“Femme et fantôme”: Althea Gyles’ Decadent Occultism

Gossling, Jessica. 2021. '“Femme et fantôme”: Althea Gyles’ Decadent Occultism'. In: Magickal Women & Company (Summer Salons 2021). London, United Kingdom 22 August 2021. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

The artist, poet, prose writer, and psychic, Althea Gyles (1868-1948) is mostly remembered as ‘the woman who dumped Aleister Crowley’ (Simon Jester), if she is even remembered at all. Variously described as ‘a strange red-haired girl’ (W. B. Yeats) and ‘fey and slightly manic’ (Roy Foster), Gyles’ relationships with various famous occultists of the fin de siècle and her eccentric style have eclipsed her literary and visual output. Notably, in Crowley’s roman à clef ‘At the Fork in the Road’ (1909), she is cast as Hypatia Gay, an easily corruptible and disposable pawn in the rivalry between Count Swanoff (Crowley) and Will Bute (Yeats). Gyles was regarded as one of the most interesting figures of her time, but she has since been relegated to the footnotes of esoteric history.

In ‘Irish Decadence, Occultism, and Sacrificial Myth: The Martyrdom of Althea Gyles’ (2015), Kristin Mahoney goes some way towards redressing the misogynistic reactions to Gyles’ life and work. She contrasts the relationship between Gyles and one of her benefactors Clifford Bax, who characterizes her as a ‘parasite’, with the recollections of her female acquaintances, particularly Eleanor Farjeon and Faith Compton Mackenzie, who viewed her as a maiden aunt figure, a ghost of late-Victorianism as well as a powerful inductrice into the hyper-male masculine discourse of Decadence. However, by predominantly focusing on Gyles’ biography, Mahoney overlooks the occult elements of her work and the mystical aspects of everyday life that were essential to her creative imagination. As a result, Yeats’s article in The Dome (1898) remains the most comprehensive exploration of Gyles’ visual and literary output in relation to esotericism. He considers her as a ‘great mediator of symbols’ but fails to take seriously the themes of self-sacrifice and martyrdom in her work. Decoding the works of Gyles, with all their symbolic and imaginative references, requires a dual consideration of her magical background – especially her connections to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – and her engagement with the Decadent art and literature of the 1890s. In order to address this duality in her work, in this talk I will present material from her archive at the University of Reading and discuss her overlooked images, poems, and prose, including her unpublished novella, The Woman Without a Soul, which focuses on a black magician. I argue that across her oeuvre Gyles combines a mystical form of Symbolism with a more Decadent, physical exploration of the body in order to create a new type of feminist mysticism that is distinct from the writings of Crowley and Yeats. In images such as ‘Lilith’, she engages with the liberating and imprisoning nature of female architypes – Lilith is both ‘femme et fantôme’, as famously expressed by Remy de Gourmont.

According to Jad Adams in his biography of Dowson (2000), at the end of her life Gyles had become ‘a ghost from the 1890s in war-shattered London’ – ‘her flaming hair now grey […] She lived in bedsits in Tulse Hill and then Sydenham, casting horoscopes as the new century wore on’. My main aim in this discussion is to shed light on this spectral magical woman and re-establish her place amongst the magical practitioners and artists of 1890s Decadence and the occult revival.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Althea Gyles, Decadence, occult revival

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature > Decadence Research Unit


22 August 2021Completed

Event Location:

London, United Kingdom

Date range:

22 August 2021

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Date Deposited:

18 Jan 2022 09:51

Last Modified:

18 Jan 2022 09:51



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