Trevor H. Hall

The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney

Duckworth, 1964, 19802

Introduction by Eliot Slater

There is no mystery so inscrutable to the mind of man as the human personality. Ourselves we know from inside, but can never see how we appear to others. We observe with curiosity, or amusement perhaps, or consternation, the behaviour of others, but can never know how they see themselves. One human being appears to another like a picture that does not "read"; there are always contradictions. Something has gone wrong with the per­spective. Inevitably so. Looking on from outside we can only guess the relation between thought and feeling and behaviour, and our guesses make no sense, or in the event are proved to be mistaken. We see only surfaces. We lack the double focusing, the stereoscopic viewing from without and from within, which would reconcile the contradictions.

    Edmund Gurney shows us a succession of portraits, but it is hard indeed to see the man behind. Who is it that now and again, from deep within him, moves to the control centre to throw every­thing into disarray? To divert him suddenly from one path to another; to destroy career and life style again, again and yet again; and at last to destroy the man himself and its own secret ego within?

    Gurney was born into a distinguished, brilliant arid wealthy family, one of nine brothers and sisters. His talents and education made him a scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, a Prizeman, and finally a Fellow. He had a keen analytic mind, great energy and indefatigable endurance. He completed an enormous body of work. His books, The Power of Sound, Tertium Quid and Phantasms of the Living are all of great compass. The last, a book of 1300 pages, was compiled at a time when the author was heavily engaged as the honorary secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, and the editor of both its periodicals, the Journal and the Proceedings.

    It is perhaps because these books were so large that they failed to make the impact they should have deserved. If he had spared himself he might have spared his readers and have won more appreciation. One suspects that there was an element of obsession‑. ality in his persistent tireless drive. And there must have been a temperamental softness that weakened his power to use the blue pencil. The huge labours that went into Phantasms of the Living would have had happier results if they had been spent in vain, if the book had never found its way into print. It was published in 1886, and by the autumn of 1887 it had become totally discredited. For hardly one of the seven hundred or so ghost stories could documentary accreditation, though often claimed, be actually produced. "Where are the Letters?" asked a reviewer; and Gurney's co‑editors, Myers and Podmore turned tail and ran. Gurney had to face the music alone. His self‑esteem, throughout his life a tender plant, was dealt a wound that did not heal. The Society was made to look ridiculous. The high spiritualist cause for which he worked was brought into contempt. It may well have been the case that his co‑editor Podmore was given the task of validating the documentation, and didn't do it. Podmore was a poor pathetic creature who ended his life penniless, disgraced and drowned. But was it not Gurney's duty, even with confidence in his colleague, to see that vitally necessary work had actually been done before going into print? Gurney's secretary, George Albert Smith, was a most engaging and plausible young man. But he had probably been previously caught out by Gurney in trickery, and then forgiven, and actually taken into employment in a position of trust. No serious seeker after truth can be that forgiving. Let him trust his cheque‑book to a twister, but not his data‑sheets! The third editor, Frederic Myers, styled himself "minor poet and amateur savant". As a research worker he was as untrustworthy as Podmore and Smith. One may ask then, how was it that Gurney, a man of honour, worked in intimate collaboration with three dishonest ones.

    Gurney was regarded by all his acquaintance as a man of elevated character. George Eliot took him as her model for Daniel Deronda. Lady Battersea called him "one of the elite", Ellen Harrison "the most lovable and beautiful human being I have ever met". Frederic Myers recorded his "profound sympathy for human pain... for sorrows not his own" (a spontaneous sympathy one finds in some depressives). He made warm and friendly contacts readily and with ease. He was, in fact, an extreme extra­vert. He himself recorded his great dependence on the sense of union with his friends. He would find it painful to be called on to check their statements. His wonderful belief in the goodness and honour of others was testified to by Podmore: "I have never met anyone with such an absolute belief in goodness and truth as common human attributes" (see p. 26). Gurney never tried to deceive others, and never tried to excuse himself. He faced the critics when exposure came, and even tried to shield his false friends.

    In fact we can find in his saintliness the causes of his ruin. The emotional ties that bound him to his associates robbed him of independence and the will to stand up for himself when he was being exploited. His lack of realism about others led him into disastrous misjudgments. A plausible rascal, relying on his deter­mination to see only the best, could abuse him again and again. Furthermore his great intellectual talents were not founded on a solid basis of common sense. Smith and Blackburn were actually urged to hold hands, in order to get good strong thought trans­ference going between them (p. 102). Myers said that, even to the end of his life, Gurney was never fully convinced that psychical events could not be explained by normal thought processes, even in ones we did not fully understand. From his initiation to his death, he seems to have been aware of "the inherent rottenness of the evidence on which the huge fabric of modern Spiritualism has principally rested" (p. 41). Keeping such opinions to himself must have been a constant strain, and ruthless candour would at least have given him the comfort of spiritual integrity.

    For a man with such brilliant gifts, Gurney's career was a succession of disasters. It was he himself who made it so, and the manic‑depressive tendencies were not mainly responsible. His education in classics and mathematics won him a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. There he shared the Porson Prize in Greek verse with a classicist who later became Editor‑in‑Chief of the Loeb Classical Library. He took fourth place in the first class honours list of the Classical Tripos. And in 1872, at the age of twenty‑five he was elected to a Fellowship of his College. He had already reached the peak of a brilliant career, and if he wished to he could rest on his laurels. His Fellowship, and the other Univer­sity and College engagements which would naturally come his way, would provide him for the rest of his life with congenial and challenging work, gracious living in one of England's loveliest settings among men of the most varied intellectual distinction. He threw it all away. He gave up classics where he had succeeded for music where he failed. There was no reason for it. Music had been a passion since boyhood. He could have kept it like that, on a non‑professional basis, and it could have rounded and enriched his emotional life. But we have to take the hyperthymic mood state of the manic‑depressive into account. He had had depressive phases while an undergraduate which had held him back for two missed years of residence. Now came the flow of the tide. Gurney, the extravert, so understanding of others, had no understanding of himself. He was more intelligent, more gifted, handsomer, more socially charming than anyone else he knew; and since boyhood all his aspirations had been crowned with success. One suspects that under that becoming modesty of manner there lived the most enormous arrogance. There was not anything he wanted to do that he could not do. He had excelled in one discipline; and his faith in himself told him that he could excel also in another and better loved one. His fanatical will took over.

    But despite his utmost efforts he found that both mastery of the piano and musical composition were beyond him. How should it have been otherwise? These things are separate and distinguish­able gifts of great rarity. Did he imagine that he had only to work for it and he would be given top prize in any lottery on which he set his heart? But the disappointment need not have been crushing. With his passion for scholarship he could have made an intel­lectual career for himself as a musical theorist. His book The Power of Sound appeared in 1880 when he was thirty‑three. Though it won no general acclaim, it was a pioneering work and was highly praised by one authority. It was bulky and made difficult reading. It seems to have created more impression in Germany, where scholars are more tolerant of bulk and appre­ciate a philosophic approach. A modest man might have been well enough pleased with his achievement, and have gone on with the working out of his ideas and the improvement of their presentation. Gurney considered but rejected the plan of a second edition. A moderate success could not be enough for him. There must be some pathway by which he could scale the heights. He retreated again, and found himself at the foot of the valley, facing the ascent of other peaks. His misconceived attempts at the professional mastery first of medicine (1877‑80) and then of the law (1881‑2) both ended in miserable failure and wçre abandoned. These should have been happy and relaxed years. He married in 1877, and his daughter was born in 1881.

    Kate Gurney was a lovely and most loving wife. They married when he was thirty and she was twenty‑three. No doubt he loved his wife and daughter; but with his obsessive drive to achieve the tasks he took in hand, he showed but small consideration for his family. Kate Gurney had many dark days and hours of loneliness while he pursued his obsession. Victorian husbands generally regarded their own affairs as pre‑eminent, to which their wives should willingly be handmaids; and in this respect Gurney was not exceptional. But if he had been able to show his wife more love and seek her companionship, she might have been able to pilot him through the ebbs and flows of his manic‑depression. If he had been able to discuss his plans with her she might have got him to see their unwisdom. But in that male‑dominated world he never did.

    As Dr. Hall rightly points out in many places, Edmund Gurney was the subject of manic‑depression. That means that the spon­taneous ups and downs of mood to which we are all subject to some degree, reached in him high plateaux or Stygian gulfs. The plateaux were more extended than the gulfs, and most of his life Gurney spent in a higher mood state then merely normal good spirits. To this we can attribute his fantastic capacity for long and enduring hard work, his willingness to undertake nearly im­possible work loads, his misjudgments of the work called for by particular tasks, allowing too much energy for quantity and too little for quality, and his lack of critical self‑appraisal. Those immense works would have been so much more effective if they had been critically pruned. With a colder appraisal of the situation and of his own capacities, he could have cut his losses at many times to those of a trial run. 1882 saw the foundation by Barrett, Myers and Sidgwick of the Society for Psychical Research. Gurney was persuaded to undertake three duties, each of ther arduous: the general secretarial work and management of th Society's affairs, the editing and management of the Society' Journal, and the editing and management of the Proceedings. This meant, with his own extensive writings, devoting his whole tim at high pressure, to doing enough work for three men. His personal and family life must have been practically obliterated.

    The depressions, from which he also suffered, as a rule exercised a much less pernicious influence on his life than the manic enthusiasms. At times they may have protected him from his constitutional tendency to engage in ill‑judged ambitions. The danger came when objective failure stared him in the face, and, co‑incidentally, his high mood ebbed. It seems clear that thi was the state of affairs by the end of June 1888. If Dr. Hall' reconstruction is correct, Gurney's eyes had been opened to the fourth successive failure of his ambitions: music, medicine, the law, and now psychical research. He had been duped by his trusted secretary. The high enquiry into possibly supernatural potentialities of the human mind had proved empty and fraudulent. Nevertheless a man of his ability but cooler temperament, taking a dispassionate view, would see that all was not lost. The fraud had not disproved the possibility of telepathy. The mistakes of the past, once they had been recognised, could be guarded againsy and need not be repeated. A new enquiry, better controlled, might yet yield results. A battle had been lost, but not a war. He himself was intact with his powers and resources. Too true! Unfortunately Gurney could not judge the situation rationally. An irrational element within him, long dormant, had taken contro and he was being rushed down a headlong path to destruction.

    The coroner's verdict was accidental death. The reader who carefully considers the facts collected by Dr. Hall and his analysis will surely agree that the coroner and his jury were wrong. An interested witness had suppressed part of the truth and had suggested what was false. In fact, the dead man had deliberately taken his own life, by the inhalation of chloroform, in a staged situation, which he himself had carefully planned. At once we are struck by a glaring contradiction‑the careful planning of the suicide and the suddeness of the crisis, the well‑considered course of behaviour and the ill‑considered impulsive motivation that triggered it off. The contradiction may be resolved if we take contingency planning into account. We know from Myers that Gurney had "often wished to end all things". With suicide a recurring thought he may well have thought out how, in the last necessity, it might be carried out with least distress to his family and least damage to his character and reputation. The general lines of the plan‑the chloroform, the hotel bedroom in another town, the elimination of personal items of identification, and the unposted letter to his doctor friend‑all this might have been worked out years before it was, in the end, put into effect.

    In depressive illness the greatest risk of suicide arises at the beginning of a depression or when recovery is on its way; at the heart of the illness the lassitude, anergia and paralysis of the will are too great for action. When he dined with Cyril Flower on the Thursday Gurney was in a good, perhaps even a euphoric, mood. The mood was shattered by the arrival of a letter. When he left his home for Brighton in the morning, his wife was aware that something was amiss. If there had been confidence between these two, the tragedy might still have been avoided. He told her noth­ing, and she never saw him alive again. However disastrous the news he was given in Brighton that Friday, there must have been other ways of dealing with the situation than the one he chose. Suicide, in the circumstances, lacked any rational justification. If it had been rational, one would have to stigmatise it as cruel, irresponsible and wicked. He had a loving wife and a little girl of six, and to both of them he owed a husband's and a father's love and protection. It is not possible that a man of Gurney's kindness and sympathetic disposition could have inflicted such a cruelty upon them, if he had been able to think of them at all. In the comfortless hotel bedroom late that Friday night and in the small hours of Saturday, the shadows must have closed in and in on him, until he could think only of his despair and the need to end it. At the time, in the strictest sense, he was insane.

    Edmund Gurney won his scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1866. He soon made a number of friends, among them Frederic Myers. Myers was a poet, and though his lustre is somewhat tarnished now, at that time he must have been a brilliant figure. He was four years older than Gurney, who no doubt felt overshadowed by him. Gurney remained under his influence for the whole of his life, and that influence was an evil one.

    Frederic William Henry Myers, 1843‑1901, poet and essayist, rates seven columns in the Dictionary of National Biography, contributed by his friend Arthur Sidgwick. Arthur Sidgwick, Frederic Myers and John Addington Symonds were all linked by homosexual relationships, according to the biography of the last­named by Phyllis Grosskurth (1964). According to the Dictionary, Frederic Myers was a scholastic star of the first magnitude. He had learned the whole of Virgil by heart before he had passed school age. In Cheltenham College he won prizes for both Latin and English poems. He went to Trinity with a scholarship in 1860, and subsequently gained further College scholarships, two University scholarships, and six University prizes for English and Latin poems and Latin essays. He was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1866 and was a classics lecturer for four years. He then gave up his lectureship to join the permanent staff of school inspectors.

    There were some shabby episodes that Sidgwick does not mention. In 1863 Myers submitted an entry for the Camden Gold Medal for Latin verse, and won it. It was quite quickly discovered that he had stolen no fewer than 31 of his hundred or so lines from Oxford prize‑winning poems of the years 1806, 1807, 1812, 1818, 1827, 1830, published in Musae Oxonienses. There was a storm in the pages of the Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal, and Myers was compelled to resign the prize. Very strangely, no further action was taken by the University or College authorities; and two years later he was elected to his Fellowship in 1865, as if he was not a disgraced man. In Frag­ments of Inner Life, an autobiographical sketch privately printed in 1893, this is how he describes the episode:

"Jugend ist Trunkenheit ohne Wein",‑ and few have knowr either the delight or the folly of that intoxication more fullu than I. On the sensual side of my nature I shall not dwell. Of the presumption of those early years I take as an example one braggart act. Having won a Latin prize poem, I was fond of alluding to myself as a kind of Virgil among my young companions. Writing again a similar poem, I saw in my bookshelves a collection of Oxford prize poems, which I had picked up somewhere in order to gloat over their inferiority to my own. I laid this out upon my table, and forced into my own new poem such Oxford lines as I deemed worthy of preservation. When my friends came in, I would point to this book and say, "Aurum colligo e stercore Ennii” ‑ "I am collecting gold from Ennius's dung heap” ‑ a remark which Virgil used to make with more valid pretensions. My acquaintance laughed; but when my poem was adjudged the best, a disappointed competitor ferreted out these insertions; and the Master of Trinity, although he roundly asserted I had done nothing illegitimate, advised me to resign the prize. Many another act of swaggering folly mars for me the recollection of years which might have brought pure advance in congenial toil."

What is astonishing about the whole story, what is indeed psy­chopathological, is not so much the original crime as the later exculpation. The first was merely a betrayal of scholarship, an attempted cheating of his rivals, an attempt to gain honour by dishonourable means. The later defence is more clearly sympto­inatic of a personality that has grown corrupt. In 1893 he was a man of fifty; his standards of conduct were now an integral part of him. With wisdom, he might have confessed to the disgrace, and purged his soul. With mere worldly‑wisdom he would have contrived to forget the whole story and hope everyone else would too. But that was not the way he saw it. The trouble with Myers was that he substituted soggy poetry for the hard prose of life. So he drags up to the light of day something which was mean­spirited, sneaking and clandestine, to glorify it as a "braggart act" of "staggering folly". He probably felt that those words were the right one. To such a character words do not have their ordinary meaning.

    Little is known of the sexual aspects of Myers's life. In Frag­ments of Inner Life he writes "on the sensual side of my nature I shall not dwell". In 1866 John Addington Symonds wrote in a letter that he, Arthur Sidgwick and F. W. H. Myers were "three of not the least intellectually constituted members of our Univer­sities assailed by the same disease". Yet a great part of his life was spent in running after young women. His great love affair was with Anne Marshall, the wife of his cousin Walter Marshall, two years younger than he, who was 31 when she took her life in 1876. He courted her unremittingly from 1873 to 1876, and says that he "looked upon her face 426 times". As he was living in Cambridge, and she on the banks of Uliswater this would seem to imply that he visited her practically every vacation for days, and for many week‑ends befcre ‑returning to Cambridge for a working week. She had a family of five children by her husband. The last of her pregnancies was in 1872, before Myers came on the scene. One assumes that after that marital relations ceased. Early in 1 876 she separated from her husband and moved into a smaller house in the same grounds with her children. Matters had reached a critical state at that time. The long courtship reached "self­surrender" for Anne, and for Walter Marshall a nervous break­down.

    Myers was a poet, and he poured out his heart in poetry which may have been very moving to Anne, but which now seems distastefully lush. Arthur Sidgwick in his memoir praises "the compressed force, the ardent feeling, the vivid and finished expression, and above all, the combined imaginativeness and sincerity of his best work." One does not feel much of the "sincerity" in Fragments of Inner Life. His poems are embellished with verbal gems: "emprize", "fjeld and fjord", "wildered", "list" (for "hear"), "pent", "empery", "deep‑weltering", "dove­green, dove‑purple", "faery", "evanish", and others. These mannered phrases impress one with their artificiality, their insincerity. One has the feeling that, as far as Myers was con­cerned, it was all sex in the head. The voice of normal sexuality is far different: "Roses and lilies her cheeks disclose; But her ripe lips are more sweet than those. Press her, caress her, with blisses her kisses dissolve us in pleasure and soft repose." One doubts whether there was anything much in the way of pressing and caressing between Frederic and Anne, and when physical expres­sion of love is transmuted into poetry, one cannot look for an aftermath of soft repose.

    The hypothesis one has to consider is this. Myers was, basic­ally, a homosexual. Whatever he says, he was incapable of a passion based on normal sexuality. In his relations with women he substituted for it the shallow courtship of a philanderer, which would commit him to nothing but give him opportunities for high‑flown poetic self‑display. The indications are that Anne fell a victim to this make‑believe. Myers has a poem, "Honour", in which the lovers say "between us two there is God". That is the way he would have had it. But he was on a slippery slope; and one day in April 1876 the pair of them slipped too far. Myers tells us almost explicitly that sexual intercourse took place on only that one single but fatal occasion:

If but one hour Love showed thro' perilous storm
   His heaven‑ascending form;
If to our hearts his hallowing whisper came
   With earthquake mixt and flame;
If o'er our brief bliss hung with boding breath
   Madness, Despair and Death;
And yet these could not mar it, had not power
   To spoil one sacred hour…

One cannot have much doubt what Myers was referring to with "one sacred hour". But he lied. Madness, despair and death did indeed mar it. That was, most likely, some time in April 1876.

I spake; she listened; woman‑wise
   Her self‑surrendering answer came.

This tells us that the courtship was conducted in words, and not in kisses; and the affected archaism of "spake" tells us what kind of words. By May, Anne had discovered she was pregnant. When she died in August the pregnancy was four‑and‑a‑half months gone.

For ere the fourth moon, August‑bright,   
   Had rounded o'er the glimmering plain,
Beyond the clear‑obscure of night,
   Her lovely life was born again.
Calm in the calm…

When he wrote those lines was Myers thinking of the new life in her womb? One can't be sure. Myers fudges everything he writes. The story is one of horror and tragedy, to which som he successfully closes his eyes, passing it off with hysterical belle indifférence. He slips away from the emotional impact, le Anne to bear it alone. Archie Jarman (Dr. Gauld and Mr. Myers, 1964) describe situation thus:

    "So how did Myers react when the dismaying news of pregr was established in May? Perhaps he would have been rea marry her, together with the five children, had Walter Mai been ready to give her a divorce. But Marshall, appro and furiously refusing, perhaps caused the 'intense trout May', and suffered his own mental breakdown. What native was there? A compromise perhaps acceptable to was that she and Myers should set up home elsewhere… Presumably Myers was not agreeable to this makeshift may be thought that she pleaded this course with Myers, but he, realising that this scandalous situation would jeop his whole future, decided that he could not endure the dilemma further. By August the matter had crystallised. There probably been discussions, perhaps quarrels, emotional scenes, arguments and the shedding of tears . . . But in spite acute distress, which was grieviously obvious to her father and others... Myers left her. In any circumstances this is difficult to understand. When her need was most desperate (whatever its origin) Myers forsook her for the Norwegian fords."

    Anne went into a state of stony depression. About a fortnight later, on the night of 29 August 1876, after stabbing herself the throat with scissors, she flung herself into Lake Ullswater. Next day her mutilated body, clad in a nightdress, was taken from twelve feet of water. Of this bloody and frenzied suicide Myers wrote:

Her lovely life was born again:
   Calm in the calm her spirit fled,
With faery softness stole afar,
   By Love unknown beguiled and led
Past dream and darkness, sea and star.

It is difficult to see what meaning, if any, is carried by these opaque lines; but one has the strong impression that, in writing this nauseous rubbish, Myers found consolation.

    Myers is supposed to have been extremely upset by Anne's death, and to have turned to the hope of life after death that he might yet win her forgiveness. To the present writer it does not seem that Myers ever had, for any of his acts, any simple honest motivation. He relished the idea of being a great lover, and could play‑act the part, but ran away when called on to prove his truth. He deserted Anne when she was in extreme torment of mind, when she was in desperate need of his love, so often sworn. He moved out with a callous heartlessness that not even a good friend could have shown. One feels reasonably confident that he was profoundly relieved to be quit of the whole business. As for the "mourning years" about which he wrote, it seems likely that they were as make‑believe as all the other transports of his soul. He found other young women to pursue in 1877, 1878, and 1879. He married in 1880.

    Myers started to take an interest in mesmerism and spiritualism in 1871, and became one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882. The Society was immediately successful, and by 1886 had seven hundred members and associates. He devoted the main part of his energies to it for the rest of his life. He had a decisive influence on Edmund Gurney. He induced him to take part in seances with disreputable mediums, much against the grain. Myers records that Gurney "sat in the cénacles of those happy believers, an alien, formidable figure, courteous indeed to all, but uncomprehended and incomprehensible by many". It was Myers who induced him to undertake the whole administrative and editorial responsibilities of the S.P.R., who persuaded him into preparing the huge collection of ghost stories, Phantasms of the Living, but would not stand by him when that work was attacked. It was Myers who involved Gurney in the phony telepathic experiments at Brighton. Himself an uncritical enthusiast, he implicated Gurney in sins against the truth, which proved a crushing burden when Gurney realised what he had given his name to. Arthur Sidgwick concludes his memoir on Myers with the words: "All who knew him agree that he was a man of rare and high intellectual gifts, original, acute, and thoughtful; subtle in insight, abundant in ideas, vivid and eloquent in expression; a personality at once forcible, ardent and intense". He was also a cold‑hearted egoist, who loved no one but himself. He was a liar and a coward, and he ran out on his friends when they were in trouble.

    In Dr. Hall's scrupulously researched history the reader will find portrayed in detail the drama of the relationship between these two men and the contradictions within the characters of each of them that make that relationship so complex and obscure. Dr. Hall gives us also a vivid picture of a wealth of other per­sonalities, and how they impinged on one another. He throws a strong light on the hopes and fears of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the fears of death and the hopes of life eternal. Many mysteries remain unresolved, above all the mystery of why Gurney allowed himself to fall such a victim to his un­scrupulous friend. Arthur Sidgwick gives us a notion of the superficial brilliance of the deceptive but more dominant one of the pair. But there are many witnesses to be heard, and there is more than one complex story to be unfolded. No judgments we make on the personalities of our fellow men can be written down as an absolute truth; everything is always provisional, till further facts emerge. But we are not absolved from doing the best we can with what we have.