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Spirited Detection: Science and the Supernatural in Victorian Detective Fiction
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This study examines the use of supernatural elements in Victorian-era detective fiction. By focusing on critically neglected detective stories involving ghosts, clairvoyance, dreams, mesmerism and providence, I highlight the genre’s emphasis on what counts as evidence, and I argue that Victorian detective stories use the supernatural to address questions of epistemology that extend beyond the fictional world to reassure readers in the midst of significant social, political, and religious changes in Britain. I illuminate how these texts treat pseudo-scientific, scientific, and supernaturally-received knowledge, and explain the implications for character morality, as defined by providence, when supernatural and scientific phenomena like clairvoyance and mesmerism are used by detectives and criminals. The second chapter examines the use of supernaturally-received and perceived evidence and how the supernatural appoints detectives to solve crimes. I argue that instances of prophetic dreams and the intervention of ghosts and providence in fictional investigations grant reassurance to the readers by reestablishing order at the conclusion, an order which does not exclude the moral grey area occupied by the detectives who transgress the social order in order to restore it. The third chapter focuses on Seeley Regester’s The Dead Letter (an American novel that was popular in England) to argue that Victorian detective fiction morally-coded supernatural and pseudo-scientific abilities in a way that supports a providential understanding of justice and social order. The fourth chapter discusses the Victorian anxiety about conflicting modes of knowledge as figured through the tension between providence and criminal mesmerism. The criminals in the stories examined in the chapter use mesmerism to effectively rewrite the providential narrative, and their victims struggle to reassert their own narrative authority but ultimately must rely on providence to solve the case. Due to the multitude of Victorian definitions for supernatural phenomena, I conclude with appendices in which I provide a flexible and controlled vocabulary in XML tags to encourage and facilitate further exploration of the patterns of how the supernatural is used in detective fiction. The appendices examine how our modern efforts to categorize elements of text (including supernatural phenomena) mirror the nineteenth-century desire to categorize and thus control knowledge.
Perrings, Laura Elizabeth (2016). Spirited Detection: Science and the Supernatural in Victorian Detective Fiction. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from