The Visions of Eleanor Jourdain

26 Sep

Eleanor Jourdain (1863–1924) was an English academic and author, as well as the Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, between 1915 and 1924. Neither her studies nor her writing, however, ever propelled Eleanor to such fame as her connection to the supernatural, for this particular Oxford don was known throughout her life to have strange ‘visions’. The first of these occurred in her student days, when on an occasion in North Oxford she saw a medieval gallows attended by executioners, priests and onlookers. More famous was the so-called Moberley-Jourdain incident, when she and her predecessor as Principal of St Hugh’s, an equally respected academic by the name of Charlotte Moberley, claimed that while on a trip to Versailles they slipped back in time to the period of the French Revolution. In An Adventure, an account of the escapade published later, they claimed that they took a wrong turn and suddenly found themselves in the company of people from eighteenth-century France, including Marie Antoinette herself.

This story was an immediate sensation and has been argued over for decades. The boring explanation was that they had simply stumbled upon a tableau vivant of locals in fancy dress, but the ladies themselves, being experts in such matters, insisted on details which firmly placed the scene in the eighteenth century. Those of a superstitious bent immediately decided that the two friends had slipped through a hole in time and, as they were distinguished academics, considered that their honesty could not be in doubt. Of course, detractors concluded that the pair were simply trying to hoodwink the nation and pointed to two sexually repressed spinsters, full of romantic notions, whose story could not stand up to the closest scrutiny. It should be noted, however, that when they wrote the book together Moberley and Jourdain did so under assumed names, which invalidates possible accusations of publicity-seeking. The true identity of the authors of An Adventure was not revealed until the mid-1920s, after Jourdain’s death.

Whatever your views on the Moberley-Jourdain incident, the book written about it is well worth a read. Well-written and informative, as you would only expect from a work by a pair of distinguished Oxford dons, there are certain passages in An Adventure which read in an almost dreamlike way. For example, the two women state that before they came upon the tableau vivant, they felt the atmosphere change as follows: “Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees.” Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that anything genuinely supernatural happened to Jourdain and her companion, I find it hard to believe that they simply made the whole thing up. After all, both had their hands too full with the serious business of academia, in Jourdain’s case running an Oxford college full -time, to waste their time on a hoax that was of no apparent gain to either of them. Perhaps it was a genuine vision, although our old friends in the  Society for Psychical Research, who you might have thought would have been pre-disposed to believe this if anyone was, certainly did not think so. More on them in my next post though…

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