The Browning Circle was one of the most celebrated Home Circles of the 19th century was organized by Medium D.D. Home for poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Séance convinced Elizabeth of the truth of Spiritualism, but it provoked Robert, a nonbeliever, to write a scathing poem ridiculing the practice.
In 1855, Home, then living in Connecticut, received word from the spirits that he should go to England for his health. After first living with a spiritualist named Cox, Home took up residence with Mr. John S. Rymer, a wealthy solicitor, and his wife.
The Rymers lived in Ealing, a part of London that then was considered less fashionable than other quarters, and to host the man Elizabeth Browning called the most interesting person in England that year was quite a coup. Home had already held several Séances for the Rymers, putting them in touch with their son Wat, who had died three years previously.
Before the Séance, Home mingled with the guests and unctuously flattered and kissed the Rymers, calling them “mama” and “papa.” Browning found Home effeminate. Fourteen sitters then gathered around a large table in the darkened room, lighted only by an oil lamp placed in the centre.
Rymer admonished them to behave themselves, a barb directed at Robert Browning. The table began to vibrate and tilt, and raps were heard announcing the child Wat Rymer. He “talked” to his grieving parents, then left. All manifestations stopped, and Home asked five sitters to leave because he felt they were annoying the spirits.
Once the circle was smaller, tabletapping and tilting resumed, perilously threatening the oil lamp, which stayed on the table as if glued. Wat’s spirit again touched the Rymers, then Elizabeth Browning’s dress was lifted as if by hands or some foreign object pushing the fabric up from underneath. Browning found all hands on the table and admitted his mystification at the movements. Next, by rapping, the spirit offered to play an accordion and show its hand to Browning.
The lamp was extinguished, and the only light was dim moonlight through muslin curtains. Browning noted that one could distinguish objects directly against the curtained windows, but not on the table. Soon a ghostly hand clothed in flowing muslinlike fabric appeared at the edge of the table opposite Elizabeth, rising and sinking, but never leaving the table’s edge.
Then another hand, much larger, appeared above the table and began edging a clematis wreath toward Elizabeth, who had taken a chair next to Home. The hand picked up the wreath and placed it on her head, then, at her request, passed the wreath under the table to her husband.
Browning was touched several times under the table on his knees and hands, and he asked to touch the spirit hand. The spirit agreed, but reneged. Next, Home held an accordion under the table with one hand and the spirits played several melodies, then bells. Another hand appeared, again sticking close to the table edge. The sitters tried to learn the spirit’s name through alphabet rapping, since Home speculated it was probably a relative of Elizabeth’s, but with no success.
Finally, Home became entranced and began speaking to the Rymers in the childish tones of their son, Wat. After a while Home came to, and the Séance ended. Elizabeth was convinced that Home was a miraculous medium and she wrote to her sister Henrietta that the spirit hands were very beautiful.
Robert was not only unimpressed, he found the whole performance clumsy and below par even for a moderately good medium. He noted that Home’s loose clothing could conceal strings and tubes used to produce phenomena, and that operation of the hands was easy to fake. Browning, in fact, so loathed Home, whom he described as “smarmy,” that he used him as the model for his poem, “Mr. Sludge, the Medium,” in 1864.
Two thousand lines of verse scathingly indicted all mediums, but particularly attacked Home, whom Browning referred to publicly as “Dungball,” a play on Home’s middle name, Dunglas. He also called Home a toady, a fraud, a leech, a braggart and a sot. The Brownings’ disagreement over Spiritualism in general, and the Home Séance in particular, was the only public quarrel between the two poets. Robert so detested any mention of the subject that Elizabeth dropped all discussion of it, even warning her sisters never to mention it in letters.
Punch magazine took Robert’s side, portraying Elizabeth as a goose receiving the clematis wreath from obviously mechanical hands. What caused Robert Browning’s hatred? Some speculated at the time that Robert sulked because Elizabeth, not he, received the clematis wreath, a poor argument given the poet’s devotion to, and admiration of, his wife.
More likely is Browning’s low opinion of Home’s effeminacy. Homosexuality, whether proven or not, was much more scandalous in 1855, and rumours of Home’s affairs with young men followed him even through his two marriages. In any case, the affair merely created more intrigue and publicity for Home.
- Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
- Fodor, Nandor. An Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1966. First published 1933.