In the first section of her Autobiography, Harriet Martineau recollects the first eight years of her life as a series of traumatic events in which illusion and reality merge. One event is prompted by an encounter with a domestic magic lantern. In its dismantled state, the lantern holds no mysteries for her. She recalls seeing it cleaned by daylight, handling all its parts, and “understanding its whole structure.” It was a different story at night, in a darkened room, when “my panics were really unaccountable. They were a matter of pure sensation without any intellectual justification whatever, even of the wildest kind.... such was my terror of the white circle on the wall, and of the moving slides.” Using Martineau's anecdote as a starting point, this essay considers the ways in which optical devices became an integral part of the “sensory structuring of experience” in the Victorian home, cultivating an active skepticism, effectively functioning as “furniture-to-think-with,” to quote Barbara Stafford. In this context, domestic space becomes integrated into an experimental process that tests the limits of the visual and introduces an element of doubt into the psychic structure of belief. This cultivated speculative mentality is both replicated and reinforced by Victorian literary narrative's structural and thematic illumination of the constructed nature of the real, down to its most banal everyday manifestations.

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