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"It sounded like a man, and I quite forgot it was woman speaking" : on science, gender, and performance in fin-de siècle British psychical research Chettiar, Teri Anne

Abstract

This paper is an examination of the role of gender in the "fin-de-siècle" scientific investigations and theoretical work of the British Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Focusing specifically on the SPR's investigations into the séance phenomena of the well-known American medium Mrs. Leonora Piper, I examine how Piper's cross-gendered séance "performances" were considered desirable within the context of late-Victorian psychical investigations, despite their transgressive potential outside of the confines of the séance. Piper's masculine séance "performances" fulfilled the masculine code of behaviour that was integral to the SPR's scientific investigations, and investigators' participation in the production of Piper's masculine trance identities during the séance reveals that specific kinds of masculine identities were enacted at the "fin-de-siècle" that served the important purpose of asserting the legitimacy of the scientific process. Although Piper's séance "impersonations" of men who shared SPR investigators' scientific concerns were tremendously influential in determining the SPR's conceptual language and intellectual direction, investigators were careful to suppress the potentially subversive effects of these "impersonations" in order to preserve the integrity of Victorian beliefs about the stability and naturalness of gendered identities. In order to contain Piper's "impersonations," investigators appealed to a psychological explanatory framework that described Piper's trance personalities as subconsciously produced romantic creations; The SPR's psychological work describing the subconscious mind's tendency to produce a number of different selves was a radical and quintessentially "modern" assertion of the "normal" individual's potential to exhibit characteristics whose gendered associations were at odds with the individual's anatomical sex. At the same time, the SPR's psychological explanation of Piper's "impersonations" acted as a conservative means to preserving traditional Victorian understandings of sexual difference since it dismissed cross-gendered trance; "impersonations" as fictive (and hence unreal) creations. Despite the conservative effects of the SPR's explanatory framework, the significant presence of Piper's male "impersonations" and SPR investigators' active role in making these cross-gendered "performances" possible offers insight into the erosion of Victorian understandings of sexual difference in a variety of unpredictable quarters at the turn of the century.

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