Imagine the 1870s, a time when spiritualism and trance-speaking were all the rage, new theories of mind emerged from the Continent and technological advances such as the telegraph, submarine cables and the telephone made communication possible over previously unimaginable distances. If one could communicate with the dead and with people who were physically remote, why could one not do so directly, from one mind to another? In a climate of rapid progress and openness to the unknown, telepathy made perfect sense - or at least as much sense as any other new discovery.
Technologically, much more was to come as the fin de siècle approached: the invention of wireless telegraphy and the discovery of X-rays, radio waves and radioactivity all occurred in the 1890s. As the physicist Oliver Lodge enthused: "Progress is a thing of months and weeks, almost of days." In The Invention of Telepathy, Roger Luckhurst demonstrates that psychical research "emerged along the fault-lines within a fragile edifice", that of a science that was not yet fully institutionalised. Spiritualism - the breeding ground of telepathy - was taken seriously by leading intellectuals. In 1874, Charles Darwin, George Henry Lewes and George Eliot gathered at a seance, although Darwin later professed his disbelief in the manifestations of spirits he had witnessed (sparks, blowing wind, moving furniture).
Luckhurst's main ambition is to write an objective account of the early history of telepathy, up to 1901. The concept was coined in 1882 by Frederic Myers and has been remarkably successful in our culture; communication between minds is now studied under the rubrics ESP (extrasensory perception) and exceptional human experiences, but people still prefer to talk of telepathy. Also in 1882, Myers helped to found the Society for Psychical Research. The aim of the society was to find proof "to investigate the large group of debatable phenomena designated by terms such as mesmeric, psychical and Spiritualistic". In the early 1880s, the SPR arranged hundreds of carefully supervised trials with thought-reading mediums in an effort to prove the existence of telepathy.
Luckhurst shows that interest in supernatural phenomena permeated late Victorian culture and was widely reported in the media. William Stead, the pioneer of popular journalism, was a keen spiritualist who did much to publicise research into the occult in the Review of Reviews and the Pall Mall Gazette. He described automatic script, for example, in language drawn from new technology: as a "writing telephone" through which he could "dial" both the living and the dead. When Stead went down with the Titanic in 1912, Lady Archibald Campbell allegedly received a telepathic message of the tragedy - "W .T. Stead drowned" - before the official news reached her.
Luckhurst's secondary aim is "to offer a gentle corrective" to current views of the fin de siècle . For him, it was not primarily an era of decadence and degeneration but one that looked to the future and was engaged with technological progress.
He certainly demonstrates the vitality of the sciences and their cross-fertilisation with the culture of the period; his book is a treasure trove of diverse material, presented with interdisciplinary ease.
But there is a risk with this ambitious strategy: that of taking on too much. It may well be that "the fugitive linkages sparked by telepathy demand a multi-stranded approach that is prepared to follow elusive and initially impossible connections", but the connections are too elusive at times, in particular in the vignettes on the paranormal in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Grant Allen and Arthur Machen.
Readability is not helped by Luckhurst's fondness for difficult terms. I would love to see a populist version of this book, for the material is too fascinating to confine behind the walls of academe.
The Invention of Telepathy works best when Luckhurst goes deeper into cohesive subjects, as in his sections on feminine hypersensitivity and William, Henry and Alice James' engagement with psychical research. All three dabbled in it and, for Henry, telepathy was of a piece with his interests in "occult relation" and "mute communication" in the late work; it can be seen as a direct "extension to the sympathetic social instinct".
In addition, critics have demonstrated that the apparitions in The Turn of the Screw can be linked to cases explored by the SPR.
The concept of telepathy did not disappear with the passing of Myers in 1901 and the late Victorian era; it remained significant well into the 20th century. Freud wrote on telepathy and was in contact with the SPR, and nearly all the leading modernist writers had some occult interests (automatic writing, for instance, made a comeback with Andre Breton and the surrealists). It can be argued that telepathy is a far more urgent matter in today's world of mobility and severed connections, a "product of ambivalent modernity" itself. But is telepathy possible? Is there anything in it other than wishful thinking? If we are to believe Luckhurst, who states his position bluntly in the book's final sentence - no.
Madeleine Minson is a freelance translator and reviewer.
The Invention of Telepathy
Author - Roger Luckhurst
ISBN - 0 19 924962 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 324