in the Victorian mind to a lack of bodily control, and to immoral pleasure. Mansel perfectly articulates the fear that this popular literature played ‘no inconsiderable part in moulding … minds,’ arguing that ‘morbid phenomena … [was] called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite … contributing themselves to foster the disease … to stimulate the want which they supply.’[7] This language of addiction feeds into the ebb and flow of currents evoked in the portrayal of the magnetic influence of the press and mesmerism, the social body infected through an influence which recalls the influence of the supernatural short story.

Front Cover of The Illustrated Police News, September 17 1881.

Front Cover of The Illustrated Police News, September 17 1881.

These anxieties, percolating through the rhetoric of ‘appetites,’ ‘nerves,’ and ‘morbid’ physicality, alongside a disturbing influence on the mind as well as the body, still echo in our tabloid newspapers and sensational magazines today. Pick Me Up’s recent story entitled ‘My Hypnotising Body’ advertises the tale of a ‘psychic gastric band’ written by a reader whose weight loss was assisted by hypnotism.[8] The magazine’s blaring headlines and images of the reader frame her narrative within the same discourse of class and gender issues, fears surrounding reading, the supernatural and control over the body, as those that frame the ghost story of the Victorian periodical. The Daily Mail’s coverage of a ‘mother-to-be’ who saw the face of her dead mother-in-law in her ultrasound

Front cover of Pick Me Up, Issue 13, 26 March 2015. The layout and display of bodies echoes that of the Illustrated Police News’s cover, above.

Front cover of Pick Me Up, Issue 13, 26 March 2015. The layout and display of bodies echoes that of the Illustrated Police News’s cover, above.

scan also suggests a morbidity penetrating representations of the female body. The article’s explicit framing of its subject through the expected function of her gender, and the recognition of another mother, the ‘mother-in-law’ who ‘still watches over’ her granddaughter creates a strange interplay between physicality, surveillance and control over the body’s functions.[9] The implicit invitation for readers to play their part in this surveillance over the bodies’ functions Gothicises the act of reading, as images of the mother-to-be’s ultrasound scan are embedded in the article, our act of viewing these images creating a double of the mother-in-law’s surveillance over the foetus.

The mid-Victorian anxieties of influence, control and supervision reverberate with modern tales of ‘story after story of intrusion and intimidation,’ of ‘a mother’s agony, a child driven to take his own life’: not gothic stories but lives damaged by tabloid persecution.[10] Fears of the effect of writing and reading tabloids and sensationalised magazines are writ large. Roger Luckhurst’s examination of the symbolic links between hypnotised crowd and susceptible reader of the mid-Victorian periodical are enlightening on this point:

Gustave Le Bon’s influential account of the crowd regarded the subsumption of individuality into the suggestible mass as similar to ‘the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.’ The threat of mass print culture was similarly regarded by contemporary commentators; highly suggestible masses could be shaped by any editor who wanted to act as demagogue.[11]

Emerging at a time when hypnosis was coming to be accepted by the medical profession as a serious field of investigation, these comments represent a public held in thrall with the idea of a supernatural power legitimised through investigations by the scientific community, and the internalisation of the fear of these powers over individual control. As we consider tabloid journalism and the sensationalising narratives surrounding reading and control today, perhaps we should acknowledge the Victorian periodical. A good editor could ‘read the mind’ of the public to provide them with what they desired, garnering financial success, if not truth or public benefit; and in modern day tabloid reporting, this rhetoric of the supernatural and sensational, the fears surrounding readership, morality and the body remain alive and well.

Front Cover of The Illustrated Police News, September 17 1881.

Illustration: The Baron hypnotises Rosalie, by George du Maurier for Charles Warren Adam, The Notting Hill Mystery, in Once a Week 7, (6 December 1862), p.64. Wood-engraving by Joseph Swain. 4½ x 5 inches. This is the second illustration for Charles Warren Adams’s The Notting Hill Mystery, in Once a Week 7 (6 December 1862): 645. Another of Du Maurier’s powerful designs which stresses the weirdness of the text. It also prefigures his fascination with mesmerism, which appears in his own novel of hypnotism and erotic power, Trilby. Image scan and text by Simon Cooke. Source: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/dumaurier/154.html

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2983597/Eek-ghosts-royal-palace-eerie-photo-Hampton-Court-s-Grey-Lady-building-s-curator-says-s-jam-packed-spooks.html

and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2218946/The-mother-law-hell-Ghost-unborn-babys-dead-grandmother-appears-ultrasound-scan.html

and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2975035/Poltergeist-maliciously-terrorised-home-four-months-writing-threatening-messages-hurling-knives-bullets-rooms-attempts-exorcise-FAILED.html

[2] Louis James, ‘The Trouble with Betsy: periodicals and the common reader in mid-nineteenth-century England,’ in The Victorian Periodical Press: Samplings and Soundings, ed. Shattock and Wolff, (Leicester University Press, 1982), p351

[3] [Henry Brougham], ‘Progress of the People – The Periodical Press’, Edinburgh Review, 57 (April 1833), p240

[4] Aileen Fyfe, “Periodicals and Book Series: Complementary Aspects of a Publisher’s Mission,” p72

[5]http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2402412/Jamie-Oliver-criticises-working-class-families-diet-Poor-waste-cash-ready-meals-says-Chef.html and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/10266648/Jamie-Oliver-sparks-poverty-row-after-he-attacks-families-for-eating-junk-food-and-buying-expensive-TV-sets.html and F.[anny] M.[ayne], ‘The Literature of the Working Classes’, Englishwoman’s Magazine, and Christian Mother’s Miscellany, NS 5 (October 1850), p619

[6] [Henry Longueville Mansel], ‘Sensation Novels’, Quarterly Review, 113 (April 1863), p482

[7] [Mansel], p482

[8] ‘My Hypnotising Body,’ Pick Me Up, Issue 13, 26 March 2015, pp.36-37

[9] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2218946/The-mother-law-hell-Ghost-unborn-babys-dead-grandmother-appears-ultrasound-scan.html

[10] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/nov/23/leveson-inquiry-press-freedom

[11] Roger Luckhurst, ‘W.T. Stead’s Occult Economies’ in Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media, ed. Henson, Cantor, Dawson, Noakes, Shuttleworth and Topham, (Ashgate, 2004), p129


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