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The Wonderful Magazine frontispiece

I love history and I love research: always have done, to a degree other people find – well, let’s just say ‘unusual’. To give you an idea of what I mean, let me take you back to the summer of 1982, and the last term of my first year at university. Now, first years at most Cambridge colleges sit their Prelims in that term – that’s preliminary exams, the sort that don’t count towards your degree but do count when it comes to ruining one’s summer. By sheer dumb luck, however, I had gone up to Peterhouse, the oldest and most eccentric of colleges, and Peterhouse scorned Prelims. This meant that I spent the eight weeks of that term with a lot of spare time on my hands; most of my friends, the ones at other colleges, were feverishly revising, and there wasn’t a great deal going on. My fellow Petreans took advantage of this freedom to do a lot of drinking, punting, and garden partying, but even aged 18, I have to say, my idea of a good time was more to head to the University Library and read.

I wasn’t quite swot enough, in truth, to spend the time reading stuff that might have helped me academically. What I actually did was to retreat to the dusty pastures of North Front 6, where it was always cool and dark and the smell of ancient books was overpowering. Nobody ever seemed to go North Front 6, which had tiny windows and no natural light, and was, and probably still is, a sort of elephants’ graveyard where old, moribund and essentially useless periodicals went to die. It was paradise for me, though, and it was up there, that term, that I first chanced upon a run of one of the magazines that I want to talk about today.

It was called The Mirror of Literature, Art and Amusement, published in London in the 1820s and the 1830s, and it was filled with an extensive selection of eye-opening stories of the sort that nowadays appear in Fortean Times. These I carefully noted and had photocopied (the not-drinking business meant that there was money for this), and the photocopies I took home for the holidays, and sat at the kitchen table and typed out – there were no scanners and no laptops then. When I finished I had a pile of stories about three inches high, full of cases of spontaneous human combustion, earth-eaters and other prodigies, and that pile, to my considerable surprise, changed my life. I’d already started sending newspaper clippings to FT (another portion of the student grant was paying for my sub, so thank you, British taxpayer, for that), but when my parcel of material from the Mirror reached the magazine, the resident Gang of Fort realised that they were dealing with the sort of mild obsessive that they could relate to. The result was an invitation to join the staff; 28 years later, here I am.

The Mirror – though I didn’t know it at the time – was a late example of a genre of periodical that was popular at the time: what one might call, for convenience, the ‘wonderful magazines’. These publications specialised in marvels, everything from extraordinary adventures (such things happened quite a lot back then) to human prodigies and strange events. I remember that the Mirror contained quite a long article about a Swiss boy who could count the seconds in his head so accurately that he was as reliable as a good clock – that was fairly typical of the mag’s contents. Some of this material was probably quite reliable, but one would be unwise to take such things on faith. What the Wonderfuls were really good at was shining light into an area of human experience that’s not generally chronicled – not so much what was supposed to be actually happening ‘out there’, but what people then believed, and thought was credible. I’ve always been of the opinion that the chief value of FT is to gather and set down a mass of broadly unrelated matter that would otherwise go uncollected, and be lost, and to preserve it for posterity; well, the Wonderfuls performed the same function back in the early 1800s, and it’s largely thanks to them that the likes of Daniel Lambert, the Leicester fat man, or Thomas O’Brien, the Irish giant, are still fairly well-remembered now.

The earliest of the Wonderfuls date back to the 1760s, though the genre has a clear precursor in the various broadsides and ballads published from the first half of the seventeenth century that regaled their readers with ‘strange and wonderful news’. [The folklorist Michael Goss has written in detail on these pamphlets in Fortean Studies 1 (1994) pp.182-97.] Although nowadays they exist pretty much exclusively as bound volumes, the Wonderfuls were not first issued in that form; they were, rather, published in weekly parts, and the publisher would occasionally print up an index or list of contents, together with instructions to a binder for assembling the parts; many, perhaps all, such magazines were however also repackaged and reissued, bound, by the publisher. This practice made the Wonderfuls the forerunners of the modern partwork, but it also indicates that such magazines were aimed squarely at the middle classes, who alone possessed the resources to have their copies bound; there was a clear dividing line between ‘wonderful magazines’ and the penny dreadfuls that emerged a few years later and eventually killed them off. Sensational though the contents of their publications often were, therefore, the writers and properietors of wonderful magazines sought to gild them with at least a veneer of education and gentility.

Chalcographimania indexThe various wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines that appeared during this period have never formally been catalogued – to my knowledge at least – though the contemporary Chalcographimania, or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle contains valuable information (and, inter alia, on of the most hilarious indexes I’ve encountered, full of literal renditions of the bowdlerised references to notables so common in books at this time – check out the sample page to the right). More recently, the crude beginnings of one bibliographic study may be found here, the American end of this publishing phenomenon is discussed in Pitcher and Hartigan’s Sensationalist Literature and Popular Culture in the Early American Republic (2000), and James Gregory wrote on ‘Eccentric biography and the Victorians’ in Biography v30n3 (2007).

This is, perhaps, not surprising. Actually performing the task of cataloguing thoroughly would be a tricky job, requiring a professional librarian; the various series were endlessly reissued, sometimes under slightly different titles, mostly including nothing new but a title page, but occasionally incorporating scatterings of new material – another practice that has continued to the present day, as anyone who recalls the impressive variety of ways that Orbis found to reissue its 1980s partwork The Unexplained in magazine and book form will recall. Plagiarism was also a significant problem, as it was for most publishers in the years before the law on copyright was strengthened and enforced, and the leading case of Hogg v. Kirby (8 Ves. Jun. 215, 223; 1803) involved teh Wonderful writer Alexander Hogg’s attempts to prosecute a rival, Kirby, for passing off his own Wonderful Magazine as a “new series improved” version of Hogg’s. The lack of scruple, outright disregard for copyright, and bizarre early nineteenth century publishing practices evident in cases of this sort can be seen in Hogg’s outraged accusation that the first number of Kirby’s work (which purported to be the fifth of Hogg’s) actually began in the middle of a sentence that Hogg’s fourth issue had left unfinished.

It’s worth pausing here for a moment to take a closer look at R.S. Kirby, who thus emerges onto the scene as one of the leading publishers of ‘terrific’ material. He was, it appears, originally a London bookseller who was engaged by Hogg to peddle his partwork.  Sales, evidently, were good enough to tempt Kirby to betray his partner and go into business on his own account, but it would be wrong to think of the pirate publisher as nothing but a thief. Yes, the historical material that appeared in the wonderful magazines was often treated cavalierly – most of it was unreferenced, poorly researched, endlessly hacked up and rewritten, and, inevitably, it also favoured anecdote and the ‘good story’ over verifiable fact. Considerable work, however, did sometimes go into the acquisition of new material… particularly when it came to accounts of contemporary trials and executions, which were wildly popular. There was, throughout this period, a guarantee of ready sales for any penny-a-liner able to obtain an exclusive interview with a notorious murderer in the condemned cell, and it was pretty common for gaolers to be heavily bribed to permit access in suchcircumstances. Kirby himself appears to have been present at the remarkable 1804 trial of Francis Smith for the murder of the ‘Hammersmith Ghost,’ and another writer of sensational criminal literature, J. Curtis (whose day job was as a court reporter for The Times), boasted that he had not missed an execution in the vicinity of London for a quarter of a century, and once walked 29 miles before breakfast to be present at the hanging of a Captain Moir.

The corollary of all this was that material from the various wonderful magazines retained its value for decades; there’s a reference, dating to 1843 (which I cannot find right now, drat it) to the copyrights to Kirby’s then four-decade-old work being sold at auction. For those willing to read the material carefully (read: critically, and with an awareness of cultural context), the Wonderfuls still have much to offer us today. So I’m going to list those that I know existed here, and link to those that – all hail Google Books – are going online, as and when they do so. My aim will be to keep this listing updated every now and then; in time I may even get around to creating a rough index to the material they contain. If you’re interested in wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines, in short, you may want to bookmark this post and refer back to it every now and then.

1764-65 The Wonderful Magazine, or Marvellous Chronicle, Consisting Entirely of Matters Which Come Under the Denomination of Miraculous! Queer! Odd! Strange! Supernatural! Whimsical! Absurd! Out o’ The Way! and Unaccountable!

London, 2 vols. Sold at 6d. per number.

1793-95 Wonderful Magazine and Marvellous Chronicle… Containing Authentic Accounts of All the Most Wonderful Productions and… Events That Have Ever Happened, etc.

London, 5 vols. (60 weekly numbers). Edited by Alexander Hogg. Published by C. Johnson. A revival and extension of the 1760s periodical.

1802-07 New, Original and Complete Wonderful Museum & Magazine Extraordinary.

London, 5 vols. William Granger and James Caulfield. Sometimes referred to as Granger’s New Wonderful Museum and Extraordinary Magazine.

Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5

1802-08 Wonderful and Scientific Museum, or Magazine of Remarkable and Eccentric Characters. London, 6 vols. RS Kirby and Alexander Hogg. ‘A complete Library of every thing that can make the Work useful and entertaining.’

Sold bound at 10s.6d. per volume.

Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6

1803-07 The Eccentric Mirror: Reflecting a Faithful and Interesting Delineation of Male and Female Characters, Ancient and Modern…

London, 4 vols.  Edited by G.H. (Henry) Wilson. Published by James Cundee. Focussed on those with “extraordinary qualifications, talents, and propensities, natural or acquired…” including  longevity, obesity, “enterprising pursuits” etc.

Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4

1809 The Mariners’ Marvellous Magazine, or Wonders of the Ocean

London, 4 vols. Thomas Tegg. Mostly shipwreck narratives.

1809 The American Magazine of Wonders, and Marvellous Chronicle…

New York, 2 vols.  Donald Fraser. Widely available on microfilm in academic libraries.

1809 The Supernatural Magazine

Dublin. Wilkinson & Courtney. A short-lived publication. Deals with ghosts, portents, animal magnetism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism etc.

1821 Wonderful Characters: comprising memoirs and anecdotes of the most remarkable persons of every age and nation

London, 3 vols. G.H. (Henry) Wilson.

1822 Biographica Curiosa, or, Memoirs of Remarkable Characters of the Reign of George III.

London. George Smeeton; illustrations by George Cruikshank. May be the same as Smeeton’s Historical and Biographical Tracts (1820)? “A fascinating compendium of celebrated “freaks” (midgets, giants and
the overweight, female fireaters and wildboys), misers, religious
frauds or visionaries (Joanna Southcott, Anne Moore), murderers,
beggars, eccentrics and the self-deluded.” [Bonham’s auction catalogue, 2010]

1823-41 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction

London, 48 vols.  Edited by T. Byerley. Published by John Limbaird. Much broader in content than the ‘wonderfuls,’ but still contained abundant quantities of more or less sensational material, especially in its early volumes.

Volume 1, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6, Volume 7, Volume 8, Volume 9, Volume 14, Volume 16, Volume 30, Volume 32, Volume 33, Volume 36, Volume 38

1824 The Cabinet of Curiosities: or, Wonders of the World Displayed

London. J. Limbaird

1825 The Terrific Register, or, Record of Crimes. Judgements, Providences,and Calamities

London, 2 vols. T. Richardson. Includes various natural marvels, peculiar deaths, lucky escapes, accounts of human sacrifice in Mexico, etc. in addition to straightforward criminal reporting.

Volume 1, Volume 2

1825 Endless Entertainment, or, Comic, Terrific and Legendary Tales

London. J. Mark. Dwarves, monsters, wizards. Only one story per part.

1827 Wonders of the Universe, or, Curiosities of Nature and Art, including Memoirs and Anecdotes of Wonderful and Eccentric Characters…

London. Jones & Co.

1830 Smeeton’s Wonderful Magazine, or, The Wonderful Magazine of All That Is Singular, Curious, and Rare in Nature and Art

London. G. Smeeton.

• 1833   The Cabinet of Curiosities: or, Wonders of the World Displayed.

New York. McElrath & Bangs. American edition of the 1824 British Cabinet, with some new material.

• 1849-50   The New Wonderful Magazine, Consisting of a… Collection of Remarkable Trials, Biographies &c.

London, 2 vols.

• 1880   Collection of four hundred portraits of remarkable, eccentric and notorious personages printed from the original copper plates of Caulfield’s Remarkable characters, Grainger, and Kirby’s Wonderful museum

London. Reeves & Turner.

[Hat-tip: my grateful thanks to the estimable John Adcock, of the highly recommendable Yesterday’s Papers, for pointing me in the direction of a significant proportion of the above material.]

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Emily Bronte: a fantasy prone personalityMore than a quarter of a century has passed since a couple of psychologists named Theodore X. Barber and Sheryl Wilson first published their important study into the central role that a percipient’s fantasy life plays in the nature, frequency and detail of the paranormal claims they make. According to this theory, ‘fantasy-proneness’ (the term Barber and Wilson coined to describe such imagination-driven experiences) directly correlates with – and to a large extent explains – a wide variety of unusual and psychical experiences, including the propensity to see ghosts, hear voices, and undergo close encounters with UFOs and entities of various exotic varieties.

The critical point, according to Barber and Wilson, is that the ‘fantasy-prone personalities’ they identified were liable to blur the divide between imagination and reality, allowing the former to intrude into the latter in ways that made their imaginary experiences seem quite real. The pair went on to list a total of 14 indicators of fantasy-proneness, and suggested that individuals who experience six or more of these could be labelled “fantasy-prone”. These 14 indicators are:

(1) being an excellent hypnotic subject, (2) having imaginary playmates as a child, (3) fantasizing frequently as a child, (4) adopting a fantasy identity, (5) experiencing imagined sensations as real, (6) having vivid sensory perceptions, (7) reliving past experiences, (8) claiming psychic powers, (9) having out-of-body or floating experiences, (10) receiving poems, messages, etc., from spirits, higher intelligences, and the like, (11) being involved in “healing,” (12) encountering apparitions, (13) experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations (waking dreams), and (14) seeing classical hypnagogic imagery (such as spirits or monsters from outer space).

Barber & Wilson’s work was published, somewhat obscurely, as “The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena” across 50 pages of A.A. Sheikh’s Imagery: Current Theory, Research and Application (New York: Wiley, 1983). The new hypothesis was picked up fairly promptly by both the skeptical and Fortean communities; Joe Nickell and Robert Baker have both used the concept to reassess the testimony of witnesses who have claimed to have been abducted by aliens, while Peter Rogerson, in an article published in Magonia in 1986, pointed out its relevance to the study of all sorts of strange phenomena. I devoted six pages to the same subject in Borderlands (1996), noting that the authors “suggest that fantasy proneness stems from a failure to abandon childhood immersion in fantasy and imagination, and that it is more likely to be common among those who enjoyed particularly complex and rewarding fantasy lives during their infancy.”

Rogerson neatly summarised Barber & Wilson’s findings as follows:

The authors found that of twenty-seven women, rated as ‘excellent hypnotic subjects’ in a study, all but one had profound fantasy lives, the fantasies often being of an hallucinatory intensity. The authors suggest that there is a small percentage of the population (about 4%), who although otherwise perfectly normal, fantasise much of the time. They experience these fantasies ‘as real as real’, and exhibit syndromes such as an ability to hallucinate voluntarily and profound hypnogogic imagery, as well as presenting superb hypnotic fantasy related performances and vivid memories of life experiences. They also claim, at least, talents as psychics and sensitives.

For all this, frustratingly, very little further work on the concept appears to have been done by academic psychologists. Yes, there have been half a dozen or more follow-up studies, but all of these have been comparatively small-scale, and my own reading suggests that the notion of fantasy-proneness has tended to be accepted in the academic community without much investigation, still less detailed studies to confirm the hypothesis. This is very disappointing, since Barber and Wilson’s original work was based on a startlingly small sample – fewer than 30 people. This makes it possible to doubt the validity, or at least the universality, of the pair’s conclusions, and indeed a number of hostile and critical responses to the theory have been published in UFO and psychical research journals, mostly in the US.

Wuthering HeightsBearing all this in mind, I was particularly interested to discover the other day just how closely one of the most notable figures in nineteenth century English literature fits the model of the fantasy-prone personality. Emily Brontë, as is well known, was one of three literary sisters, living with their father in a Yorkshire parsonage in the first half of the nineteenth century. The eldest of the three, Charlotte Brontë, produced Jane Eyre (and three other inferior novels); the youngest, Anne, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Emily, the middle daughter, of course became famous as the author of Wuthering Heights, by common consent one of the most powerfully imaginative and original works of fiction in the English language.

Very little indeed is known of Emily’s life; she was by far the most reclusive of the three Brontë sisters, and aside from three very brief interludes – a few months at school,  a short period spent learning French with her sister Charlotte in Brussels, and an abortive career as a school teacher – she spent the whole of her life at home, working latterly as housekeeper to her father. According to Juliet Barker, whose excellent family biography The Brontës (London: Phoenix, 1995) I turned to over the Christmas holidays, the biographical information that survives for Emily would not fill two sheets of paper. The same few anecdotes tend to be repeated everywhere one looks, but from these emerges a picture of a young woman (she died at 30) who was self-contained and almost entirely self-reliant. Emily Brontë appears to have had no friends whatsoever, nor the least interest in making any; her wants in this respect were entirely satisfied by her family and her imagination. Her chief recreation was solitary walking on the Yorkshire moors. She hated imposing herself or any of her problems on others – in perhaps the best-known anecdote concerning her, Emily was bitten by a dog whilst walking and, concerned that the animal might have infected her with rabies, strode home, walked to the kitchen fire, seized a red-hot poker from the flames, and self-cauterised her wound. According to Barker (p.198), “with characteristic fortitude, Emily told no one of the incident until all danger of infection was past, fearing that her family might over-react and make an intolerable fuss of her.”

Too much is made of the isolation of the Brontë family – as Barker points out, their home in Haworth was not in some isolated village high on the Yorkshire moors, but close to the centre of a bustling small industrial town. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the Brontë oeuvre owes much to the peculiar circumstances of the children’s infancies. With their brother, Branwell, the three girls created two distinct paracosms – Charlotte’s and Branwell’s was called Angria, while Emily’s and Anne’s was Gondal – sparked originally, it seems, by the gift of a box of wooden soldiers from their father. The four siblings ploughed huge quantities of energy and creativity into these imaginary worlds, writing hundreds of thousands of words of imaginary chronicles and poetry about the characters and the places they invented.

So far so comparatively usual. What makes Emily Brontë’s imaginary world of such great interest is that it extended, apparently, well past childhood, and indeed consumed a large portion of her life. As Barker points out, she appears to have continued  to “play” at the Gondal saga right up until her death, continuing even after her collaborator, Anne, at last began to tire of it. It is even fairly well accepted among literary scholars that the apparently firmly Yorkshire-based tale of Wuthering Heights is in important respects a novel set in Gondal.

Here is what Juliet Barker has to say about Emily’s fantasy life. You may want to bear in mind the indicators of fantasy-proneness suggested by Barber and Wilson while reading it:

Both sisters were at home when Charlotte returned. Emily had been happy enough running the household but living in the imaginary world of her own creation. [p.363]

[Emily] not only seems to have set out [for Brussels] with absolutely no intention of making friends, but was so uncompromisingly self-centred that she incurred positive dislike. [p.392]

Emily… was mentally absorbed in Gondal. In February 1844 [when she was 24], she began to collect her poems together, extracting them from their prose tales going back as far as 1837 and copying them out into one notebook which she entitled ‘Gondal Poems’ and another which she left untitled [thought by some scholars to have been intended as a repository for poems of her own experience]. In fact, there was no hard and fast distinction between the two… She would continue copying her poems into the volumes until May 1848, suggesting that her obsession with Gondal continued right through the publication of Poems with her sisters in 1846 and Wuthering Heights in 1847. [p.435]

Emily and Anne left home on 30 June [1845], travelling on the newly opened Keighley line to Bradford, where they changed trains for Leeds and then York. Emily’s description of the holiday, which she included in her diary paper written a month later on her twenty-seventh birthday, is fascinating evidence of her priorities:

Anne and I went on our first long journey by ourselves \together/ – leaving Home on the 30th of June – monday –  sleeping at York – returning to Keighley Tuesday evening sleeping there and walking home on Wednesday morning … and during our excursion we were [the Gondal characters] Ronald Macelgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Augusteena, Rosobelle Esraldan, Ella and Julien Egramont Catherine Navarre and Cordelia Fitzaphnold escaping from the Palace of Instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans –

While Anne had been so moved by her first glimpse of York Minster that she had recorded it in her diary paper four years earlier, Emily mentions none of the sights she had seen for the first time. Clearly, the opportunity to indulge in a Gondal ‘play’ with Anne meant more to her than anything else she had seen or done on their brief trip. Though it was at least thirteen years since the creation of their imaginary world, Emily, at almost twenty-seven, had lost none of her enthusiasm for Gondal, acting out the roles of its heroes and heroines with as much gusto as when a child. [pp.450-1]

Emily externalized her imagination; her poems and stories did not seem to her to inhabit her head, but were played out before her as if they were creations independent of her control. She was simply a passive spectator who could visualize so strongly that she only wrote what she actually saw. [p.482]

Having spent so much of her life at home, Emily had always been the most dedicated to, and involved in, her imaginary world. There was no perceivable break between her Gondal writings and her novel… The obvious conclusion is that Emily, unlike her sisters, made no attempt to break with the world of her imagination. [p.502]

Clearly, we know far too little of Emily Brontë to hazard any guess as to whether or not she might have made a good hypnotic subject, or was at any time involved in “healing”. It seems fairly obvious from the above, however, that this literary Titan certainly did (3) fantasize frequently as a child, (4) adopted a fantasy identity, (5) experienced imagined sensations as real, (6) had vivid sensory perceptions, and perhaps (10) received poems, messages, etc., from spirits, higher intelligences. Given the intensely fragmentary nature of our knowledge of her life, it is remarkable indeed that we can be reasonably sure that four, perhaps five of the indicators of fantasy proneness were manifest in Emily Brontë.

One wonders what she might have experienced, and what she would have written about, had she grown up 150 years later.

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