Extraordinary powers of perception: second sight in Victorian culture, 1830-1910.
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In the mid-1890s the London based Society for Psychical Research dispatched researchers to the Scottish Highlands and Islands to investigate an extraordinary power of prophecy said to be peculiar to the residents of these remote regions. Described in Gaelic as the An-da-shealladh or ‘the two sights’, and given in English as ‘second sight’, the phenomenon was most commonly associated with the vision of future events: the death of neighbour, the arrival of strangers into the community, the success or failure of a fishing trip and so forth. The SPR were not the first to take an interest in this pre-visionary faculty, rather they joined a legion of scientists, travel writers, antiquarians, poets and artists who had made enquires into the topic from the end of the seventeenth century. This thesis examines the remarkably prominent position enjoyed by Scottish second sight in the Victorian popular imagination. In seeking to appreciate why a strange visionary ability was able to make claims upon the attention of the whole nation where other folk motifs were consigned to the realms of specialist interest only, this project charts its migration through a series of nineteenth-century cultural sites: mesmerism and phrenology, modern spiritualism and anthropology, romance literature and folklorism, and finally psychical research and Celtic mysticism. Binding these individual case studies together is a cast of shared actors - Walter Scott, Catherine Crowe, William Howitt, Marie Corelli, Andrew Lang and Ada Goodrich Freer - and a focus on their common investigative and creative cultures. My interest is with how the power of second sight, once defined as a supernatural occurrence tied to the geographically distant and mysterious Scottish Highlands, comes to be transformed by the close of the nineteenth century, into a supra-normal facet of the psyche, potentially accessible and exploitable by all.
- Theses