The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

There can be no escaping British class divisions—even in the supernatural realm. Pity the poor poltergeist. With a name derived from the German for “noisy spirit” and a reputation for wrecking the best bone china, it stood no chance of social advancement in 1930s Britain.

The Daily Mail set the scornful tone, describing the hauntings of these newfangled ghouls as “altogether different from the honest, upright ghosts of decaying castles and ancient halls.”

But there was a bigger picture, which The Manchester Guardian also articulated, observing that poltergeists “were symptoms of a disordered age, in which once-established things break loose from their moorings and bang around our bedevilled heads.” The losses of the Great War and the deadly influenza pandemic that followed had made people mad with grief. Many of them turned away from Christianity to Spiritualism, which held that the dead survived in a parallel world.

Kate Summerscale’s book plunges readers into this febrile atmosphere of uncertainty that deepened as a new world war clouded the horizon. It was an electric time—quite literally—which can be seen in some ways to presage our own jittery epoch. Indeed, Summerscale has a communicative fascination for moments of societal flux, which originally came into focus with her best-selling book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.

That book was set in the 1860s and examined tectonic shifts of class, religion, and technology through a true-crime lens. In The Haunting of Alma Fielding, the question of whether a crime has been committed is less clear-cut but no less compelling.

Pity the poor poltergeist. With a name derived from the German for “noisy spirit” and a reputation for wrecking the best bone china, it stood no chance of social advancement in 1930s Britain.

Alma Fielding was a working-class housewife and mother of one. By the time she was 34 she had overcome a catalogue of ill health, including botched pregnancies, breast cancer, and temporary blindness.

In February 1938, newspaper reporters descended on her home in South London, where they described witnessing eggs flying down corridors, spinning and splintering saucers, and a rampaging, airborne tin opener. Their conclusion was that this could only be the work of a poltergeist.

Summerscale’s book draws heavily on a dossier she chanced upon in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research, in Cambridge. The file—previously thought to be lost—had been compiled by Nandor Fodor, one of the leading “ghost hunters” of 1930s Britain. Fodor, a Jewish-Hungarian émigré who moved to England in 1928 with his wife and daughter, became obsessed with solving Fielding’s poltergeist case. “Where others might see Alma as typical of her class and gender—irrational, opportunistic, sly—to Fodor she was ingenious, complex and fun,” Summerscale writes.

The more that Fodor found out about Fielding, the more he was struck by the “performance art” aspects of her haunting. This especially manifested itself by the way she conjured up “apports,” such as a powder compact, a perfume bottle, or even a live terrapin, seemingly from thin air. The idea that Fielding was perpetrating a massive hoax initially depressed Fodor, but he soon began to appreciate the complex psychological issues which were engendering her behavior.

An obvious corollary to Fielding’s own sense of persecution would be Fodor’s Jewishness at a time when anti-Semitism in Britain was rife. Summerscale sets the scene of Oswald Mosley’s infamous Blackshirts but does not dig very deeply into Fodor’s own sidelining by his employers at the International Institute for Psychical Research, or the relationship he had with his blueblooded colleagues. It is a surprising oversight from such a consummate researcher as Summerscale, and it diminishes the resonance of an otherwise admirable book.

Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire-based writer and critic