A spiritualism serendipity

An odd and touching synchronicity occurred whilst I was going through my father ‘s bookshelves with an eye to downsizing the collection I inherited from him. I had seen a book of his, inscribed by hand as belonging to Vera Bax (his mother) in 1951 (additionally she wrote: “First read in 1938”). It was a 1911 reprint of the first edition (also 1911) of An Adventure, by two ladies writing pseudonymously as “Elizabeth Morrison” and “Francis Lamont” (but actually, Miss Moberley and Miss Jourdain, see below). It seemed to me cursorily to be an account of a visit to Versailles in the opening years of the last century (1901). Like a fool I thought it was likely to be an eccentric exercise in vanity-published antiquarianism or arcane travel writing.

A few days later I was searching online and found that the book was something of a sensation from the first: it purports to relate a hallucinatory spiritualist experience as two early 20th Century women visiting Versailles believed themselves transposed to its life on specific days in the late 18th C. It happened that within a few days, I came across a book of mine (also a candidate for downsizing), Wiltshire, by Edith Olivier (1872-1948), a woman I admire not least because she was interested in and kind to the artist Rex Whistler (1905-1944). Updating myself about her life, I spotted that Wikipedia noted that Edith had written an explanatory preface to the Fourth edition of The Adventure (1931). (Edith’s Preface is not mentioned  in Wikipedia’s account of the Moberley-Jourdain affair.) That was the edition which for the first time disclosed that the book’s authors were senior administrators at St Hilda’s College, the Oxford University women’s college: Charlotte Anne Moberley (1846-1937) and Eleanor Jourdain (1863-1924). Miss Olivier’s Preface was a defence of the authoress’s account of a research project into their spiritualist experience.

The Adventure was widely read and much mocked, and is so even now. I am not equipped or interested enough to look closely at the arguments of Misses Olivier, Moberley and Jourdain, but they don’t seem the sort of women with whom one would pick a mind-fight lightly. (Contrariwise, the women’s arguments may reinforce the idea that people often have a “will to believe” which over-rules their normal rational thought processes.) I am also slightly drawn to my grandmother’s intermittent interest in spiritualism, latterly not least (I am guessing) in the turmoil of having lost two sons in WW2, which perhaps explained her having such a long-running interest in the book. I would love to know what her second husband, Filson Young, thought of The Adventure, not least because he cut his authorial teeth on such issues.

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Publication date

11 March 2022