Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

English and Modern Languages Research Seminar Series

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Who this event is for

  • Everyone


207, JHB, Headington Campus, Gipsy Lane site


English and Modern Languages Research Seminar Series

Oxford Brookes Witchcraft, Spiritualism, and the Occult Symposium with Dr Caroline Jackson-Houlston, Dr Tatiana Kontou, and Dr Simon White

Research seminar convenors: Dr Eric White (ewhite@brookes.ac.uk) and Dr Niall Munro (niall.munro@brookes.ac.uk)

All are welcome. We particularly encourage postgraduate students to attend.


Dr Caroline Jackson-Houlston, ‘Witches, Bitches and Gypsies: Scott’s Women of Psychic Power’

Walter Scott’s treatment of Gothic themes is often linked to an anxiety about female power that dehumanizes strong women characters by implying they have links with the supernatural, and then disempowers them doubly, by undermining claims by or about them with rationalist explanations or hints of mental derangement. However, as Elizabeth Fay points out in discussing Lady Ashton in The Bride of Lammermoor, he manages to challenge gender convention even while he appears to be endorsing it. One way of understanding the complexities of Scott’s enquiry into gender roles is to analyse his treatment of women who are distinguished by psychical and/or physical power in the light of Thomas Laqueur’s one-sex and two-sex paradigms of gender relations. Scott interweaves transgressions against hierarchy with transgressions against essentialist binaries, playing one model off against the other. This paper will focus on women past the patriarchally-valuable age of reproduction, from the benign (Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannerin) through vengeful victims of sexual mistreatment (Helen MacGregor in Rob Roy) to destructive phallic mothers (Lady Ashton in The Bride of Lammermoor). Comparison with the sentimental and sensational simplifications of stage adaptations of his work demonstrates the real subtlety of Scott’s authoritative narratorial construction of a variety of individualised and provocative characters out of apparent stereotypes.

Dr Tatiana Kontou, &aphos;The Case of the Psychic Detective: Psychical Research and the Rise of the Supernatural Detective Story&aphos;

In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was established to examine phenomena such as ‘spirit communication’, ‘thought transference’, ‘hypnosis’ and ‘haunted houses’. Psychical researchers were dedicated to the rigorous and scientific investigation of manifestations that often seemed to defy natural laws. They were eager to remove the connotations of sensational, gothic or supernatural genre writing from their reports and framed their experiments within contemporary scientific and technological developments. The empirical terminology employed by the SPR, for example its re-categorizations of ‘ghosts’ as ‘phantasms’ and ‘mediums’ as ‘sensitives’, fuelled the period’s literary imagination; authors like Oscar Wilde parodied psychical research or like the spiritualist Florence Marryat criticized scientific séance experiments. Many fin de siècle and Edwardian popular writers like Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson were captivated by the figure of the scientifically minded and disinterested psychical researcher, an interest that gave rise to fictionalized psychic detectives who operate at the margins of legal and natural order. In this paper I will examine a few short stories alongside SPR reports to discuss the complicated relationship between genre writing and psychical research. By drawing on the SPR’s proceedings, reports in spiritualist and popular magazines and fictional psychical research accounts I will argue that psychical research gave rise to a new literary phenomenon, the psychic detective.

Dr Simon J. White, ‘Mapping Stories of Witchcraft and Magic’

I will outline my plan (in partnership with Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire) to work with We Are What We Do (a not-for-profit organisation) to establish a HistoryPIN web project (resource). We Are What We Do HistoryPIN projects (eg Living With The Railroads or Europeana 1989) facilitate the sharing of glimpses of the past in a forum ‘where everyone has the chance to see it, add to it, learn from it, debate it and use it to build up a more complete understanding of the world.’ (In this case ‘pinned’ material will relate to both fiction and accounts of actual magical belief and practice, and the nature of the relationship between the two.) Historypin projects are open-access. But I intend to stimulate usage by ‘pinning’ material from my monograph and UHP Regional Novel Recovery editions, interacting with users, and collaborating with a range of literary societies, local history societies, and regional heritage organisations to promote the resource. I am in on-going discussions with twelve organisations, and most have agreed to include links on their own websites. Several have already said they would like to make greater use of the resource in their outreach work in schools and community groups. I want to establish dialogue between academia and literary societies, local history societies and regional heritage. The main object of my talk is to seek feedback on the project, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it might be improved.