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You are here: Index Mysteries of the World Case of the Exchange of Souls-update

Case of the "Exchange of Souls"

Dear Mr Barton:
This is in response to your website request for information about Barry Pain's 1911 novel 'An Exchange of Souls'. I have read a copy of this novel in the permanent collection of the British Museum's library.

'An Exchange of Souls' has nothing to do with exorcism, satanism or any sort of religion. It is a science-fiction novel; the events of its narrative are achieved (within fiction) by ostensibly scientific principles rather than magic or supernaturalism.

'An Exchange of Souls' is written in first-person narration. The narrator is an Englishman, the best friend of another Englishman engaged in unusual scientific experiments. The narrator is expecting a visit from his (male) scientist friend; instead, he receives a visitor who is evidently a young woman, the scientist's fiancee. This visitor is extremely distraught and emotional, which the narrator (an Edwardian male) ascribes to the naturally hysterical behaviour of women.

The visitor asserts that she is not the scientist's fiancee, nor is she even (she insists) a woman. She is the scientist himself ... or, rather, the male soul of the scientist imprisoned in the body of his fiancee, while her own soul is no longer present. The visitor then relates a bizarre tale. Apparently, the scientist constructed a machine capable of exchanging souls between two people. We are told absolutely nothing of this machine's construction or principles except that - as the visitor claims - the soul-exchange can only be achieved between two people who passionately love each other: the narration assumes that such a relationship can only exist between a man and woman who are paramours. Other possible relationships - such as the love between mother and son, or love between two people of the same sex - are never mentioned nor considered.

The narrator's visitor then asserts that the male scientist and his female fiancee activated his soul-exchange apparatus with themselves as test subjects. They found themselves exchanged: the male scientist's soul in the woman's body, and her soul within his body. But the apparatus itself did not survive the transfer. Even more tragically, one of the two souls in the exchange - the soul of the woman - was overcome by the ordeal of the transfer, and perished soon afterwards ... still remaining in the male scientist's body, which accordingly dies with the passing of its occupant. The narrative implies that this occurred - the female soul did not survive the transfer into the man's body, but the male soul survived transfer into the woman's body - because a female soul is naturally frailer than a male soul.

The scientist now finds himself trapped in his fiancee's body, as his own body is now dead and his fiancee's soul has departed. At least, this is what the narrator's visitor asserts.

The narrator's male friend (the scientist) is never seen in this novel, remaining offstage throughout the narrative.

Whatever effect the novel 'An Exchange of Souls' possesses is entirely due to its ambiguity: we never do learn whether or not the narrator's female visitor is telling the truth. Is she, indeed, a male soul occupying a woman's body? Or is she an overwrought Edwardian woman, babbling hysterically in her grief over the death of her fiance? The novel ends without answering this question. The only clue is the visitor's behaviour: because of her extremely overwrought condition, Pain's Edwardian narrator assumes that this visitor must indeed be a flighty hysterical woman, rather than a calm and rational male in a female body.

I suspect that Barry Pain's readers in the Edwardian era were intrigued by the concept of a woman claiming to be a male soul in a female body, but would have been repelled by its reverse: a man claiming to be a female soul in a male body.

My name is F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, and I am a science-fiction author. Among my published works is a science-fiction novel 'The Woman Between the Worlds', which takes place in Victorian London in a setting very similar to that of the novel 'An Exchange of Souls'. My novel 'The Woman Between the Worlds' features several real-life Victorian figures who had unorthodox religious beliefs, including Sir William Crookes (spiritualist), William Butler Yeats (transcendentalist Christian), MacGregor Mathers (Celtic pagan) and Aleister Crowley (satanist). I read Barry Pain's 'An Exchange of Souls' shortly before I wrote this novel, and my own novel is strongly influenced by Barry Pain's novel. You can read more about my novel 'The Woman Between the Worlds' on the Amazon.com website.

Best wishes to you,
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre is a journalist and author currently resident in Wales. He has published more than 100 science fiction, horror and mystery stories and newspaper articles in Britain, the United States and Australia.

Buy his novel: 'The Woman Between the Worlds' From Amazon
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