Skip to content

Response to Review of The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England 1780-1914

I would like to thank Professor During for taking the time to read my book and for writing the review. He clearly recognizes the difficulties that confront historians of magic and popular mentalities and one would not dispute his comments about the conceptual elusiveness of such matters. He also astutely grasps some of the underlying arguments that I was trying to develop and I appreciate his generally positive responses to these ideas. I must, however, take issue with some of the more sweeping summary comments made about the book as these may give readers a misleading impression of what I was attempting to achieve in this work. I would like to note that while I may criticise the review for misrepresenting some of my ideas and arguments, I wholly accept the reviewer’s right to his opinions if he feels I have not articulated my views with sufficient clarity. Again, this is something I hope other readers will judge for themselves.

During reads The Magical Imagination as a study of magic’s survival in urban England. There are loaded connotations around the word ‘survival’ that may not be immediately apparent to the non-specialist. Of course, in one way this book is about the survival of magical ideas and practices in that it explores their persistence but, importantly, it also argues for their transformative and adaptive qualities within the 19th-century city. In doing so the first half of the book aims to revise the historiographical position inherited from Victorian elites, namely that popular magical ideas in the modern period were mere survivals. In this interpretation magic was perceived as simply residual beliefs and practices left over from a former age, cultural fossils that were slowly being eroded by the advance of a rational modernity. It is this second and, I would argue, erroneous interpretation which During seems to imply when he refers to my study of ‘plebeian magic as a survival’. This misrepresents my argument. The emphasis throughout the book is on magic and the supernatural’s ‘ongoing applicability as valuable cultural inheritances’ (p. 2).

The review also places a misdirected emphasis on the possibility and historical value of attempting to gauge magical beliefs. I would be one of the first to agree with During’s view that magical beliefs are both hard to gauge and (probably) less important than the cultural uses to which they were put. Indeed, it was my stated aim not to gauge magical beliefs but to explore their perception and function in the modernising city (again, see bottom p. 2). As explicitly expressed in several later chapters, such functions did not necessarily require genuine belief to make them useful to urban dwellers. As such, whilst During goes to some considerable length to argue that he cannot see that genuine belief really mattered I would suggest that a closer reading of the last two chapters may demonstrate that we are largely in agreement. Unfortunately this issue becomes something of a red herring that overshadows During’s consideration of the more central concerns of the book. In fixating on the difficulties of capturing magical beliefs he seems to miss the point that this book is as much a study of urbanisation and the experience of modernisation as it is about magic in the long 19th century. Owen Davies’ Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736–1951 (1) has already provided us with an important assessment of magic in this period. Rather than simply reiterating Davies’ research my book was attempting to use magical mentalities as a fresh way in which to approach urbanisation and popular understandings of modernity.

More than anything else it was During’s comment that this book takes us back to an older understanding of magic fostered around neat class divides (plebeian believers and rational bourgeois sceptics) that prompted me to respond to what for the most part is a fair and generally positive review. This statement was rather disingenuous and it certainly misrepresents what the book was trying to do. My attempts to explore magical ideas beyond the more familiar (and acceptable?) scholarly topics of 19th-century occultism and spiritualism necessarily led me into a vibrant 19th-century culture of popular magical thought. However, this wish to examine a plebeian engagement with supernatural ideas should not simply be equated with attempting to reiterate the contemporary elite’s view that the lower classes wallowed in superstition and irrationality.

I never claimed or even suggested that all within the lower classes were believers or (as During reasonably proposes) that they were not open to the possibility of simultaneously embracing rational entertainments, education, and both secular and ethnographic magics. Chapter three’s clear attempt to address the existence of both working-class sceptics and middle-class believers necessarily undermines During’s claims about the ‘hard division’ I was supposedly attempting to restore. He seems to miss the point that whilst engaging with crude class dichotomies founded, in this case, upon belief in magic and the supernatural, this chapter is grounded in a study of contemporary perceptions of belief, modernity, class, and self-identity, not belief itself. Furthermore, the obviously untenable nature of such sweeping class-based claims meant that my emphasis in later chapters could not focus on identifiable working-class applications of magic and the supernatural. Instead, when looking at the magical imagination’s function in aiding group formation or memory mapping in the city my emphasis was necessarily on smaller social units, localised urban communities, which often consisted of a mixture of classes (and certainly individual opinions on the supernatural).

I agree with During’s point about the value of a richer analysis of differences and connections between ethnographic magic and ‘modern non-magic magic’. This is certainly a promising avenue for future research and I have already touched upon it in an earlier publication.(2) However, this is to largely judge the book on what During would have liked it to be about rather than what it actually set out to do. There was little room for these undoubtedly interesting issues when my emphasis was on attempting to forge new insights into differing perceptions of modernity and the role the magical imagination played in the communal, spatial, and temporal experiences of urban inhabitants in the long 19th century.

During somewhat simplifies my engagement with the antinomian paradigm of modern magic and in the spirit of the Reviews in History feature I would like to move away from defending particular points in the review to try and extend the debate a little. The Magical Imagination was not (or was certainly not intended as) an attack on this paradigm. I certainly value antinomian approaches, not least because (thanks to the efforts of Castle, Cook, Saler and During) we now have a conceptual formulation of magic and modernity that is both far more challenging and far more sophisticated than previous historiographical interpretations. What my book did attempt to do was to advance the suggestion that, in certain circumstances (the use of ethnographic magic) we might need to reconsider the dynamics within that paradigm.

The secular magic thesis moves beyond the simple either/or dichotomy (belief or disbelief) to offer an and/also approach in which one can both believe and not believe, can engage with magic but in a knowing way, as if it were true. As During states, the antinomian approach ‘puts all kinds of magic into a zone of ambiguity where [“real” and pretend magic can] both be true at once’. My issue with this is that ‘real’ and pretend magic do not seem to have parity within that zone. Its ambiguity seems to tacitly favour a playing with magical ideas and a downplaying of genuine belief. Certainly in terms of evidence one is more likely to find people who are inclined to use that ambiguity to adopt the accepted and acceptable stance of knowing engagement (or at least to state as much to others). Ambiguity is not an inherently neutral state here and in the antinomian formulation there appear to be (rational) assertions and tacit ideological stances concealed within the haze. Obvious hints of this are to be found in antinomian terms such as ‘secular magic’ and ‘non-magical magic’, the latter’s rather awkward syntax both labouring the point whilst attempting to distance itself from what I suppose would have to be termed magical magic.  

Perhaps the test of any good paradigm is how well it can accommodate or respond to ideas, cultural practices or experiences that were not originally present in its formulation. The historians cited above constructed their paradigm on the basis of studies of commercial fictions and magical entertainments (including séances) and it works well in these contexts. It appears to work less well in matters of life-threatening illness (after death is a slightly different matter and I am more willing to accept antinomian interpretations of spiritualist séances). 19th-century accounts of the use of ‘magical’ solutions to deal with illness certainly lack the ironic detachment and sometimes even the ambiguity that During wishes to envelop all magic in. Whilst never a first choice for trying to cure a loved one magic was certainly a last resort once all ‘rational’ solutions had been exhausted. One cannot make any clear statements about magical belief here (it suggests more about human desperation than magic though the two are bonded in the desire for influence) but numerous sources reiterate magic’s function as a psychological crutch. While those who were willing to pay a cunning man or wise woman to concoct some ‘magical’ solution might later deny belief in its efficacy (especially if the patient worsened or died) their resort to such measures frequently lacked the knowing ‘as if it was true’ dimension of antinomian interpretations. Conversely, if the patient recovered, ambiguity might well shift towards belief, given the existence of ‘proof’.

Despite the valuable insights to be gained from the antinomian paradigm its insistence on ambiguity can, perhaps somewhat oddly given the nature of ambiguity, seem to encourage a confined conceptual rigidity since belief and non-belief must necessarily be contained together; without one or the other the ambiguity dissolves. This may be a little too harsh. It is perhaps fairer to say that it promotes an unwillingness to accept that in some circumstances peoples’ supernatural experiences can cause them to oscillate wildly outside the bounds of the ‘zone of ambiguity’ and into the realms of fervent belief or disbelief. Of course we cannot and should not return to old dichotomies of belief or disbelief; the antinomian paradigm has convincingly demonstrated the limitations of such a formulation. I would suggest, however, that (from our position of a slightly smug, post-modern knowingness) we need to recognise that belief and disbelief do exist on a spectrum that, for the most part, is defined by ambiguity and the operation of an antinomian dynamic. As inhabitants of a post-modern age we have grown weary (and wary) of belief and have become infatuated with ironic stances whereby we can invest in, play with, and adopt postures without fear of commitment. This may be our condition in the 21st century but we risk misunderstanding and perhaps doing an injustice to the importance and validity of ideas and cultures in the past if we try to read our 19th-century ancestors as proto-post-modern ironists.


  1. Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736–1951 (MUP, 1999).Back to (1)
  2. See Karl Bell, ‘Remaking magic: the “Wizard of the North” and contested magical mentalities in the mid-nineteenth century magic show’, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 4, 1 (2009), pp. 26–53.Back to (2)