Sisters in spirit: Alice Kipling Fleming, Evelyn Pickering de Morgan and 19th-century spiritualism.

Author:Oberhausen, Judy
Position:Critical essay
 
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Alice (Trix) Kipling Fleming (1868-1948) and Evelyn Pickering De Morgan (1855-1919) (Pls 1, 2) were two late-Victorian women with much in common. (2) Both were well-educated and literate women who inhabited the privileged social and artistic circles of their day. Evelyn was an ambitious artist and the niece of the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908). Through her marriage to William De Morgan (1839-1917), she had become a member of a brilliant and bohemian family circle. Alice, a talented writer, was the daughter of Alice Macdonald and John Lockwood Kipling, the sister of author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and niece of Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). That they knew each other socially is not unusual but that they shared a special bond is evident by the fact that between 1897 and 1901 Fleming wrote verses on at least four of De Morgan's paintings (Gordon 21). We also know that they shared an enthusiasm that both women chose to keep private: an interest in spiritualism and specifically in automatic writing. In this essay I will discuss how spiritualism affected the lives of both women and how their spiritualist beliefs are reflected in De Morgan's painting The Valley of Shadows (Pl 3) and the verses that Fleming wrote about that work.

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Spiritualism, a popular movement introduced to Britain from America at mid-century, thrived as an antidote to the materialism and religious uncertainty that had been caused by the combined influences of biblical criticism, philosophical positivism, and recent geological and evolutionary theories (Richards 218). It was based upon two fundamental propositions: that human personality survives bodily death and that it is possible to communicate with this surviving personality or spirit through a human medium (Tuchman and Freeman 384). It was able to do so by utilizing the optimism inherent in the Victorian belief in progress to construct a metaphysical interpretation of evolutionary theory into the spiritual realm.

The spread of spiritualist practices and thought throughout British society was accomplished in great part by the participation of an extraordinary number of well-known intellectuals who became involved with psychical experimentation either as a way to bolster their own flagging faith in an afterlife or because of a desire to explore psychic phenomena (Oppenheim 29-39; Owen 19-21). Artists and writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were just a few of the well-known Victorians who had a keen interest in the movement. For many of these writers and artists it was the visionary writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) that helped them to envisage the notion of spiritual progress (Porter 8-27).

Furthermore, thanks to recent scholarship, 19th-century women's interest in spiritualism has been recognized as part of the spirit of reform that was a hallmark of that age. Owing to its lack of dogma and hierarchy, spiritualism became a new source of female empowerment. Victorians generally perceived women to be better mediums than men because of their keen sense of intuition. Consequently, many women played prominent roles in the movement (Owen 19-40).

While some merely dabbled in such fashionable practices as seances, there were others who undertook systematic and sustained experimentation into the spirit world with the hope of gaining new insight and knowledge. As curious intelligent women Evelyn De Morgan and Trix Fleming were part of the latter group. Because, however, of the widespread instance of fraud that existed within the more public displays of spiritualist practice, both women chose to keep their spiritualist practice private.

Today Trix Kipling Fleming is most often remembered as the sister of Rudyard and like him she was raised in England and India. Like her brother and parents she was consumed with writing verse, plays, and two novels entitled The Heart of the Maid (1890) (under the pseudonym Beatrice Grange) and A Pinchbeck Goddess (1897). She also published a volume of poetry with her mother entitled Hand in Hand: Verses by a Mother and Daughter (1902). Until relatively recently

Rudyard Kipling's sister was known less for her accomplishments than for the bouts of mental instability that marred her life for approximately 20 years. Biographers of the Kipling family note that her family blamed her psychological problems on her involvement with spiritualism, which has unwittingly perpetuated the notion that Trix's curiosity in the supernatural was detrimental to her mental health (Baldwin 126). (3) It was not until 2004 that Lorna Lee and the Kipling Society published a biography, aptly entitled Trix: Kipling's Forgotten Sister, that gives a fuller picture of her life. In it Trix's long-standing curiosity about the supernatural is recalled by her cousin, Florence Macdonald, in a quotation from her 1949 remembrance of Trix in the Kipling Journal: [...] Another gift Trix possessed, and this was a doubtful blessing.

From early girlhood she saw ghosts or spirits, and in her later years the gift developed considerably, so that she was able to converse with many who had passed into the spirit world. These experiences had no terror for her, but were only of intense interest, and she wondered why others couldn't see what she saw. (Lee 121-2)

Her cousin's description of Trix's life-long interest in the spiritual realm is accurate: it became both a blessing and a curse. As a young girl her interest in the occult was probably considered benign by her creative family and this eccentricity surely added charm to an already sparkling personality. After her marriage, however, to Colonel John Fleming at the age of 21 in 1889 it seems that her emotional life entered its long period of instability. While the nature of her psychological condition cannot be known it manifested itself with intermittent periods of depression and anxiety (Baldwin 126; Adelson 4-15) Unable to cope with her erratic behavior her husband institutionalized her for periods of time (Lee 32-40). Rudyard would always believe spiritualism (4) was to blame for his sister's problems, telling their Aunt Edith Macdonald:

My own idea is, and always has been, that her being let into the soul-destroying...

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