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How the séance gave voice to real, live Victorian women

sbtb illoDavid Wilson For The Boston Globe

Upon seeing the name of American spiritualist Kate Fox in a letter between Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot, the English writer Emily Midorikawa “made a mental note.” She found that the idea of Fox, who along with her two sisters became an international sensation for their alleged ability to channel communication with the dead, stayed with her.

That interest, over time, led to “Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice,” her new book. “It really opened up a new world to me,” said Midorikawa, “particularly women who had managed to achieve power or influence both in Britain and the United States.”


The book tells the stories of the Fox sisters (Kate, Maggie, and Leah), as well as Emma Hardinge Britten, Victoria Woodhull, and Georgina Weldon, all of whom gained fame through spiritualism but, Midorikawa added, “achieved things beyond the realm of the private séance,” speaking out on politics, abolition, and the rights of women.

Spiritualism was popular in the Victorian era, she said, because “it was a period when people were starting to question certain things about more established, organized religion. That went hand in hand with the number of scientific inventions or discoveries of the time that really ignited the interest of the public.” It wasn’t entirely dominated by women, but “it was a realm in which women were given an opportunity to use their voices in ways that would have been quite unusual in 19th-century society.”

While it may be difficult to imagine today, she added, “there certainly were many deep-thinking, educated people who took what they were doing very seriously and believed in their powers.”

As part of her research, Midorikawa attended a re-creation of a Victorian séance. “I can completely understand why people did believe,” she said. “I think I would have been curious.”


Emily Midorikawa will read at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 16, in a virtual event hosted by Brookline Booksmith.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at