Honours English student Anne Lautenschlager explores Victorian Gothic literature through the lens of 20th century spiritualism

23 Nov 2023

When fourth-year honours English student Anne Lautenschlager set out to explore the writings of Oscar Wilde this past summer, her focus wasn’t on popular texts such as The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Importance of Being Ernest. Supported by a Mount Allison Independent Student Research Grant (ISRG), she conducted research on Hester Dowden, a spiritualist medium who allegedly channeled the spirit of Oscar Wilde and published new work under his name in the 1920s — more than two decades after his death.

Lautenschlager first became interested in this topic during her second year when she came across a reference to Dowden while researching Wilde.

“Originally, I was thinking of [Dowden] as a bit more villainous, but doing more research changed the entire tone of the project,” says Lautenschlager.

The daughter of a literary scholar, Dowden grew up surrounded by books, and displayed formidable intelligence from an early age.

“They talked about literature all the time and it was a big part of her childhood,” says Lautenschlager. “But because she was a girl born in the late Victorian period, she wasn’t sent to school and there wasn’t any sort of academic future for her.”

Dowden turned to mediumship as a way to support herself after her divorce and found success by channeling literary figures, including Wilde.

“It’s interesting, because you can see the amount to which she missed these scholarly discussions coming out in a torrent through the voice of Oscar Wilde.”

Being a conduit to Wilde not only provided financial stability, but also gave Dowden a measure of scholarly respect she had previously been denied.

“She was an unsung literary hero,” says Lautenschlager. “She was really, really good and would have had to have studied [Wilde’s work] closely to be able to authentically counterfeit it.”

Her writings were so convincing, in fact, that she fooled Wilde scholars and friends alike, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When Dowden later claimed to have made contact with Shakespeare, the sonnets she wrote were authenticated by the Royal Shakespeare Society.

“She had this amazing literary career despite having had no formal education,” says Lautenschlager. “She was considered an expert and a scholar because she was able to channel these dead men.”

For Lautenschlager, this episode reveals a broader narrative about how women resourcefully employed any available means to gain respect and agency, often relying on mutual support. This overarching theme serves as the focal point of her honours thesis, which will take the form of a short novel centered on the writing and staging of a play that Dowden claims she channelled from Wilde.

Lautenschlager’s honours supervisor, assistant professor of English Dr. Geordie Miller, says this creative project will serve as a valuable contribution to the scholarly discourse.

“It’s been such a pleasure talking through these ideas with Anne,” says Miller. “Her thesis is an original and artful piece of scholarship. It promises to provide a vital feminist revisioning of the literary modernist period through close attention to Hester Dowden’s remarkable, scholarly spiritualist practice.”

The ISRG funding provided Lautenschlager with the opportunity to conduct in-depth scholarly research, including archival research at the Killam Library at Dalhousie University, laying the groundwork for her honours thesis.

Miller says that affording students the space to pursue individual interests outside the classroom is an important step in genuinely cultivating enthusiasm for learning.

“Experiential learning opportunities such as these are transformative, allowing  students to discover and pursue interests that might otherwise wither on the vine due to various objective constraints on more conventional modes of engagement,” says Miller.

Opting for a novel instead of a traditional academic thesis, Lautenschlager hopes to bridge the gap between scholarly discourse and wider readership.

“I’d like to see more scholarship that is accessible to people who haven’t done four years of university to understand it, so people can just pick up this novel and learn about history, spiritualism, English literature, and Oscar Wilde.”

Once she completes her thesis next spring, Lautenschlager intends to seek publication, hoping to share her research with a broader audience.

Mount Allison's ISRG program provides students entering their final year with an intensive research or creative activity experience from May to August. Anne Lautenschlager's ISRG was funded by the J.E.A. Crake Foundation.

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