Like a Retired Madam

Rosemary Dinnage

  • Mesmerised: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain by Alison Winter
    Chicago, 464 pp, £23.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 226 90219 6

‘What is it that makes the lodestone attract the needle? What is the secret of electricity?’ asks the heroine of a popular novel published in 1845:

Who can account for the shock of the galvanic battery, or of the electric eel, or for the phenomena of crystallisation? Why does opium produce sleep ... all these come from God, so I do believe that Mesmerism and its prodigies ... are of divine origin.

The speaker was pure and of humble birth, and – thanks to her irreproachable invalidism – hypersensitive to the mysterious and unearthly. She didn’t therefore have to take account of Faraday and other scientists, who maintained that if a phenomenon was inexplicable it did not exist, and drew on experience and intuition. Her author, one Horace Smith, had based his novel partly on his own encounters with mesmerism, and probably also on the famous case of the writer Harriet Martineau. Even his modest invalid knew enough to know that she was living in an age of prescientific ferment. One of Alison Winter’s main points in Mesmerised is that, in an age when so much of what was being discovered seemed extraordinary, a belief in the widely attested mesmeric phenomena was no more fanciful than a belief in electricity.

The history of mesmerism, or animal magnetism, or hypnosis (it changed shape and changed name), has already been written about extensively. Winter’s scholarly account does not attempt to cover the whole story from Mesmer’s first experiments in the 18th century to the developments that took place from the late 19th century onwards. She focuses on the 1830s and 1840s, the last pre-Darwinian decades, when there was an intense revival of interest in mesmerism through all classes of society. It was, as she says, quite a democratic interest, not confined to the highly educated, though it was the lower classes, of course, who acted as subjects in experiments and the upper classes who ran them. Therapeutic benefits were available to all who wanted to try them. It was so widely disseminated an interest, Winter believes, that it provides a forum for studying the way society was functioning and the assumptions it made: its attitudes to power and authority, to social interaction, to religious belief and to emerging scientific principles. This is a large claim, but Mesmerised is so fully illustrated and so well argued that it makes out a strong case.

It is also a fine piece of cultural history, drawing on many quotable letters and documents and raising many issues. As for whether the many remarkable mesmeric phenomena reported were actually true, Winter withholds judgment: she is not concerned with factual truth, she states, but with what people of the period felt was likely to be true. What this overlooks is that many people were highly sceptical until they had tested the experience for themselves. At her chosen time the process involved a mesmeriser making slow passes just above, but not touching, his subject’s body (the operator was usually he and the subject she). Many of the subjects (but it is never clear how many) went into a deep trance, from which they remembered nothing when they awoke. During the trance they obeyed commands faithfully, even when the command was to recover from illness. What (apart from the sexual implications) disturbed mesmerism’s enemies were reports that the mesmerised acquired extrasensory perception – mimicking the mesmerist’s movements even through a closed door, visualising an object’s location when it was out of sight, diagnosing their own or other people’s ailments. Winter’s refusal to judge the truth of thousands of testimonies is probably the wise way out of a dilemma, for if she had to assess what magnetism/mesmerism/hypnosis actually is, things could get difficult. We still have no idea, even though the subject raises such crucial questions about personality, imagination and the body-mind relation. Ever since Mesmer’s day, it has surfaced and resurfaced, acquiring different names and different explanations. At the moment it has assumed the humble guise of a cure for smoking and over-eating, profusely advertised in the local newspaper. But, like a retired madam, it has a more exotic past.

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