In this series of blog posts, members of the Supernatural Cities project at the University of Portsmouth outline their own research, introducing their different disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the urban supernatural.
Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott is a PhD researcher and seminar tutor studying Victorian magicians and conjuring in the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies at the University of Portsmouth. She is most frequently found on Twitter.
The “Dark Technology of Magic”
My thesis explores the biographies of professional magicians in the nineteenth century and the analogous depictions of conjurers in Victorian literature and society. My research at the moment focuses on the key themes shared by these representations: identity, domesticity, authority and criminality. In terms of fiction, I am primarily examining the typically realist Pallisers series by Anthony Trollope, and how the author’s use of conjuring as a political metaphor complicates ideas surrounding literary genre and the wider impact of magic in the Victorian period.
As the most popular conjurers of the day often carried out world tours at the height of their fame or started out as itinerant performers to increase their exposure, magician biographies often provide a unique if biased insight into the urban worlds of the different countries they visited in the nineteenth century. The majority of these, however, are unfortunately not without racist and colonialist comments, such as when the well-known magician Dr. Lynn describes how he ‘found the Chinese […] habitually dishonest’ whilst also praising their ‘extraordinary’ performances. This goes some way towards setting the scene of the period, in which it was a common occurrence for Western performers to appropriate, or, more often than not, just shamelessly steal tricks which originated with East or South Asian performers.
My fourth thesis chapter will explore the use of magical apparatus and machinery in literary depictions of the urban during the nineteenth century, particularly in Symbolist poetry. As Brian Copenhaver illustrates in his translation of a section from Virgil’s The Aeneid, magic and technology often enjoy a close relationship. I am predominantly interested in how reading poems such as Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer (‘A Season in Hell’, 1873) and James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night (1874) through the critical lens of visual pieces of magical apparatus, such as the phénakistiscope, may shed new light on the conceptualisation of poetry in this movement. Both Rimbaud and Thomson’s poems provide flashes of phantasmagorical cities and landscapes and exhibit circular narratives, just like the animated scenes of phénakistiscopes.
The City of Dreadful Night in particular uses its own nightmarish narrative to exhibit the real-world horrors of Victorian London and urban life: poverty, disease, and hopelessness. By repositioning London as a supernatural city, populated by ghosts and demons and hell-gates, Thomson both draws the reader’s attention to but also creates distance from the social issues of the city during this time. This technique is used even more explicitly in Arthur Symons’s collection, London Nights (1896), as he uses supernatural imagery to recount his time amongst the city’s night life and debauchery. Interspersed with scenes of Venice and other cities, Symons depicts a magical urban space across the entire European landscape, by turns lamenting and celebrating his life which is ‘like a music hall’.
Through examining Victorian poems of the city in terms of magical apparatus or technology, such as magic lanterns and phénakistiscopes, I hope to highlight in this chapter that the phantasmagoria of these urban spaces adds to my thesis’s overall theme of emphasising a much deeper connection between conjuring and nineteenth century society than has been previously imagined.