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

Image (partial) found on

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.


Publisher: Unbridled
Length: 340 pages
Author: Deborah Noyes
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-06

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.