‘Where Sex is the First Great Teacher:’ Rape and Reincarnation in the Woman’s Occult Romance



Ferguson C (2020) ‘Where Sex is the First Great Teacher:’ Rape and Reincarnation in the Woman’s Occult Romance. British Women Writers Conference, Texas Christian University, 05.03.2020-07.03.2020.

At the end of the Victorian era, reincarnation transformed from being a relatively obscure to a widely known belief, its new prominence engineered by the combined forces of Theosophy— the era’s most successful occult movement— and the romance revival, in whose plots rebirth would become a staple feature. Among its earliest adopters and most ardent defenders were women, some who, like Anna Kingsford, Annie Besant, and Maria de Mariategui, found in visionary acts of past-life scrying an opportunity to connect and recover occluded forms of female identity and experience. Others linked to Britain’s occult milieu—Rosa Praed Campbell, Marie Corelli, and Mabel Collins— turned to fiction to exploit the gendered implications of reincarnation, chief among which was its ability to explain, redress, and candidly articulate the consequences of sexual violence. My talk focuses on a fascinating yet critically neglected tradition of what I call women’s reincarnative rape novel, arguing that the popularization of reincarnation in Victorian Britain, and within the romance revival specifically, can only be understood through its function as a unique and potent vehicle for the critique of sexual violence. Eschewing the prurient sensationalism of the male-authored black magic stories that followed, the woman’s reincarnation novel focused not on the power attained through, but the devastating consequences of, acts of sexual violation, ones that endured not simply through one life time but many. I probe the spiritualization of rape and its trauma within such texts, linking their representational strategies to the larger sexual politics at play within the within the occult movements which spawned them. What did it mean to imagine both male sexual violence and justice for its victims as part of an ineluctable karmic cycle? Did this paradigm encourage a dangerous depoliticization of rape, obscuring its roots in sexual inequity and entitlement, or provide spiritual authority for women’s anger, not to mention a longue durée span for their ultimate vindication? Furthermore, why did the cultural association between reincarnation and gender violence become so prevalent in this period, manifesting not only in niche works of women’s occultural fiction, but also in best-selling romances by the likes of Marie Corelli and H.Rider Haggard? To answer these questions, my talk examines two of the fin-de-siècle’s most important women’s reincarnation novels: Mabel Collin’s Theosophical fantasy The Blossom and the Fruit: A True Story of a Black Magician (1888) and Marie Corelli’s best-selling Egyptological romance, Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul (1897). Separated dramatically by audience size, occultural affiliation, and critical reception, Collins and Corelli nonetheless align in their efforts to rewrite the male imperial romance through a feminized paradigm of reincarnation, seeking to deliver in the concept of rebirth a form of ameliorative, cosmic justice for abused women. Their shared fictional enterprise foregrounds the gendered stakes of the reincarnationist tropes that would later become a staple trope of twentieth-century popular fiction.

Reincarnation; Romance Revival; Mabel Collins; Marie Corelli

Place of publicationBritish Women Writers Conference. Texas Christian University. March 5-7, 2020.
ConferenceBritish Women Writers Conference
Conference locationTexas Christian University

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Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor in English, English Studies

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