The Dead Man’s Message: An Occult Romance, by Florence Marryat

Dead Man Message cvr

The Dead Man’s Message, Florence Marryat’s 1894 novella, is a treatment in fictional form of her Spiritualist beliefs.  We are introduced to Professor Henry Aldwyn, a man much pleased with his life’s work and self-centred entirely to the detriment of both his grown children by his deceased first wife, and of his young second wife to whom he has been married for two years.  His family comes well after himself in his estimation, and he makes their lives a misery with his selfishness.  His children hate him, and his wife is worn down trying to placate his domestic tyranny.

Dropping off in his comfortable armchair, the professor ‘slept, indeed’ because when he wakes he finds to his consternation he has died and is standing by the empty shell that was his earthly body.  Now he is in a position where he has to confront his past actions and account for them as he is shown how his behaviour has had profound effects on his family, especially his son Gilbert who had run away to sea after a row the day the professor passed over and is, we later learn, in a dire situation.  Because of his self-absorption, Henry is unable to progress beyond the earth sphere and is obliged to witness the lives of those he has left behind.  He is helped by an advanced spirit, John Forest, who accompanies him and shows him how his misspent life has affected his spiritual wellbeing, and emphasises that all which happens is by the will of God, part of a divine plan.  Initially angry and resentful at attitudes he considers betray a lack of respect, what Henry sees gradually fills him with remorse.

Briefly meeting his late father and first wife, Susan (the latter accompanied by two small children who had been stillborn but live and grow in the afterlife), both spirits give him a cool welcome.  Henry had refused to attend his father’s deathbed as he was in the middle of an experiment, while Susan informs him that she has been mated with a more compatible soul, and she will not let him have contact with the children because his grossness would upset them.  She is empowered in a way denied to her while on earth (it is worth bearing in mind that Marryat herself had an unhappy marriage, though she was able to divorce, twice in fact, something many women in a similar position were unable to do).  Henry, finally grasping the enormity of what he has done, with the consequence that no one wants him either here or there, desires to make amends.  That point marks the beginning of his journey of self-understanding and penance which will enable him eventually to proceed to higher levels of the afterlife.

It is not only the humans he had known who despise Henry.  He had been a biologist who experimented extensively on animals.  Marryat’s anti-vivisection message is conveyed by Henry finding his feet surrounded by the spirits of the animals he has sacrificed in pursuit of his career.  Yet he belatedly realises that in the grand scheme of things his academic achievements count for nothing – an erstwhile colleague who wants to secure Henry’s library makes it clear he does not want Henry’s own publications, that ‘rubbish’ as he terms it.  Henry’s self-esteem is dealt a considerable blow by discovering his scientific ‘friends’, while having been happy to eat his food, actually have a low opinion of his merits as a scholar.

His widow Ethel blossoms and, rather ignoring the normal Victorian proprieties which dictate an extensive period of mourning, only three months after her husband’s death resumes her engagement to her cousin Ned, terminated through a misunderstanding before she met the professor.  She is concerned that her step-daughter Maddy, not a great deal younger than herself, is going off the rails by associating with an unsuitable young man, a symptom of the tainted blood she has inherited from her father (Henry’s negative influence outweighing the more beneficial inheritance from her mother).  The young man in question is a studio photographer, and one day Maddy brings home what appears to be a spirit photograph, with a figure bending over her that Ethel believes is Susan.

This encourages Ethel and Maddy to visit Mrs Blewitt, someone Ethel had known as a child and who now lives locally.  She makes a living as a medium, despite the dangers from the law of such an occupation.  Ethel and Maddy have a sitting with Mrs Blewitt, and Maddy has a further session.  Through her they are able to communicate with Susan in a manner far clearer than is usually the case with mediums – no vague ‘I have someone whose name begins with M, or possibly N’.  As a result of this unambiguous information Maddy and Ethel are convinced of the reality of Spiritualism.  With spirit guidance assisting Maddy and Gilbert, whether conscious (via mediumship) or unconscious (with guardian spirits exerting what influence they can), it is clear the negative effects of Henry’s parenting will be overcome, though he is told that Gilbert will always bear the marks of his terrible experiences at sea for which Henry bears responsibility.  Henry himself undertakes to assist Gilbert, unseen, in his ordeal, with Susan in turn exerting her influence on Henry.  The story begins with the professor stretching his feet comfortably before a blazing fire, but while his path to redemption will be a hard one, at least he can be reassured he will not face blazing fires for eternity.

Marryat’s story has been republished by Victorian Secrets with an introduction by Greta Depledge.  This edition contains a short biographical sketch of Marryat, a chronology of her life, and an essay drawing out themes in the novella, highlighting the efforts by Spiritualists to show that their religion had sound scientific underpinnings while the science establishment poured scorn on their endeavours.  Depledge also discusses the presence of spirit photography and vivisection in the story.  Appendices provide primary sources on the debate over Spiritualism and spirit photography, plus an extract from Marryat’s There is No Death.

Deplege does not have a background in the study of Spiritualism so the sources she draws on are narrow.  Thus for her examination of Spiritualism she relies on Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1896 Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, Janet Oppenheim’s 1985 The Other World and Alex Owen’s 1989 The Darkened Room, plus extracts from Frank Podmore’s 1902 Modern Spiritualism.  Other extracts are from the Lancet, presumably because they were conveniently to hand.  For spirit photography she also utilises William Mumler’s 1875 Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit-Photography and for some reason Tom Patterson’s 1965 100 Years of Spirit Photography.  Marryat’s obvious debt to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is not considered.  Even so, and while admittedly The Dead Man’s Message is a thinly-clothed sermon, it is good to see it in print.

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