Interview Conducted Via Seance
by Lucy Sussex
Scene: night, inside a haunted house in Edinburgh, winter 1854. I manifest in a room, unfurnished and empty except for the ring of people holding hands around me, their eyes closed, their faces intent. They include a young girl, the medium, several well-dressed gentlemen of science, and my quarry, the “authoress” Catherine Crowe. No visual image of her survives, but she proves to be a fashionable elder lady. And she is the only one in the ring not in trance.
She lifts her head with its nodding ostrich-feathered bonnet, eyes me quizzically.
“A spirit? In trowsers! You are a Pict, perhaps?”
“No, I’m from the future.”
“A mere girl,” she murmurs. “Well-spoken, unaccompanied by chaperone, and in trowsers. Where else would that happen but in the future?”
“Things have improved since 1847, when you sneaked four blistering pages on women’s lack of rights into the middle of a popular novel.”
“Oh, you mean my Lilly Dawson; or the Smugglers of the Mill.” She dimples. “She did quite well, among my literary children.”
“You had quite a family of books. You adapted Uncle Tom’s Cabin for children.”
“The least I could do for the Negro cause, and my friend of that unhappy race, Dr Lewis, the famous stage mesmerist.”
“Then there was your biggest seller: The Night Side of Nature of 1848, which applied scientific principles to Spiritualism.”
“And why not, pray? The spirit world will inevitably come within the bounds of science, as I wrote in my introduction.”
She is so certain that for a moment, from my twenty-first century perspective, I begin to think it might.
“Ahem. Men and Women; or Manorial Rights, from 1843, is a novel about a murder, motivated by droit de seigneur.”
“Hush, spirit.” With a quick glance around at the circle. “Even in trance people can hear. Must you give the ending away?”
“My apologies. But even before that came Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence, a murder mystery novel with three female detectives.”
“I had a verse drama first. Aristodemus. Then Susan, in 1841.”
“Which preceded by months “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe. Who probably read you…”
“Many did, future-spirit. Including you, else you would not be here. But who is this Mr Poe? If he comes to Edinburgh, should I invite him to dinner?”
“An American writer.”
“Like dear Mr Emerson, who writes me such admiring letters?
“Er, not exactly. And Poe’s dead now.”
“Perhaps he might grace a séance, then.”
My mind momentarily boggles, but I press on.
“You knew practically everyone. Like Hans Christian Andersen…”
“I had dinner with him, at Dr James Simpson’s house. Discoverer of chloroform, you know.”
“And great experimenter on himself and his friends. You drank ether at his table that night. Andersen was shocked.”
Again that dimple. “Poor prim homely man.”
From that I conclude she liked shocking people, and getting away with it. Thought so…
“And you also wrote ghost stories, fictions. Including a werewolf story, even if you spelt it ‘Weir-Wolf’. In which a woman shoots a wolf and drags it into the town square to stop an execution.”
“I’d have done the same as Manon.”
“I’m sure you would. It takes an unusually brave woman of your time to run away from her husband, and become a successful writer. Did he really try to kill you?”
“You refer to Major Crowe?” A touch of frost here.
“You wrote that you ‘fled for your life’ from him.”
“Fie, spirit, you grow impertinent!”
“Sorry, but I only came to warn you. Because, if you stay in this haunted house, you will see for the first time something ghostly: bright lights, which your medium will tell you come from murder victims. It will cause you to have a nervous breakdown, and you’ll go walking in the street stark naked—in Edinburgh, in cold February—holding a handkerchief and a visiting card to make yourself invisible. It won’t work!”
But she is not listening. At the mention of her husband, the old wound, she has worked herself up into a rage and is shouting at me. In her agitation, she lets go of the medium’s hand. The spirit circle is broken, and I tumble backwards through time, ending up with a bump on my study floor.
Well, I tried. On my computer screen is a digitized letter written by Charles Dickens, who had invited Crowe to dinner with the Carlyles and Elizabeth Gaskell. It is nasty stuff: he was shocked by her streaking, the ultimate unconventional act for a middle-aged authoress, in an age where the feminine ideal was chaste and submissive. A conventional woman would have never shown her face in society again, after such a publicized humiliation, which even got into the papers. Crowe braved it out, within the year so recovered to her normal social self she went to evenings at the house of Wilkie Collins and his mother. That takes guts. As does sneaking four pages of radical feminism, Ibsen’s Doll’s House before the fact, into a popular novel, published the year before the first convention on women's rights, at Seneca Falls in the US, 1848. Its effect? Well, my great-grandfather Alexander Fife owned a copy of Lilly Dawson, and all his seven daughters would grow up strong-minded women, with a high regard for education.
Now if only the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe would show up at a Catherine Crowe séance…
Now there’s an idea for a story.