The nineteenth century saw not only the emergence of the telegraph, the telephone, and the typewriter but also a fascination with seances and occult practices like automatic writing as a means for contacting the dead. Like the new technologies, modern spiritualism promised to link people separated by space or circumstance; and like them as well, it depended on the presence of a human medium to convey these conversations. Whether electrical or otherworldly, these communications were remarkably often conducted -- in offices, at telegraph stations and telephone switchboards, and in seance parlors -- by women.
In The Sympathetic Medium, Jill Galvan offers a richly nuanced and culturally grounded analysis of the rise of the female medium in Great Britain and the United States during the Victorian era and through the turn of the century. Examining a wide variety of fictional explorations of feminine channeling (in both the technological and supernatural realms) by such authors as Henry James, George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Marie Corelli, and George Du Maurier, Galvan argues that women were often chosen for that role, or assumed it themselves, because they made at-a-distance dialogues seem more intimate, less mediated. Two allegedly feminine traits, sympathy and a susceptibility to automatism, enabled women to disappear into their roles as message-carriers. Anchoring her literary analysis in discussions of social, economic, and scientific culture, Galvan finds that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminization of mediated communication reveals the challenges that the new networked culture presented to prevailing ideas of gender, dialogue, privacy, and the relationship between body and self.
"Victorian studies once ignored the bizarre and eccentric world of mesmerists, spiritualists, and psychical researchers. But over the last twenty years, a new generation of cultural critics has explored how scientific, technological, and spiritual experiments were complexly intertwined in the nineteenth century. Jill Galvan's book is another contribution to this exciting and burgeoning field. In a series of deft readings, she examines how Victorians often overlaid the figure of the woman as sympathetic social mediator, technological operator, automatic typewriter, and mediumistic detecting device, sensitive to messages from the dead. Galvan convincingly explains how important this relay of occult and mechanical analogies saturated a culture living through continuous technological revolution. Combining gender studies with the history of science and technology and literary criticism, this is the kind of cultural history that sparks with light and energy." -- Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck College, University of London
"Any literary scholar or cultural historian of the Victorian period will learn a great deal from Jill Galvan's analysis of linked trends in telecommunications technology, labor history, Victorian literature, and the occult. By focusing on gender, Galvan has exposed key cultural connections between writing, narrating, typing, and 'communicating with the dead.' Galvan shows how different telegraphs, telephones, phonographs, and typewriters look in the context of Victorian occultism and the female medium. Galvan's book offers practical, grounded criticism driven by a genuine interest in women's history." -- Laura Otis, Emory University
"In The Sympathetic Medium, Jill Galvan mines Victorian and modern texts of the wired and occult to argue compellingly for the importance of the understudied figure at the center of them all. The female telegraph sounders, secretaries, spirit channelers, and go-betweens of both familiar and lesser known late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century literary works receive their due in this fascinating book, which makes important contributions not only to Victorian literary studies but also to scholarship on the cultural impact of communications technologies. Galvan breaks new interdisciplinary ground in compelling readers to recognize media studies as a kind of gender studies." -- John Picker, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"In the late nineteenth century, women came to seem both the ideal spirit mediums and the perfect operators for newly invented media such as the typewriter and telephone. The Sympathetic Medium persuasively demonstrates how the idea of a feminine capacity for simultaneous automatism and sympathy links the seance to the switchboard, occult experience to office culture, and literary fiction to popular narrative. In Galvan's lively account, gender ideologies and psychic channeling emerge as crucial relays in the history of modern communication." -- Richard Menke, University of Georgia, author of Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems