In the early 1900s, spiritualism was a popular religious movement in the United States and portions of Europe. Its adherents believed in spirits from another world that could appear and communicate with ours, if the conditions were right. Reports of seeing faeries and other non-human creatures appeared in magazines such as The Strand, and perhaps the most famous tale was the Cottingly Faeries, a series of five photos faked by two sisters in 1917 and 1920. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in their authenticity and wrote about them, and it wasn’t until decades later that the sisters admitted to using cardboard figures propped up with hat pins. People wanted to believe, and that made facts and doubts easier to ignore.
Katherine Webb’s 2012 novel, The Unseen, occurs primarily in 1911 England, about a decade before spiritualism’s decline in popularity. In it, the vicar, Albert Canning, and his wife, Hester, have just hired a new housemaid, Cat Morely. Cat is a small, sickly, and quiet young woman coming from a mysterious, questionable past. Hester — “Hetty” — tries to ask cat about why she was in prison, but Cat would rather not say, not at first. The Cannings view her employment as an act of charity.
(See the rest of my review at Persephone Magazine.)