Throughout much of the Victorian era, mesmerism—or animal magnetism, as it was also known—was the subject of much controversy and debate. Its advocates included some well-known physicians, scientist, and writers—including Charles Dickens. They believed, or at least hoped, that mesmerism was not simply a sort of trick, or a fad, but a real scientific breakthrough and a useful therapeutic tool.

Mesmerism paved the way for hypnosis by asserting that the human mind could be effectively mined—and healed—when it entered the state of trance. Moreover skilled mesmerists, some believed, were able to facilitate the flow of healing cosmic forces. Dickens, after some practice, mastered the mesmerist’s method just as he had once mastered shorthand. Quite literally, he could put you under his spell.

Mesmerism takes its name from Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician who, in the 1760s and '70s, attracted a large following in several European cities. Mesmer mixed physics, metaphysics, and highly imaginative speculation. The cosmos, he theorized, was permeated by an invisible magnetic fluid that greatly influenced all plant and animal life. When this “celestial gravity” entered freely into a person, the effect was salubrious—physical and mental health. Blocked forces could, however, produce mental or physical disease. Magnets, Mesmer theorized, helped stimulate the cosmic flow. To this end, he often utilized a large wooden tub filled with “magnetized water.” Once they were immersed, Mesmer directed his patients to grasp one of the iron rods that protruded from the sides of the tub: these, apparently, were like antennas designed to catch and direct the great, invisible, healing waves.

Eventually, however, Mesmer believed himself capable of infusing his subjects directly with his own abundant energy, or “animal magnetism”—thus called because of its supposed connection to the anima, or soul. By all accounts, Mesmer was a compelling figure. He induced his spells with repetitive hand movements and a piercing gaze. He wore special robes patterned with astrological and alchemical symbols. Often, as Mesmer mesmerized, an accompanist quietly played the glass harmonica. Many subjects achieved the trance-like state; some also experienced a series of purportedly purgative convulsions. Inevitably, Mesmer became the subject of suspicion and attack—but not before his adventures in magnetism greatly increased his wealth and renown.

In A Trance

In Britain, interest in mesmerism grew greatly during the 1830s, thanks largely to the efforts of John Elliotson, a leading professor of medicine at London’s University College. Elliotson was drawn to the new. Medicine, he argued, must be forever moving forward. He thus championed the use of the stethoscope, and other innovative diagnostic tools. And mesmerism, he insisted, had a huge future in modern medicine. In fact Elliotson, a gifted lecturer and acclaimed mesmerist in his own right, often amazed observers by showing them how, even while undergoing surgery, deeply mesmerized patients felt no pain. Mesmerism, moreover, might well unlock many psychological mysteries, Elliotson explained. Who knew what drives and impulses the skilled mesmerist might reveal? Who knew what dark truths the conscious mind conceals?

Elliotson was very much the sort of man Dickens was inclined to admire and befriend—a confident, rather theatrical, and highly ambitious figure who was not a literary competitor but a star in his own field. Through Elliotson, and another friend, the Reverend Chauncey Townshend (to whom Great Expectations is dedicated), Dickens developed his interest in mesmerism; and he too came to believe in its potential as an emerging “science of the mind.” Dickens had little or no interest in Mesmer’s dotty cosmic theories, spelled out in largely incomprehensible writings, but he was immediately fascinated by the mesmerist’s mind-altering, and mind-controlling, powers.

Dickens’ earliest subjects included his wife and his sister-in-law Georgina, who—as Charles Macready’s diaries reveal—promptly went into “hysterics” during the procedure. Dickens also tried to magnetize Macready, but the gloomy actor was not game, finding the whole episode “very unpleasant” and certain “it could not effect me.”

It did, however, effect Augusta de la Rue, the subject of Dickens’ most intensive mesmeric endeavors. Dickens met the de la Rues during his 1844 visit to Italy. Emile de la Rue, a businessman, was a likable, lively conversationalist; Augusta was “an excellent little woman,” in Dickens’ view. She also suffered, she said, from a host of ailments, and these Charles Dickens, mesmerist, promptly offered to cure.

Extrasensory Perception

From the far distance of today, it would seem that Augusta de la Rue was either severely disturbed; or, that her imagination responded exceedingly well to the attentions of a famous young novelist who obviously found her attractive and alluring. In addition to the “burning and raging” in her head, Augusta told Dickens, she was often rattled by images of a mysterious figure—a “Phantom” who haunted her thoughts and dreams. But mesmerism, she reported, brought real relief, and she was deeply grateful that Dickens was so willing to treat her, even at odd hours of the night.

Dickens, meanwhile, felt so drawn to Augusta that—even from a distance, while both sleeping and awake—he could somehow discern her state of mind. Such extrasensory perception was, some believed, an added function of those mysterious magnetic forces; and Augusta, Dickens now admitted, was “somehow a part of me.”

Thus, months later, after he had returned to England and to the routines of work and home, Dickens wrote to Emile to say that he not only missed the easy conviviality of his life in Italy, but also the curious intensity of his mesmeric sessions with Mme de la Rue. “Was I ever an idle man in a plaid coat,” Dickens wondered, “basking, day after day, on the box of a traveling carriage with a happy little party? Or is it all a Dream, and did I ever magnetize a little Somebody; with all my heart in her recovery and happiness?”

Although Catherine Dickens submitted regularly to her husband’s mesmeric experimentations, she never warmed to his magnetizing other women, particularly a little Somebody called Augusta de la Rue. Anton Mesmer’s critics had often charged him with practicing seduction, and many Victorians retained the suspicion that mesmerism was more likely to invite moral depravity than celestial gravity. Dickens resented his wife’s suspicion of impropriety, for he long preferred to think of himself as a man more sinned against than sinning, and who was in any event overburdened by his sluggardly spouse. Still, as the years passed and as new passions and causes absorbed him, Dickens found less time for magnetizing his family and friends.

And, inevitably, mesmeromania began to fade. Elliotson’s critics grew more vocal in insisting that “animal magnetism” was not, and could never be, scientifically valid. They also alleged that some of Elliotson’s best-known subjects were, whether he knew it or not, fakes—amateur actors basking in the rare attention they received while addressing large audiences in a supposed state of trance. Eventually, Elliotson left University Hospital, denouncing his hidebound colleagues and starting a journal, The Zoist, devoted to the study and promotion of mesmerism and phrenology, the practice of gauging a person’s intelligence and character by measuring and mapping the shape of his skull.

Moreover, mesmerism’s promise as an anesthesia vanished as more reliable agents, including chloroform, came to the fore. By the early 20th century the very name mesmerism had acquired a distinctly comic aura, although interest in hypnosis—its less esoteric successor—would, of course, continue to grow.




























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