Review of Arthur Balfour's Ghosts: An Edwardian Elite and the Riddle of Cross-Correspondence Automatic Writings
Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK, 2017
300 pp. Paper, £14.95
In Arthur Balfour's Ghosts, Trevor Hamilton consolidates for the first time the complex 'cross-correspondences' from an elite group of researchers, all members of the 'Society for Psychical Research'. In the years from 1901-1936, over 3000 scripts were collected through an elaborate form of automatic writing by a select circle of automatists operating separately from each other and at many times in different countries. In 1906, investigating the scripts Alice Johnson noticed a pattern emerge and concluded that such ‘correspondences’ were from recently-deceased colleagues and therefore proof of their having survived death. Hamilton outlines the main themes across the scripts examining the more salient examples of cross-correspondences and paranormal cognition and establishes objective parameters for their evaluation.
The book is divided into two parts, separated by seven pages of photographs. The first part is a dense study of the cross-correspondences of 'automatists': Diana Raikes; Margaret Verrall, lecturer at Newnham College, Cambridge; Trix Fleming, sister of Rudyard Kipling; American medium Leonora Piper; Dame Edith Lyttleton and Winnifred Coombe-Tenant, sister-in-law of F.W.H. Myers. In the second part of the book, Hamilton assesses the evidence objectively through a range of criteria. Each chapter poses a question ranging from: Were the cross-correspondences, unambiguous, consistent, and meaningful? Have the correspondences been tweaked by wishful thinking? Of particular interest to the reviewer was the chapter that asked, could one be sure that the cryptic nature of the cross-correspondences was not the product of psychological artefact? No definitive answer is given, but the points Hamilton touches upon make for interesting reading and further research.
The scripts Hamilton has documented were often fragmented, scattered between 'automatists' and across time-frames, frequently resurfacing years later. Through an erudite process of investigation, he tracks phrases, Classical references, drawings and dates from one 'automatist' to another, weaving together a case for the documented evidence of cross-correspondences to be considered as paranormal. The book begins with the communications from the spirit of F.W.H. Myers, author of Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). An important figure, Myers was one of the founding members of 'Society for Psychical Research' and linked to many influential Victorians. His death in 1901 was the incentive for his friends and colleagues to seek contact with his spirit through various methods including automatic writing.
Socially elite, the cross-correspondents regarded themselves as being outside of the popular spiritualist movement and the mediums of that time. Rather, they were intellectuals engaged in serious research. Favourable to the idea of a communicable life after death and other paranormal activities, they were relatively unbiased in their investigations. Their eagerness and willingness to believe in messages from the beyond is clearly evident, as Hamilton writes, 'it should be stressed, for a variety of obvious reasons, that conscious collaborative fraud is ruled out' (p.158). On the other hand, he also warns against gullibility, for a 'strange enchantment can sometimes descend on the producers and consumers of automatic writing' (p.203), that may stem from their psychodynamic obligations.
The title of the book alludes to the many cross-correspondents that were linked to Arthur Balfour, as well as to the communications found mainly in the writings of Winnifred Coombe-Tennant regarding the Story and the Plan. The former is the love story between The Palm Maiden (May Lyttelton) and the Knight (Alfred Balfour) and her love for him from beyond the grave. The latter refers to the efforts of the 'discarnate communicators' to campaign for world peace through influencing the birth of children, 'the prediction of a new Golden Age ushered in by a new Augustus' (p.179).
Laced throughout the text are references to the researchers being of sound mind and not easily given to flights of fancy. For example, one of the main investigators, Piddington, 'was not an eccentric or unbalanced individual' (p.123), or when referring to 'automatist' Margaret Verrall, 'she was eminently practical & responsible, the exact opposite of the popular identity of "psychics" and "sensitives"…' (p.13). Amusingly there is also mention of the 'discarnates' irritation at the 'automatists' distortion of their messages (p.199).
Alfred Balfour's Ghosts is a comprehensive overview of varied and at times complex material only recently made available. Particularly engaging are the author's anecdotes and background details that bring to life this close-knit group of investigating intellectuals. Hamilton, also a member of the Society for Psychical Research, is certainly knowledgeable of the proof in support of psychic phenomena and the sceptical arguments against such evidence. One of his criticisms being that the investigators were too close to their subject matter to be objective. A dense book at times he brings together interesting research for further pursuit and asks quite honestly—how does one rigorously test and challenge these claims? Rightfully so he offers no concrete answers. As he writes: 'One just does not know. But one must always be cautious since explaining away the spirit hypothesis by other contested hypothesis like telepathy, clairvoyance, or some kind of cosmic reservoir may mean substituting one species of ignorance for another' (p.273).