The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914.
In his lively, well researched book The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914 Karl Bell explores how magic helped people to adjust to, and resist, urban life in the long nineteenth century. Bell uses Manchester, Norwich, and Portsmouth as his case studies in order to show how magical mentalities were expressed through dynamic mediums such as stories, songs and seances, charms and curses which granted magic's practitioners and recipients an empowering sense of plebeian agency. Rather than an expression of the traditional or the fantastical, Bell argues that magic, adaptive and transformative, remained a part of modern city life.
Bell introduces the notion of magical memory mapping, in which supernatural narratives enable "spatial mapping, temporal transgressions, and communal reclamations of parts of the city" (228). Ghost stories, folkloric narratives and the tainting of particular places (woods, houses, mile markers, pubs) were all part of a process of aid and resistance enacted by urbanites faced with transformed spatial arrangements. In Bell's study, time, place, and space are manipulated by active urban participants to assert what has been, what is, and what always should be in their cities. In this project Bell is indebted to Michel de Certeau's work on the informal, transgressive stories created by urbanites faced with the logical coherence of the concept city (see The Practice of Everyday Life, 1992). Henri Lefebvre's theory of "representations of space" (see The Production of Space, 1991), and how such space(s) can be subjectively invested with subversive and oppositional readings also underpins Bell's focus.
Whilst Bell concentrates upon the working class uses of, and responses to, magic, he does not ignore the middle class; rather, his study of middle class uses of magic informs his larger project of questioning whether modernity can really be described as a dynamic disenchantment of the world (as expressed by Max Weber and used by Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1997), rather than an idea which required "continuous reinvention and reassertion" (155). Bell suggests the middle class constructed their own versions of modernity, rationality, and enlightenment against supposedly pre-modern magical mentalities. However, magic's pervasiveness and popularity was to prove problematic, and Bell contends that "certain missionaries of modernity--schoolteachers, journalists, and folklorists" had to incorporate magic into their efforts (a la Gramsci) "to encourage consent" for their vision of modernity (119). To further blur the magical/modern dichotomy many amongst the middle class participated in magical practices either as debunkers and/or believers, and magical mentalities were internalised rather than eradicated. All of which contributed to the ambiguous nature of urban magic and how it could be used to complicate class relations and definitions of modernity.
Gender, like class, is used by Bell to "inject dissonances into the grand narrative of a masculine modernity" (191). Throughout the nineteenth century, the courts and press anchored women to timeless magical beliefs (either as gullible dupes, frustrated vixens, or vengeful rivals), thus denying them the capacity to advance in the modern world. However, Bell argues that associations with magic gave women agency, the use of which allowed them to challenge perceived boundaries of age, class, gender, and ethnicity. Association with magic gave the older generation, particular women, authority. Younger women purchased Books of Fate in a drive towards self-improvement; this particular magical mentality offered control over their job prospects and relationships. Another example in Portsmouth in 1885 of Clara Stanley, a gypsy fortune-teller who offered services to deal with illegitimate pregnancies (abortions) via herbs and magic, highlights how the scientific and the magical combined and blurred and helped women control their circumstances in the rapidly changing urban world (178).
By using Manchester (first city of the new industrial order), Norwich (a dwindling Medieval city), and Portsmouth (a garrison town, dominated by the Admiralty and the ebb and flow of war), Bell shifts the historical gaze away from London. This is to be commended, because as Bell argues "most people's experience of urbanization ... was not that of the capital but provincial towns and cities" (27). However this leads to the inevitable question of whether Bell's thesis can be applied to other towns and cities in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland? Furthermore, can any international connections be made?
Illusionary and elusive magic is difficult to pin-down. It is never easy to ascertain whether someone believes in magic or not. Should the difficulties in locating both the belief and its seriousness tarnish Bell's project? Bell's response is a resounding "no"; his project is not particularly interested in the genuineness of magical beliefs, rather he focuses upon the uses of magical mentalities and practices. Bell's focus does not completely escape the question of an ironic use of magic; this too is difficult to determine, particularly because of Bell's reliance on the secondary accounts of newspapers and legal records.
A loose definition of magic as favoured by Bell can be problematic, however it can also lead to new approaches and questions surrounding the urban experience and how it is navigated. Bell's book suggests other enticing projects: for example, why does the plebeian magical imagination dissolve in 1914? Did the Great War, democratization, and the onslaught of commercialization and consumption all transpire to extinguish the flame of the magical imagination? Or, does it flicker on in urban entertainments throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? If so, how has it transformed and how does it function? Furthermore, will the urban environment and its inhabitants ever be truly modern (however complicated that may be) without even a little magic?
The University of Manchester
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2015|
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