Nancy Rubin Stuart
The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox
Reviewed by: Stephanie Cage © 2005
US Hardback First Edition
393 pages; $25
Date Reviewed: 4th April 2005
Ghostly figures, strange rappings and messages from the dead are not the material of your average nineteenth century biography. But then, Maggie Fox was not your average nineteenth century lady. In fact arguably, despite her easy access to high society, which eventually reached as far as the Presidential family, the woman at the heart of the —Rochester knockings” affair was anything but a lady.
Maggie and her siblings spent much of their childhood on a quiet, secluded farm. Missing the bright lights of the city, Maggie and Katy set about manufacturing their own entertainment (as so many other children have before and since) by concocting ghost stories about former occupants of the house. Their pranks, however, went a bit further than most children's, and soon rumours began to circulate about the strange noises emanating from their house at night. Neighbours came to scoff and stayed to marvel, and soon Maggie and Katy were at the forefront of what is now known as the spiritualist movement.
Drawing on contemporary accounts as well as the sisters' own confusing defences and recantations of their spiritual beliefs, Nancy Rubin Stuart blends an account of Maggie's complicated, turbulent life with a wider exploration of why spiritualism was almost an inevitable consequence of nineteenth century life and thought. Stuart is often at her best when documenting the religious and political climate of the era. She conveys convincingly what it was like to live at a time when scientific and geographic boundaries were being pushed back further than ever before, with old mysteries being explained and new ones uncovered daily. At one and the same time, rational thought was eroding the credibility of traditional religion, and science was making possible many things previously believed miraculous. With the public showing an unprecedented appetite for marvels, it was no wonder that showmen like Phineas T. Barnum could rub shoulders with society's elite, or two girls from Hydesville who claimed to communicate with spirits could shoot in a matter of years to extraordinary public prominence.
While Stuart's representation of the period is superbly assured, her account of Maggie's own life is a little hazier. All too often, details are blurred by a mass of conflicting accounts, or by Maggie's notoriously weak record-keeping. Stuart is a scrupulously accurate biographer, never stating as fact what is merely allegation or speculation, and at times this means that the reader is kept at a frustrating distance from the book's elusive subject.
In the end, the book poses as many questions as answers. Did the girls ever believe in the spirits they claimed to summon, or was it all a superbly orchestrated fraud? If the latter, who among their family and supporters was aware of their duplicity and who were the innocent victims of their devious plot? What was Maggie's real relationship with Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane? Was he the staunch protector of a young woman's virtue or the callous exploiter of her innocence? At times ‘The Reluctant Spiritualist' reads more like a mystery than a biography. Unravelling hints and clues from a vast array of sources, Stuart painstakingly seeks to discover the facts behind American Spiritualism, but ultimately the truth remains obstinately veiled.
There is little here to change a reader's view of the Spiritualist cause, but for all that, ‘The Reluctant Spiritualist' is an illuminating account of a complex subject.