The rise of spiritualism in the Victorian era makes for a fascinating story. By the 1850s the Victorian Church was wrestling with the problem of 'doubt' on a massive scale: Biblical criticism was on the increase as new research began to pose awkward questions regarding the literal truth of the gospels; Dissenting Movements grew and split from mainstream Christianity and began to squabble busily amongst themselves. Add a dash of Darwinism at the end of the decade, with its troubling conclusions regarding the need, or the apparent lack of one, for a divine creator and its conclusions regarding Mankind's unexceptional place in the universe, and it is no wonder that spiritualism, with its offer of hope and apparent proof of a continued existence beyond the grave, was welcomed by many sections of society. For those suffering religious doubts, or from the pains of bereavement; or for those looking for some 'magic' which the Church could no longer provide, spiritualism offered a great deal of consolation.
Alex Owen examines the rise of spiritualism, providing an excellent account of its origins, and then gives the well-worn tale a new twist by explaining how spiritualism particularly impacted on the lives of women. There were several successful male mediums but, for many, women were seen as having the edge when it came to communing with those beyond the veil. The perceived 'passivity' of women allowed them to be more receptive towards spirit communications; their less confrontational approach to life was regarded as helpful when it came to encouraging the spirits to 'come through'. Owen also examines how spiritualism gave women opportunities in something approaching a priest-like role - something which orthodox religion clearly could not provide - and explains how it allowed the more gifted practitioners to earn a living, make progress up the class-ladder and even achieve a certain amount of celebrity.
It is all fascinating stuff and the book hits a perfect pitch - being both academically rigorous and vastly entertaining at the same time. Individual tales are carefully drawn out; the best-known female mediums are given space in the text to become real people; the ways in which spiritualism moved from low-key oddity with curious raps and taps to full-scale spectacle with visible manifestations is beautifully explained and the darker side of the story, the perceived links between hearing spirit voices and being certifiably insane, is outlined. In conclusion The Darkened Room is a fascinating, erudite and extremely well-written book on one of the most fascinating branches of Victorian life (and death). Superb.