Elizabeth d’Espérance grew up in a tired old house on the East End of London, filled with dark, oak-paneled halls and desolate, forbidden rooms that compelled her to explore. “I was very fond of wandering about from one empty room to another,” she wrote,
and of sitting with my dolls on the broad low window seats, whence I would be fetched with an exclamation of horror and wonder by our servant, who considered my liking for the haunted rooms as “uncanny” and unnatural, threatening me with the ghosts and their vengeance if I persisted in invading their domains by myself.
I could never quite understand nurse’s remarks about the lonelines of the rooms, though her threats about the ghosts frightened me. To me the rooms were never empty nor lonely;—strangers were constantly passing to and fro, from one room to another; some took no notice of me, some nodded and smiled as I held up my doll for their inspection. I did not know who the strangers were, but I grew to know them by sight…
On this note, d’Espérance sets the tone for Shadow Land, her 1897 memoir of life as a medium during the heyday of Victorian spiritualism.
Her career began, naturally enough, in experiments with table rapping and automatic writing, but before long she was performing full-form manifestations in the manner of Florence Cook, Annie Fairlamb, and other star mediums of the era. Her usual controls were “Walter,” a light-hearted American soldier, and the professorial “Humnur Stafford,” but she is best remembered for manifesting female spirits like the “Yolande:” a playful Arab girl whose favorite trick was to materialize (“apport”) exotic flowers into the room.
Accounts of purported spectral phenomena like these are familiar to any student of spiritualism. What sets Shadow Land apart is that d’Espérance weaves them into a powerful, first-personal narrative that delves into the subjective experience of giving over one’s body as a conduit to the spirit world, together with its attendant doubts, fears and anxieties. Enough has been written about whether it is possible for a medium to lend her substance to strange, otherworldly entities—Shadow Land gives us a basis to imagine what it might actually feel like to do so.
On the occasion of her first materialization, d’Espérance relates her experiences inside the materialization cabinet as such:
I felt my hair blown and lifted by currents of air, and cool breezes played about my face and hands. Then began a strange sensation, which I had sometimes felt at seances. Frequently I have heard it described by others as of cobwebs being passed over the face, but to me, who watched it curiously, it seemed that I could feel fine threads being drawn out of the pores of my skin.
I experienced none of the fear of the previous evening. At first I had a strange eerie feeling somewhat akin to it, but that passed off, and I became perfectly calm and indisposed to move, or to answer any of the many questions addressed to me by my friends outside. At the same time I took a great interest in analysing my own sensations and wondered as to what would come of the experiment, for that something was about to happen I was certain.
“There is a man’s face!” I heard a voice exclaim.
This was Walter, her control. She goes on to say that, back behind the curtain,
I felt strangely inert and listless; not sleepy; indeed, my brain seemed more wide awake and active than I had ever known it. Thoughts, impressions, chased themselves with lightening like rapidity, sounds which I knew to be at a distance were as though close to my ears; I felt conscious of the thoughts, or rather the feelings, of every one in the room, but had no inclination to as much as lift a finger to enable me to see anything, although at the same time burning with curiosity to catch a sight of Walter walking about in their midst.
Later on I discovered that this was not merely listlessness or inertia, but that I had literally no strength to exert myself without making a great effort, which invariably compelled the materialised forms to retire to the cabinet as though deprived of the power to stand or support themselves, but this fact, as well as many others, was not to be learned without pain.
So sensitive was she to the thoughts and feelings of others in the room, that she reportedly felt discomfort among sitters who were sick, or who used alcohol or nicotine. The way she describes it, manifesting a spirit involved something akin to a Mesmeric trance; the medium subsumed her will to the will of the group, who, in turn, projected their hopes and expectations onto her. It should be no surprise, then, that entering such a vulnerable state of physical inertia and ego disillusion could often be an uncertain, even fearful prospect for d’Espérance. On manifesting Yolande, she wrote:
Sometimes Yolande’s peregrinations caused me a vague anxiety. She evidently enjoyed her brief stay in our midst and was so bold, in spite of her apparent timidity, that I was often tormented by fears of what she might do and had a weird sort of feeling that any accident or imprudence on her part would fall back on myself, though in what way I had no clear idea. I had that to learn later. If at any time my feeling of anxiety really took the shape of a thought, I discovered that it caused Yolande to return to the cabinet reluctantly always, and sometimes with a childish petulence, which showed that my thought exercised a compelling power over her actions, and that she only came back to me because she could not help herself.
That playful, spritely Yolande might only return when compelled to do so may strike the reader as more than a little ominous. Though d’Espérance ascribes this behavior to mere “childish petulence [sic],” we are led to wonder what might happen if Yolande—or some darker spirit—were able to snap that tenuous thread of rationality that compelled her to return to the spirit world? There were, as sensitives like Louisa Lowe could well attest, a disproportionate number of spiritualists to be found in Victorian asylums.
Later in her career, d’Espérance ventured to leave the cabinet and observe a materialization seance alongside her sitters. This proved to be an intense, dissociative experience characterized not by mild anxiety over a willful child-spirit’s possible misbehavior, but outright horror as she sensed her own identity being subsumed by another. In Shadow Land, she relates the events of that night in a dramatic, present tense narrative:
“Now comes another figure, shorter, slenderer, and with outstretched arms. Somebody rises up at the far end of the circle and comes forward and the two are clasped in each others arms. Then inarticulate cries of Anna! Oh, Anna! My child! My loved one!
“Then somebody else gets up and puts her arms round the figure; then sobs, cries, and blessings get mixed up. I feel my body swayed to and fro and all gets dark before my eyes. I feel somebody’s arms round me although I sit on my chair alone. I feel somebody’s heart beating against my breast. I feel that something is happening. No one is near me except the two children. No one is taking any notice of me. All eyes and thoughts seem concentrated on the white slender figure standing there with the arms of the two black-robed women around it.
“It must be my own heart I feel beating so distinctly. Yet those arms round me? Surely never did I feel a touch so plainly. I begin to wonder which is I. Am I the white figure or am I the one on the chair? Are they my hands round the old lady’s neck, or are these mine that are lying on the knees of me, or on the knees of the figure if it be not I, on the chair?
“Certainly they are my lips that are being kissed. It is my face that is wet with the tears which these good women are shedding so plentifully. Yet how can it be? It is a horrible feeling, thus losing hold of one’s identity. I long to put out one of these hands that are lying so helplessly, and touch some one just to know if I am myself or only a dream — if ‘Anna’ be I, and I am lost as it were, in her identity.
“I feel the old lady’s trembling arms, the kisses, the tears, the blessings and caresses of the sister, and I wonder in an agony of suspense and bewilderment, how long can it last? How long will there be two of us? Which will it be in the end? Shall I be ‘Anna’ or ‘Anna’ be I?
In addition to being overwhelmed or subsumed by the spirits one was manifesting, a medium had to worry about disruptions from the material plane as well. While in the guise of Yolande, d’Espérance was famously grabbed and exposed by a hostile sitter. She experienced this as an act of mind-shattering violence:
All I knew was I a horrible excruciating sensation of being doubled up and squeezed together, as I can imagine a hollow gutta percha doll would feel, if it had sensation, when violently embraced by its baby owner. A sense of terror and agonizing pain came over me, as though I were losing hold of life and was falling into some fearful abyss, yet knowing nothing, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, except the echo of a scream which I heard as at a distance. I felt I was sinking down, I knew not where. I tried to save myself, to grasp at something, but missed it; and then came a blank from which I awakened with a shuddering horror and sense of being bruised to death.
My senses seemed to have been scattered to the winds, and only little by little could I gather them sufficiently together to understand in a slight degree what had happened. Yolande had been seized and the man who had seized her declared it was I.
This was what I was told.
Elizabeth d’Espérance’s exposure did much to damage her reputation, and, if her own account is to be believed, her long-term physical health.
At its core, Shadow Land is the story of a woman who, from her childhood, perceives the world differently than her peers; who cultivates her gifts (some would say madness), enters altered states that apparently make her a conduit to the spirit world; and who leads a life-long struggle to understand the truth of her experiences that resolves itself in a dramatic visionary encounter. Throughout the narrative, she is continually expressing her own self-doubts, even entertaining the possibility that she has merely been tapping into her own subconscious, or something more sinister:
Were these materialised forms in which I had been so interested my “subliminal consciousness” acting independently of my will, or could it possibly be the old long-feared enemy of mankind, the Devil seeking to delude us by wearing the garb of long lost friends to draw us into an abyss of iniquity and deception. Had I all these years been serving him and leading others into wrong-doing? Had my life been a series of mistakes? Would those whose eyes I had tried to open to living facts curse me for having led them from the right path?
This all makes for a engaging tale of supernatural mystery and psychological horror worthy of Shirley Jackson or Philip K. Dick, but are we to read it as a novel or a memoir? When d’Espérance was acting as a medium, was she entering a genuine altered state that she understood to place her in contact with the spirit world, as she professes in the book? Or was she merely an entertainer—an actress or stage magician—who may be credited with having written a particularly imaginative autobiography? There are no clear answers.
Unless one accepts her supernatural gifts as absolutely genuine, then one is forced to conclude that d’Espérance was engaging in at least some degree of conscious fraud. Her flower apports, for example, would certainly have required deliberate planning, and can not be chalked up to altered states or mental suggestion. While this may render the rest of her narrative suspect, however, it does not convict of her of wholesale deception. The human personality is a multi-faceted phenomenon. We compartmentalize. We hold contradictory beliefs. We commit pious fraud. Our attitudes change over time, and we are not always aware of our own motives. As d’Espérance’s own career so richly illustrates, a person may be more than one thing at once.
- d’Espérance, Elizabeth. Shadow Land: or, Light from the Other Side. (1897/2011)
- Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. (2004).
- Tromp, Marlene. Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism. (2007).