Melissa Pritchard,
Selene of the Spirits
(Ontario Review Press, 1998)

Melissa Pritchard's novel is set in Victorian England and explores the world of spiritualism which fascinated so many of the time. Based loosely on the life of Florence Cook, a well known medium of the time, Selene of the Spirits is about Selene Cook, a middle-class adolescent who appears to have a gift as a medium, and it does seem that she is receiving spirit voices. After conducting several seances within her family, Selene is guided to Thomas Boynton, secretary of the Dalston Association of Inquiries into Spiritualism who directs her to other individuals who teach her techniques to "enhance" her gift. These include the application of luminous paint, the use of wires to move things about, and how to make spirit raps, knocks, thumps. Selene is uneasy about using fakery, but she is informed that it is her duty as a medium to provide the trappings that her audiences expect.

Selene becomes known as the "schoolgirl medium" but her participation in seances begins to take a toll. Her plain, bookish younger sister Octavia resents her, and her resentment increases with each of Selene's successes. Selene's spirit manifestations become more elaborate until she seems to conjure a spirit who moves among the participants of the seance. This trick which seals her reputation also proves her downfall, and she is exposed.

Desperate to help her family and redeem her reputation, she turns to photographer and scientist William Herapath, whom she hopes to have prove through scientific testing that she is not a fraud -- yet even under his scrutiny she is prepared to deceive him. Thus begins another fall from grace, one which will have tragic repercussions. Through it all, however, it is revealed that Selene does indeed experience voices and visions, and she records her inner torment in a journal which reads like poetry.

The journal entries enhance Selene's character and give it shape; she is no longer cool and self-possessed but rather a confused and desperate girl, winning the reader's heart and loyalty. Octavia is an intriguing character. Initially, she engages one's sympathy as the sister with no prospects who lives in her sister's shadow. Instead of retaining sympathy, however, she reveals herself as selfish and self-centered in her actions. It is impossible to forgive her for her actions; rarely do I have such a visceral reaction to a character.

Pritchard's novel unfolds at a steady gentle pace, enhanced by letters and articles written by the various characters in addition to Selene's journal. It's a fascinating look into an unusual facet of Victorian life.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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