Neo-Victorian Review – The Living and the Dead: Folklore and Magic, Science and Technology

Emily Turner is a first year doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, where she is studying the medical humanities with a specific focus on locating archives of patient publications produced in mental health institutions between 1850 and 1950. You can find out more by following her at, or read more of her journalism and academic writing at

Last week, I blogged about The Living and the Dead’s young spirit conduit Harriet Denning, poised between childhood and a repressed Victorian womanhood. Harriet’s age is associated in nineteenth-century psychology with a vulnerability to hysteria and psychosexual confusion, which is the initial diagnosis given to her by head-doctor Nathan Appleby. Her abilities are also in keeping with folkish traditions of the adolescent girl as imbibed with a psychic energy which draws the spiritual to her.

Gideon Langtree and Charlotte Appleby. Picture credit: BBC,

Gideon Langtree and Charlotte Appleby. Picture credit: BBC,

Harriet’s chronological position between multiple spheres represents a larger theme at the heart of The Living and the Dead, which explores how the quickly modernising Victorian world and the traditional domain of a Somerset village interact. Shepzoy is a rural community, and the ideologies of its inhabitants are governed by a Victorian piousness and adherence to the old religion, as well as a tendency towards superstition and folklore governed by the tempestuous landscape. This domain stands in stark contrast to the new world of nineteenth century innovation, an expanding universe of technology and science which begins to infiltrate Shepzoy with the Applebys’ arrival.

Although The Living and the Dead takes place in 1894, Shepzoy seems to exist in a period from the earlier nineteenth century, with traditions and technology which harken back to a time not yet left behind by the rural community. Nathan describes the place as ‘a rundown, outmoded farm in the middle of an agricultural recession’, but decides to maintain the farm in order to keep the community together – ‘if we don’t do something radical, this place will die’.

The inhabitants of Shepzoy demonstrate a resistance to the new ideals brought to the farm by the Applebys. ‘Don’t expect everyone to accept the changes with open arms’, warns Nathan to Charlotte, who has taken on the role of farm manager and has begun to introduce new technology for the workers to use. ‘I hardly think your father expected you to spend your inheritance on a traction engine’, laughs Nathan, as Charlotte assures ‘this traction engine will revolutionise the way this farm is run’. The suspicion that the inhabitants of Shepzoy harbour towards the new-fangled machinery is made clear, as they suspiciously stare at the traction engine. Shots of farmhands using scythes illustrates a scene which could have been set decades before the year in which The Living and the Dead is located, illuminating, as Thomas Hardy’s works have done, a declining rural society. During the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘idea of steam power invaded the countryside [leading to] total revolution, in the shape of the Fowler steam plough introduced in the 1850s’ (26), thus indicating that Shepzoy is rather late in joining the industrial revolution. Steam powered machines such as ‘traction engines became important tools for Victorian farmers and were not superseded for fifty years, until the invention of the internal-combustion engine allowed the development of the lightweight tractor’[1]. The Living and the Dead demonstrates Shepzoy’s sustained resistance to these agricultural changes, as workers holding rakes watch the machine whirling into use, unsure expressions on their faces as the engine belts start to turn. ‘It’ll one day take our jobs, as it’s already taken my pride’, warns one worker.

Working on the new traction engine. Picture credit: BBC,

Working on the new traction engine. Picture credit: BBC,

It is natural that the old and the new clash, but the concept I would like to discuss in this blog post is how The Living and the Dead illustrates the two spheres mutually informing each other, creating a give-and-take tension in the interchange of ideas. In his book Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas attempts ‘to make sense of some of the systems of belief which were current in and seventeenth century England [such as] astrology, witchcraft, magical healing, divination, ancient prophesies, ghosts and fairies’ [2]. He explains that through his research into these beliefs, which were taken very seriously by people during this period, he ‘became conscious of the close relationship which many of these beliefs bore to the religious ideas of the period […] sometimes they were parasitic upon Christian teaching; sometimes they were in sharp rivalry to it’[3]. Mirroring this process of a give-and-take transition between two modes of thought, Shepzoy’s isolated position means that the world around it has evolved and developed, reaping the benefits of an industrial revolution and scientific progress. The arrival of Charlotte and Nathan means that the village inhabitants are forced to confront these new-world ideas, whilst still attempting to faithfully adhere to the old rituals.

This is illustrated in the Applebys’ determination to modernise the farm by routing a railway through the land to quickly transfer their crops to their customers: ‘If we could convince the railway to bring a branch line across our lands’, hypothesises Nathan. ‘Then that is what we shall do’, determines Charlotte. This is met with an age-old suspicion, and the villagers discuss their aversion to changes on the farm. ‘I remember when old Mrs Appleby grubbed out the Tremlett Bitter orchards and replaced ’em with Dabinett. You were in here every night, moaning your head off about the evils of progress’, chastises one. ‘Who wants a train anyways? Nasty, noisy buggers […] no good will come of this, you mark my words […] like my dear old granfer used to say to me…what lies beneath should be left beneath’, replies another.

Nathan Appleby and Peter Hare. Picture credit: BBC,

Nathan Appleby and Peter Hare. Picture credit: BBC,

The tensions and interchange between the old world and the new age are particularly well played out in the third episode of the series, as a troubled young man begins to experience ghostly occurrences. Peter plans to ‘wash his woes away’ with a bathe in the old millpond but is shocked to discover a ghostly woman’s body floating at the bottom of the water. It is revealed, thanks to a salt and silver print of the 1861 harvest hanging on the walls of the Applebys’ home, that the woman at the centre of this haunting is Clarity Winlove, a healer who helped women who wanted to conceive.

Echoing the theme of transitioning from one period of time to another, this narrative is set around the reaping of the harvest. The concern that the community experiences is clear – ‘there’s tension in the air’, warns Gideon, a leading farm hand, ‘when the reaping’s imminent’. For a village population whose success is determined by the whims of the natural world and orientated around a folklore which attempts to make sense of the horrendous things that the landscape can wreck upon their community, the harvest is a pivotal moment in the calendar. ‘Hard to sleep before the harvest’, complain the farm hands, conscious that this is the time where they reap what they sow.

In this theme, the use of the old and the new are demonstrated to be necessary for the personal and communal developments of the inhabitants of the farm. Hedgewitch Gwen, Charlotte’s maid, for example, uses her folkish knowledge to create medicine to help Charlotte conceive, something that modern science has failed to achieve for the Applebys. ‘I have been pushed and prodded by some of the most expensive doctors in London’, says Charlotte, ‘I don’t think some boiled grass is going to make much difference’. Gwen brews ‘cabbage leaves, mandrake, marjoram, thyme, parsley, the root of worm fern, and the tail of a slow worm [for] added potency, and later takes Charlotte’s bloodied menstrual cloth to hang from a tree. As she ties the rag up to blow in the wind, we see bottles, feathered charms, and lucky trinkets hanging from the branches – this is Shepzoy’s ‘world tree’. Traditionally, the tree represents the Axis Mundi and the omphalos, and its life-cycle ‘is a reminder of the endless cycle of regeneration; of life, death, and rebirth […] the symbolism of the tree is far reaching; it is used to represent the idea of a family’[4]. Where modern bioscience has failed, an old knowledge has prevailed, as the leaves of the tree later provide a clear indication of Charlotte’s pregnancy. Ancient folklore informs the new age.

At the same time, however, The Living and the Dead demonstrates a tension between old and new, illustrating how an antiquated resistance to modernisation can lead to tragedy. This is demonstrated by the programme’s representation of Shepzoy’s harvest, which is hit by two disasters. Black insects infect the wheat, leading to despair from the workers. ‘The crop has been cursed’, warns Gideon, ‘happened before, in ’62. Black devils, destroyed the whole harvest’.  Charlotte retorts ‘they’re only insects. They’re not devils. This is not a curse’, before retreating to her books to find a solution. Chancing across a method to rid the farm of the insects, Charlotte and Gwen take to the kitchen to create their fumigating candles as Nathan asks ‘what are you making?’. ‘Magic’, says Gwen. ‘Science’, replies Charlotte, implying that here, they serve as two sides of the same coin. Taking the candles out to the fields, Charlotte warns Nathan to ‘say a prayer’, before killing the insects, fumigating the crops and saving the harvest. Science has been used to combat the harsh whims of the natural world, and as the smoke spreads out over the fields, Nathan says: ‘it’s like the end of the world’, to which Charlotte responds, ‘or the beginning’. Later, however, a wicked storm arises, forcing the farm workers to take to the fields and save as much of the crop as possible. Whereas the beetle disaster is averted by a new age science, the havoc wrecked by the storm is minimised by the hard grind of the community. Although science is conquering much of the natural world, the community is still subject to the landscape – ‘pray for better weather. That’s all we can do’, suggests Charlotte.

Reaping the harvest. Picture credit: BBC,

Reaping the harvest. Picture credit: BBC,

The spirit world is that which encapsulates this tension between old and new, being unable to move into the future due to past trauma. Clarity’s ghost terrorises Peter, trying to convince the young man to hurt his mother by evoking the Pagan tradition of the sacrifice of blood for the success of the harvest – ‘you must make the sacrifice’, she says to Peter, having drawn him out into the corn fields, ‘your mother’s blood or the harvest will perish’.  Insects crawl out of her mouth, indicating the havoc she carries within her and threatens to wreck. Peter, who has been acting suspiciously due to the Clarity haunting, is blamed for both the harvest infestation and the torrential downpour, and village local Jack states that ‘we have to end it. The old way’.

An adherence to an antiquated folklore based around a suspicion of village outsiders leads Jack to attempt to drown the scapegoated Peter – ‘now, if you float, you’re a witch. If you sink, you’re innocent’. Reflecting Shepzoy’s late introduction into the agricultural revolution, this reference to witch-dunking is anachronistic, having largely fell out of practice by the nineteenth century. Although he is fished out of the millpond just in time, his mother, Maud, goes to slit her wrists, admitting that the Clarity Winlove haunting is her fault: ‘It was a terrible time. The harvest was ruined. The village seemed damned. And Clarity frightened me. The way she looked at me. And one day, I saw her give a potion to my mother to put in my father’s food […] told myself she was a witch […] I told my parents I’d seen her curse the wheat field. And they brought her here. And they ducked her. And they drowned her. And they sank her down with chains’.

The mill itself is described as one of Nathan’s ‘childhood haunts’, with an array of dead fish in the millpond and ghostly white dandelion seeds floating through the air. It is a haunting place, once framed through the lens of folkish lore – ‘as a boy, I saw it as an altar, where a high priest might make a sacrifice’, says Nathan – but it is now abandoned. After the bad harvest of ’62, a steam mill is opened instead, progressing towards a modernised society, leaving this site a space of unresolved tension between past and present.

Following Maud’s confession, Clarity’s ghost seems to fade away, finally put to rest. The sating of this tension between past and present reflects a greater acceptance on the farm to the new ways of the Applebys, who have saved the year’s harvest. The folkish knowledge of Shepzoy’s inhabitants certainly plays a crucial part in protecting their community, but the reveal of Clarity’s demise illustrates the necessity of progress in preventing these needless

Charlie. Picture credit: BBC,

Charlie. Picture credit: BBC,

This theme of the crucial nature of advancement reflects the narrative of the second episode, in which the ghosts of five boys terrorise a young villager named Charlie. An old man returns to Shepzoy, telling the story of a tragedy which occurred at the Appleby mine years earlier. ‘Hot as hell and black as the devil’, young boys were sent to work down the mines, where they would call to each other to ensure each was safe. ‘Then I heard the whole valley rumble’, weeps the man, ‘the mine was caving in. When there is a landslip, the men on the surface shout down to the trapper, who sounds the alarm, but I wasn’t in the coffin. Too expensive to dig them out. I could hear them screaming and crying for days […] and now, I hear them again. My poor, poor angry boys.’

Charlie, who is resistant to the changes happening to his home town – ‘he’s been worried Sir’, Charlie’s mother warns Nathan, ‘your mother dying and the traction engine and John…he’s worried what will come of us, we all are’ – falls prey to the vengeful spirits of the lost boys. This episode highlights that change is not always merely good, but can be desperately crucial in preventing a society from repeating its tragic mistakes of the past.

The local churchman, Denning, later leads a toast to Charlotte as the new farm manager, proclaiming ‘we must evolve and embrace the new’ as everyone drinks to ‘the old and the new’. In his evolutionary text, Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin suggests that ‘man selects only for his own good’. This is certainly the case for the inhabitants of Shepzoy – confronted with two ideological spheres, one of tradition and one of modernisation, they appeal to the laws of natural selection and adhere to the principles which benefit them best as a society.


[1] Hart-Davies, Adam, What the Victorians Did For Us, (Headline Book Publishing, Great Britain: 2001), 27.

[2] Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (Penguin Books, London: 1991), ix.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nozedar, Adele, The Element Encyclopaedia of Secret Signs and Symbols, (HarperElement, London: 2008),.


One response to “Neo-Victorian Review – The Living and the Dead: Folklore and Magic, Science and Technology

  1. Pingback: The Living and the Dead:Folklore and Magic, Science and Technology – Emily Turner·

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