Second Sight in the Nineteenth Century: Prophecy, Imagination and Nationhood (2017) by Elsa Richardson

Jayda Coons

In the empirical nineteenth century, what could be made of reported prophetic, hallucinatory, and seemingly supernatural visions? Moreover, what do narrative accounts of these strange visions reveal about the nineteenth-century cultural imaginary? These questions are taken up in Elsa Richardson’s deft analysis of second sight, a type of prophetic vision often attached to illiterate laborers of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Beyond the clarity of its prose, what is most remarkable about Second Sight in the Nineteenth Century: Prophecy, Imagination and Nationhood is its interdisciplinarity. Richardson convincingly draws readers through the entanglements of positivist scientific discourse, literary aesthetic production, and nationalist rhetoric to argue that each participated in a larger project: the colonization of the Scottish imagination. What had once been perceived as a phenomenon distinctive of the inhabitants of rural Scotland became, throughout the nineteenth century, an entry into understanding the (English) mind. Richardson shows how Highlanders’ testimonies were collected and converted to “elite knowledge” (5), working simultaneously to uphold notions of English rationalism and maintain the mystical alterity of Scotland.

 Richardson begins in 1660 with the Royal Society of London, which sought to systematize the acquisition of human knowledge using scientific methods. Intellectuals from Robert Boyle to Walter Scott “shared . . . a desire to apply empiricist standards of evidence to phenomena positioned on the margins of the natural realm and to transform strange visionary experiences into test subjects for incipient methodologies” (18). Because the English thought of Scotland as a site of pre-modernity, narratives of second sight were appropriated by the English and articulated as nostalgia for a “lost past” (30). Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) provides a literary example of this tendency, as it explores the tensions existing between a desire for history and modernity. The figure representing second sight, the Bodach Glas, envisions the defeat of Fergus’s clan, but his presence is treated with some “scepticism” (29) by the reader. Richardson shows how this seer’s prophecy is incorporated, in Scott’s “recuperative” (28) retelling, into a national narrative of progress.

After detailing eighteenth-century foundations of empirical epistemology and second sight, most of Richardson’s book focuses on how speculation about second sight developed in the nineteenth century. Chapter three examines the confluences of natural science and supernatural vision, particularly through the predictive potentials of mesmerism and phrenology. Richardson considers these overlapping arenas through archival accounts of two figures: Catherine Crowe, writer of The Night Side of Nature, or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers (1848), and George Combe, phrenologist and friend of Crowe. Crowe’s contributions to mesmerism enter a debate that figured second sight as either a psychological delusion or the effect of natural phenomena humans have not yet discovered. Her influential book on the subject suggests the possibility of invisible or “sub-visible matter and forces” (65) imperceivable to a fallible human eye. As Richardson points out, however, if second sight is attributed to natural phenomena detached from human interpretation, the notion that this capacity arises specifically from the Scottish Highlands could be undermined. That is, until Crowe’s “friend and mentor” George Combe produced a phrenological theory linking this ability to a “congenital ‘narrowness in the anterior region’ of the brain” (74). Combe’s pseudoscience returned second sight to the Highland region, reaffirming the separation between English rationalism and Scottish mysticism by attaching perceptual difference to the body. Second sight was, through phrenology, a physical capacity rather than a mental or metaphysical one.

Richardson continues establishing connections between the supernatural and empire in chapter four, remarking on the anthropological discourse found in accounts of Victorian spiritualism. She focuses specifically on spiritualism’s “evolutionist thinking”, which renders second sight “a type of inheritance” the English converted into evolutionary narratives of progress (109). Tracing the emergence of spirit photography, seances, and racialized spiritual “guides”, Richardson’s writing is at its most elegant when discussing the conflicting temporalities of these practices; in particular, how “[e]volutionary thinking engages in acts of divination” while “phenomena of the seance and the spirit photograph made possible new ways of accessing the past” (124). Her research likewise makes explicit the racial hierarchies embedded in spiritualist practice, in which the English reported using “hackneyed . . . stock cultural signifiers” as “native guides”, which were then rescripted into specific narratives of history (131). For those wondering how Wilkie Collins factors into the book’s subject, Richardson briefly uses Collins’s and Charles Dickens’s play The Frozen Deep (1856) to show how literary and popular discourse delegitimized second sight when applied to Scottish figures. As “an unreliable primitive witness” (133), Nurse Esther’s prophetic vision is shown to be false in the play, but in Collins’s short-story adaptation, these powers are transported to the “reassuringly English” (134) and middle-class Clara. Overall, while pointing to the ways in which spiritualist activity staged disruptive “imperial encounters” (135) that contained potentially progressive ideas, Richardson largely critiques the English spiritualists for appropriating these visions to fit their own imperialist narratives.

The remaining chapters center on three figures of the fin de siècle: Andrew Lang, Ada Goodrich Freer, and Fiona Macleod. Detailing the projects of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Richardson shows how Andrew Lang’s “psycho-folklore” (158) accounted for the role of the imagination and the mythopoetic in scientific accounts of second sight. Lang simultaneously believed that second sight was a scientific phenomenon and that prophetic vision was necessary to the creation of literature and myth. As a genre that works with both, romance (and specifically adventure fiction, as a form of masculine myth-making) approached Lang’s conception of the imaginative powers of second sight most fully. He believed that scientific positivism negated some of the creative powers of second sight and that romance fiction approaches the “primal, instinctive consciousness” (174) he considered universal and worth returning to in fiction, in stark contrast to “the morbid complexities of the realist novel” (176). Ada Goodrich Freer, or “Miss X”, also participated in the SPR, though her contributions have been largely unacknowledged. Part of Richardson’s project is to make visible the work that Freer and Macleod contributed to cultural understandings of second sight. Freer feigned Highland ancestry to immerse herself in Scottish cultures, translating her privileged observations into empirical data. William Sharp similarly assumed a fake identity when he invented Fiona Macleod, authoring several prose fictions under her name depicting “Highland life radically out of time with the modernising imperatives of the metropolis” (214). Pulling from largely forgotten archives, Richardson compares these two pretenders, detailing the desires and assumptions that grounded both of their projects. Notably, Macleod’s correspondence with William Butler Yeats and members of the Golden Dawn marks an exchange that resists the SPR’s empiricism while sharing a commitment to “expansive self-knowledge as a common good” (223). In all cases, Richardson convincingly asserts that each approach relied upon imagining a particular type of Celt or Highlander, reinforcing those colonial typologies.

Second Sight provides an astute, complex assessment of how empiricism and the supernatural combined in surprising ways to reaffirm colonial, racial, and hierarchical relationships. Tied mostly to the Scottish Highlands and Islands (even as late as 1998, as the conclusion shows), second sight was repurposed throughout the nineteenth century to affirm English notions of modernity, rationalism, and a linear, progressive history. Meanwhile, the Highlanders’ testimonies challenged many English theories of self-authorship and constructed their own counter-histories. I found myself drawn into the intricacies of science, aesthetics, and philosophy Richardson presents without being overwhelmed by them because her prose is clear and well-paced.

In the discussion of literary genre and Andrew Lang, though, it was difficult to discern whether Richardson was merely describing Lang’s aesthetic and generic taxonomies or reinforcing them in her own analysis. Lang credits romance with harnessing the creative energies offered by second sight that realism disavows. But if second sight transformed in the nineteenth century from an external event to an internal capacity, the realist novel’s representation of interiority and the vicissitudes of consciousness could be further analyzed as a contributor to discourse on second sight rather than cordoned off. George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), curiously missing from the discussion, represents this collision of realism and romance in part because it features second sight so heavily in its plot. I wondered while reading if realism, which Richardson defines a few times by its attention to interiority and excessive detail, might have more to say about prophetic vision in the cultural imaginary than this analysis offers. That said, Richardson’s book leaves very little wanting; it uniquely contributes to studies of visual culture, nineteenth-century literature and culture, and the history of science. More than an academic buzzword, Richardson’s research provides an excellent example of how interdisciplinary research can illuminate the complexities and antinomies of visual knowledge in the nineteenth century.