Victorian London was a tough environment for a woman, especially if she didn’t have the safety net of a good family and enough money to put food on the table. We readers of historical romance know that, without those things, there were few options for lone, penniless women. Marriage and motherhood or, less ideally, life as a governess or teacher, were the main respectable choices. But what if those were out of reach?
For the majority of women, wages weren’t enough without a male relative’s support. Which is why Evangeline Jones, heroine of my historical romance The Ruin of Evangeline Jones works as a charlatan spiritualist, conducting séances and manifesting spirits. Though the spiritualist craze meant it was lucrative work, it was a shoddy business, which is why the hero, Alex, is determined to expose her. They’re natural enemies and sparks fly when they meet.
But what about the real history that inspired my story? I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to five of the real people who led the spiritualist movement.
Kate and Maggie Fox
I’m counting the Fox sisters as one person since they were a team. The story of spiritualism really starts with them. In 1848, when they were still children, they claimed to hear strange knocking and rapping sounds made by the spirit of a murdered peddler haunting their home. Tables moved, doors shut spontaneously, and the spirit (whom the girls nicknamed Mr. Splitfoot after the devil) urged the sisters to hold public meetings to spread the word about life after death. They were a sensation and people continued to believe in them, even after the sisters admitted their fraud in 1888.
A celebrated medium in 1870s Britain, Florence had the apparent ability to make spirits appear. Okay, sometimes the spirits she summoned looked suspiciously like Florence Cook herself wrapped in a bed sheet. Though she was exposed as a fraud again and again, the authenticity of her abilities remained a matter of debate.
Her real name was Helen Duncan. She was a Scottish medium, now chiefly famous for being the last person in Britain imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act. She would frequently vomit up ectoplasm (made of cheesecloth). Her arrest came when she revealed, at a séance in 1944, that HMS Barham had been sunk. The tragedy had not yet been announced and the authorities frowned on the spirits’ loose lips in wartime.
This French psychic was famous for her sexually charged séances, often conducted nude. There are also some wonderful pictures of her manifesting a spirit that is actually a life-size cardboard cutout of King Ferdinand of Bavaria. She seems to have used all manner of tricks, including trap doors, in her performances.
Before he was the world’s greatest escape artist and magician, Houdini spent a short time as a medium. Later, in his book A Magician Among the Spirits, he talked about how he once viewed séances as another type of magic act. He was horrified when he realized how seriously people took them. The guilt he felt for tricking people is one of the reasons he spent much of his time exposing spiritualist charlatans. As well as inspiring some of Evie’s tricks, he also influenced the way I wrote Alex, my hero.
You might wonder, after reading all that, why someone like Alex would fall for someone like Evie. I think Alex says it best:
“You and I are the same. Devious and distrustful, we expect everyone to lie to us. Perhaps that’s why your moods, your silences, everything you say and do, make perfect sense to me. When I’m with you, only when I’m with you, I’m not acting a part. And I think it’s the same for you because you feel it too. That despite what’s on the surface, you and I are made of the same stuff.”
This book was tremendous fun to write. I hope readers enjoy it, too.
To celebrate the release I’ll be giving away a free Ebook copy of The Ruin of Evangeline Jones. Just leave a comment telling me whether you’re a believer or a skeptic. If you feel like giving a reason, I’d love to hear that too.