Georgina Weldon, a Victorian media sensation and campaigner against Britain’s archaic lunacy laws, liked to present herself as a restrained individual – someone thrust into the limelight due to circumstances beyond her control. And while such self-depictions were somewhat wide of the mark, her fame did stem from a notorious incident not of her own making.
On 14 April 1878, two unknown men came to call on the forty-year-old Weldon, a woman living apart from her husband in the vibrant London district of Bloomsbury, in what had once been the couple’s home. Having been shown into the library of the house – incidentally, once a residence of Charles Dickens – the pair were confronted with the sight of Weldon up a ladder, dusting some books. Such unconventional conduct for a woman of her class would have been in keeping with what the men had been led to expect. They’d been briefed beforehand on her strange behaviour. This included wearing her hair short, embracing vegetarianism and communing with the dead.
Like many thousands of the era – including poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the late American president, and creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle – Weldon was an enthusiastic participant at Spiritualist séances. At these gatherings, attendees might witness such unlikely occurrences as invisible spirits communicating in patterns of knocks, phosphorescent lights floating in the darkness, or even full body materialisations of the dead. When Weldon’s visitors introduced themselves as fellow believers, she relaxed, telling them about some of her own experiences. After the men departed, however, she began to feel unnerved.
Weldon was right to be suspicious. Rather than Spiritualists, the men were in fact asylum doctors. They’d been summoned by Weldon’s estranged husband, Harry, who wanted to have his wife locked away – chiefly so he could pursue a relationship with another woman. More medical staff in disguise would come to the house that evening and the next day, united in their aim to take Weldon forcibly from her home. It was only thanks to the efforts of the household staff, and a fellow Spiritualist who fetched the police, that Weldon was able to evade capture.
Still, as Weldon’s pursuers had obtained a warrant allowing them to remove her to an asylum, she was forced to go on the run, staying with sympathisers at different locations until the warrant had expired. On emerging, she found few options available to address what had happened to her. When she tried to pursue legal action against those who’d attempted to have her shut away, the magistrate was sympathetic but ultimately unhelpful. Under the law as it stood, a woman could only bring a case against someone with the approval of her husband, and it hardly seemed likely that Harry would give his support to Weldon starting proceedings against him.
Clearly, this lack of legal autonomy was part of a much wider picture of women’s limited social and political power – something against which Weldon had already been rebelling. Spiritualist gatherings provided opportunities for investigating communication with the world beyond the grave in settings in which few of the usual strictures of Victorian society applied. There was a dangerous catch, though. As Weldon had discovered, such inquisitiveness could arouse suspicion from family, friends and the scientific establishment, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Having failed to make legal headway, Weldon set out to win her battle in the court of popular opinion. But just as modern female campaigners and politicians are frequently advised to soften their public image, she had to navigate the competing requirements of delivering a serious message with somehow presenting herself as unthreatening. Weldon’s approach was certainly imaginative, combining the hard-hitting content of her talks about the need for lunacy law reform with musical interludes, during which she entertained the crowds with her fine singing voice.
By maintaining this creative balancing act, Weldon kept herself in the public mind until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act 1882 finally removed the mandate that a wife could only bring a case to court with her husband’s approval. She took full advantage of this new freedom, mounting civil actions against her husband and the colluding doctors, and bolstering her profile further by representing herself in court.
Even then, at the height of her fame, an iconic newspaper advertisement chooses to focus instead on her looks. A serene Weldon appears wearing an elaborate bonnet, along with the declaration that, though she is ’50 today’, ‘thanks to “Pears Soap”, her ‘COMPLEXION is only 17’ – a reminder that in the 19th century, just as still too often today, women in the public eye had to wrap their real agendas in a veil of attractiveness in order to be heard.
Emily Midorikawa’s latest book, Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, tells the stories of several nineteenth-century women, including Georgina Weldon, whose apparent abilities to contact the dead rewarded them with fame, fortune and astonishing political and cultural influence. Emily is also the author of A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (written with Emma Claire Sweeney). She is a lecturer at New York University London.