Occult Objects from India in Victorian England (1858-1900): Reception and Perspectives

Charles Wallace India Trust Visiting Research Fellow Dr Shaona Barik presents her research.

Our speaker: Dr Shaona Barik is Charles Wallace India Trust visiting research fellow 2022-23 in the School of History. You can find out more about her work on our news pages and learn more about the Charles Wallace India Trust visiting fellowships on our website.

Material and cultural exchanges between India and Britain had a major impact on Victorian society. Many pieces of Victorian literature touched on notions of Victorian domestic spaces ‘turning strange’ with the entry of occult objects from the colonies. 

Occult objects are those which were thought to have supernatural attributes, were considered devious or cursed, and were imagined as capable of fulfilling secret wishes, dark desires which otherwise were considered taboo or were forbidden in Victorian England. Domestic manuals such as Mrs. Julia McNair Wright’s The Complete Home. 

An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Life and Affairs (1879), Rev. James Baldwin Brown’s The Complete Home, Young Men and Maidens, a Pastoral for the Time (1871) demonstrated that Victorian home management should be guided by the laws of Christian morals and virtues, almost turning the home into a Christian altar. 

What happened when ‘uncanny’ goods belonging to the alien culture of India entered such sanctified spaces? 

Advertisements for products such as Indian crystal balls, psychic talking boards (known as ‘ouija’), gems, talismans, charms, figurines of the Hindu goddess Kali were found in periodicals such as The Psychic Notes, Light, and The Theosophist, claiming their potential to dispel ill-luck, heal diseases, enable communication with dead ones, help in mediating seances, etc. 

What led to the rise of interest and the trade in such products? 

The influx of such objects into the Victorian domestic sphere may have brough social and cultural changes, caused hauntings, and/or enabled people to give free vent to their thoughts and feelings. 

Through an analysis of the impact of occult objects from India on the domestic sphere, Shaona Barik looks at how Victorian homes were disrupted, hybridized, and transformed.

Image: The British Library - Image taken from page 10 of 'From New York to Delhi, by way of Rio de Janeiro, Australia, and China'