Spiritualism and Scientific Naturalism Collide in 'Captivity', an 1850s Ghost Story

by David Maine

21 June 2010

Two girls say they can communicate with the dead in mid-19th century faith-based American society. The author's evocative and austere narrative allows the reader to scrutinize their story.
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Deborah Noyes

US: Jun 2010

Maggie Fox and her sister Kate can talk to ghosts. This proves to be of immense interest to the public at large, that public being 1850s America, and the skill is soon in great demand. Big sister Leah takes charge of the girls and arranges a series of tours and public demonstrations highlighting the rapping sounds that the spirits make to communicate. Later séances grow more elaborate, involving glowing ghostly hands, musical instruments, and touches from beyond the grave. Messages to and from departed loved ones are passed back and forth.

We often think of Victorian-era séances and spiritualism as a British phenomenon. This book, based as it is on the historical figures of the Fox sisters, shows that there was a mighty appetite for it in America as well—the girls are native of Rochester, New York.

Captivity is an engaging novel that treats the Foxes as wide-eyed children (at first, Kate is only 11-years-old, while Maggie is 15) who find themselves caught up in a storm of powerful emotions outside their control. Author Noyes takes pains to keep their situation ambiguous in the reader’s mind: are the girls legitimate mediums communicating with the departed, or are they duped into believing they were, or are they themselves perpetrating the most enormous hoax in the nation’s history?

Audiences across the Eastern seaboard clamor too see the girls’ performances, but skepticism grows harsher even as belief grows widespread, with skeptics soon turning belligerent. The young ladies find themselves subjected to increasingly intrusive scrutiny, the more so as their critics again and again come up emptyhanded

All this is engaging enough, but Noyes wisely does not expect the sisters to carry the full load of the book. Their story, and especially Maggie’s, is played against that of Clara Gill, a reclusive spinster in her thirties living with her kindly, ineffective father. Mr Gill is a naturalist and Clara busies herself as an illustrator of his volumes; the pair are English refugees from some unspoken, but vaguely unpleasant, situation in London. The mystery of Clara’s background is incrementally revealed, its small-scale drama playing out in contrast to Maggie Fox’s high profile, though just as wrenching for all that.

Freedom and imprisonment are recurring themes, suggested both by Clara’s self-imposed estrangement from society and, to a larger degree, the status of women generally; but it is also hinted at in terms of social class and mobility in both Britain and the United States. Characters are held captive not only by their social position, education, skills and opportunities, but also—perhaps more than any of these—out of respect, or fear, for how the society at large will respond to any perceived transgression. Noyes hammers this idea a little more than necessary: Clara spends her time sketching captive zoo animals, and Maggie is gifted a little caged bird. Yes, we get it already, and for anyone who doesn’t, the title provides another clue.

In general, Noyes’ narration is low-key and evocative, eschewing both ornate linguistic tricks and stripped-down austerity. Chapters alternate between Clara and Maggie, adhering to a close third person and the immediacy of the present tense: “Maggie doesn’t care for being a servant or for being away from Kate. She doesn’t fancy the idea of things happening at home without her, not one bit, and hems and haws, but Leah is adamant.” These turns of phrase (“doesn’t fancy the idea,” “not one bit”) are ones that Maggie herself would use. When she first visits Clara’s house, the narrator observes that “the wallpaper is formerly grand, grim, you might say, if not for the pictures.” Clara wouldn’t see things this way; Maggie does.

Humor is rare, and irony is avoided. This is a relief, because the subject of mediums and spirit guides would prove an irresistible target for snark to many modern-day writers. Happily, Noyes avoids the trap of winking at the reader at the expense of her characters, apart from one instance occurs midway through the book: “Maggie isn’t one for lengthy analysis but has to wonder how she’s come to be here, shut in a wardrobe in the Boutons’ home in Troy, New York, in the dead of night, with her effigy burning on a stake outside…”

When the narration turns to Clara, the voice becomes more measured. Maggie asks for a drawing of a bird, and we’re told that “she is, for better or worse, a young woman in need of a magpie. So Clara gropes the crowded table for her basket of charcoal and crayons, opens to an empty folio page, shuts her eyes, and summons a bird of just proportions.”

Circumstances bring the two women together early on in the book, notwithstanding their very different spheres of existence. Their intertwining stories, covering a fair number of years and miles, form the arc of the novel. The trajectories of their two lives create an effective double-strand, a sort of literary double-helix that uses as its raw material both faith-based spiritualism and scientific naturalism. Readers with a sympathy toward either philosophy will find much to ponder here.



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