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.

Winter logs onto the story at about the time the English were accepting the existence of the railway, and Marx was likening religion to that popular household remedy, opium. There was a huge thirst for new knowledge, though as yet no criteria that distinguished the possible from the scientifically proven, or the scientist from the gentlemanly amateur. There was confusion as to whether the human body, perhaps even the soul, could be understood on the same principles as the steam engine or the electric battery. Mesmerism, in the form of Mesmer’s original ‘animal magnetism’ which he believed was mediated by a fluid, had already gone under once after dismissal by a special commission in France in the 1780s. But half a century later another committee, after considering the evidence and watching an operation being carried out painlessly on a mesmerised patient, backed the genuineness of the procedure. In England the subject took off when it was enthusiastically sponsored by Dr John Elliotson of University College London. He welcomed it not only as an extraordinary new therapy, but as something that could throw light on psychology and pathology, even on the very nature of the vital principle. Mesmer’s claim that there was a magnetic fluid that was transmitted from magnetiser to subject faltered when no evidence for it could be found: but what was it that enabled one person to have such power over another?

Elliotson was an ambitious and radical doctor, passionately determined that his college should outdo the rival King’s College. He set up experiments in the wards of University College Hospital which impressed Dickens and other eminent visitors (Dickens was to become a whole-hearted supporter and practitioner of mesmerism). The subjects in the wards were lower-class charity patients, considered the most biddable material for experiments, and they gave good results. Tests were carried out on entranced subjects that were to be repeated many times later by others: they were pricked, burned, had sal volatile passed under their nostrils – and remained completely undisturbed. Various explanations for the mesmeric phenomenon were proposed. ‘Animated matter’ coming from the agent was about as meaningful as, later, were ‘imagination’ or ‘suggestion’ – or today’s ‘role-playing’.

For a time Elliotson was the height of fashion; when he was brought low, it was by insurrection on the part of his supposedly malleable lower-class material. He had two star performers, teenage Irish maidservants called Jane and Elizabeth O’Key, who were in the hospital for hysteria and epilepsy. During their fits both tended to go into confused states in which they appeared to assume alternative personalities. Over months of demonstrations, it began to seem as though it was the doctors who were becoming hypnotised by their patients – fascinated enough, at any rate, to write down all their sayings and then to practise deliberately mesmerising them into the alternative state. This was a temptation that both Charcot, in the 1880s, and Morton Prince, in the experiments that were published as The Dissociation of a Personality, succumbed to. For the doctors it must have felt wonderfully powerful to ‘create’ personalities in this way, but Elliotson’s puppets, like Frankenstein’s monster, began to outgrow their creator. Once in trance and on display, they dropped the respect due to their betters and became rather cheeky. Elizabeth made fun of Elliotson, sang nigger minstrel songs, and had to be restrained from dancing (much to the disappointment of the audience). She was even seen going through the male wards – after dark! – to pronounce mesmerically on their ailments. This was all quite out of order, and encouraged those who disapproved of mesmerism on moral and religious grounds to gather against Elliotson and enforce his resignation. No longer could ‘every artful wench, under the manipulations of the magnates, or even of their brainless disciples, set up as a prophetess’; nor, on the other hand, could ‘wealthy and, perhaps, libidinous men’ harbour disgraceful designs on these women’s bodies. The Irish girls, who had caused social uproar and a resignation as a result of having their tongues loosened, retired into decent obscurity. Had the distinguished personages who watched the demonstrations been so naive as to believe that teenage maidservants really venerated them?

Mesmerism had become so important a topic – and why not? – that Elliotson’s defeat in no way put an end to it. It was being broadcast around the country, in church halls and libraries and private homes, by peripatetic lecturers from various backgrounds. Winter reiterates the point that it was not a one-class interest, nor confined to London. The provinces had been acquiring branches of professional associations and more and more Mechanics’ Institutes in which the subject was aired; in London, in 1845, a Mesmeric Infirmary was founded. Phrenology (an early attempt to understand brain localisation) was added, to make up phreno-magnetism. This had liberal implications, taking away the onus of wickedness from criminals. Benevolent aristocrats provided mesmeric therapy for their inferiors as they provided soup and flannel petticoats. More and more its dramatic possibilities were being incorporated into literature – in works by Dickens, Shelley, Poe, Wilkie Collins, Balzac, Browning, Melville, Hawthorne. Its best-known appearance is in du Maurier’s Trilby, which came out in the 1890s, a darker and more sophisticated time than the 1840s. Svengali here is not a benign healer but a force for evil:

He’s a bad fellow, Svengali – I’m sure of it! He mesmerised you; that’s what it is – mesmerism! I’ve often heard of it, but never seen it done before. They get you into their power, and just make you do any blessed thing they please – lie, murder, steal – anything!

But the healing aspect was still just as prominent: Alice James, neglected sister of Henry and William, found temporary relief through hypnosis during her terminal cancer. She viewed it quite differently from du Maurier’s character: hypnosis, she dictated to her diary, seemed to have opened up ‘a vast field of therapeutic possibilities’ – though ‘just at the moment when I have passed far beyond the workings of their beneficent laws, save most superficially’. Her shrewd guess was that it worked by ‘suspending for the time from his duties, the individual watchdog, worn out with his ceaseless vigil to maintain the sanity of the modern complicated mechanism’.

Half a century earlier, the most famous mesmeric invalid had been Harriet Martineau, a powerful single lady and popular journalist. She had had to take to her bed with what was believed to be uterine cancer, and was eventually persuaded to try mesmeric healing. After a number of treatments from different people her health improved dramatically; more, she underwent a profound spiritual experience while in trance, rather as some LSD-takers have done in our own time:

Never did I dream of experiencing in this life that most awful, yet most calm consciousness – the inkling of new faculties, – the distinct consciousness of their incipient exercise! ... No words can tell the impression of the serene region of translucent intellectuality from which I derived these ideas, – a state in which all things seemed to become clear.

The release from the watchdog of consciousness was the same as it had been in the case of the teenage Irish maids, however different its expression.

Martineau undertook almost a campaign in praise of her experiences; it caused a sensation. This was no ‘artful wench’ but an educated and highly respected woman. Doctors who were anti-mesmerism were outraged that a woman should claim to know more about herself than they did, and publicise her own views and her own body.

The celebrated authoress ... parades her diseased vagina and os uteri as it were in a public speculum before the general gaze, and other ladies write and publish pamphlets about their uterine symptoms and their disorders of sex, in a manner to have made our grandmothers sink into the earth for shame.

Victorian wombs, though so frequently filled, were not mentionable.

Elizabeth Barrett – not yet Barrett Browning – was an acquaintance of Martineau’s, and her correspondence is illuminating. ‘It is easy to say “humbug”,’ she wrote of the mesmeric phenomenon,

and perhaps easy to swallow the world and its follies whole by an ‘omnivorous’ credulity. But not to be either a stupid infidel or a credulous hoaxee, is really hard, – where one’s experience & what one calls one’s philosophy, lie on one side, & a heap of phenomena on the other.

‘Amen to that,’ says anyone interested in these enigmas. What Barrett admired about Martineau was her courage, particularly in revealing medical details. As for the process of losing one’s identity to another’s, it was, she wrote, ‘revolting to my apprehension’; and she could scarcely imagine being induced to do it. There was ‘something ghastly & repelling to me in the thought of Dr Elliotson’s great boney fingers seeming to “touch the stops” of a whole soul’s harmonies’. Barrett’s reaction seems entirely understandable, and it is surprising that there is not more quoted from sensitive Victorian women. (Why, quite incidentally, nothing about treatment for fretful babies and sick children – the first candidates, one would think, for therapeutic help?) Browning was to continue Barrett’s thought in the strange, feverish poem ‘Mesmerism’. Martineau may have been a tougher character than Barrett could envisage – a journalist, after all – and some of the sympathy may have been misplaced; but not Barrett’s admiration for a woman who shunned ‘the tendency of women ... to glorify themselves in their weakness & deficiencies, both of body & mind’.

This was written in 1844, a year before one of mesmerism’s most extraordinary chapters opened – in colonial India. Perhaps the Brownings read, in the journal the Zoist, accounts of the work being done by Dr James Esdaile in Calcutta. Esdaile had read about mesmerism, as no doubt had all doctors, and simply decided to give it a try – doctors in far-flung places being freer to experiment. He concentrated on painless surgery, and his results with his Indian patients were highly successful. He specialised in the removal of enormous scrotal tumours which afflicted Indian men – an exceptionally painful procedure. The mesmeric passes generally brought about the necessary trance, and in front of English witnesses he performed operations which produced not a flicker of awareness in the patients. Next he trained his Indian hospital staff to induce the trance, and operations were carried out swiftly and en masse. The Indian public was readier to accept the mesmeric miracle than the English; it was in their yogic tradition of guru and obedient disciple. (Even today, followers of miracle-man Sathya Sai Baba believe they receive healing simply from darshan – ‘being in the presence of’ the guru.) A British committee convened in Calcutta had to concede, however, that of ten patients observed, seven were successfully put into trances and operated on without pain. But it took time to induce deep trance, and on this account the committee postponed recommendations to extend the practice. The governing fear no doubt was that black mesmerisers might end up controlling white patients. Moreover, the observers felt – probably rightly – that the obedience shown by low-caste Indians might not be found in white patients. Macaulay had described the Bengalis as ‘thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke’. The question of submission, though not always talked about, was seldom absent from the mesmeric situation.

A few white patients were nevertheless treated by mesmerism in India. Esdaile believed that anyone could learn to mesmerise. It was a therapy that suited his conception of the doctor’s role – to augment the patient’s natural self-healing. Indians, he declared, responded particularly well simply because they were closer to nature than Europeans. But his influence began to decline. The obvious reason was the rise of chemical anaesthetics; Winter implies that racial anxieties also played a part. In spite of a slow start to the adoption of anaesthetics, ether and then chloroform were accepted with relief as reliable, and the ‘trickery and farce’ of mesmerism abandoned. It continued under the name of hypnotism, but not as an anaesthetic.

From the later 1840s, hypnotism – the new name was the surgeon James Braid’s – carried on the work of magnetism and mesmerism, with some changes. The trance was now induced by having the eyes fixed on some particular spot – a candle flame, a pendulum – which perhaps seemed more modern and respectable than the hovering hands; the notion of a magnetic fluid was permanently discarded; the idea of voluntary attention supplanted that of imposed will. But the changes were superficial.

By the end of her story, Winter substantiates her argument that mesmerism/hypnosis can be the clue to Mid-Victorian intellectual life, exposing gender roles, colonial attitudes, and the status of science. Authority and submission was always involved, with those administering the power sometimes trumped by those at the receiving end – from the housemaid Elizabeth O’Key to the intellectual Harriet Martineau. Before psychology existed as a discipline, mesmerism was in itself a kind of reference book of the mind’s possibilities. But the central puzzle remains.

Mesmer’s ‘discovery’ in the 18th century was not in fact the discovery of anything new: the dissociated trance state of the shaman, the mystic, the traumatised, has been reported endlessly, from ancient Greece to Dunsinane. The idea that healing can pass from one body to another is also as old as time (and is undergoing a revival); Mesmer presumably had the knack of it by nature. After the reasonableness of the Enlightenment, an outburst of possession and exorcism was due; Mesmer’s theory that his effects were mediated by an invisible fluid was as good a guess as any other. When magnetism returned as mesmerism in the next century, commentators correctly spotted as important a willed passivity on the part of the mesmerised. Explanations were attempted; one, proposed by an Indian newspaper commenting on Esdaile’s work, was of a kind of interchange between the two people involved which sounds very like the ‘vibes’ language of today’s New Age, with ‘energies’ that work ‘in and around us’, ‘ever-present, ever-acting, ever-passing from body to body’. Esdaile phrased it in terms of a transmission ‘exerted by one animal over another, under certain circumstances and conditions of their respective systems’ as a result of an ‘irregularity in the distribution of nervous energy’. This radiated out from the boundary of one skin and penetrated the boundaries of the other. When later in the century the Nancy school introduced the word ‘suggestion’, it was felt that a lot of old-fashioned superstition was being cleared away: but how does one successfully suggest to another that he perform what he is told to, physically feel what he is told to, and forget or remember what he is told to – to the point of a virtual change of identity? ‘Imagination’ was brought in. But then that has to be a far more powerful thing than has been supposed, splitting apart the personality like a nutshell.

When it was founded in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research considered hypnosis a central clue to personality, conscious and unconscious, and to the transmitting and receiving of messages without apparent sensory mediation. But Freud, not long afterwards, found it difficult to hypnotise his patients (‘No, I am not asleep, Herr Doktor’) and shifted his interest to free association and to the transference relationship between doctor and patient (which is close to hypnosis). Psychoanalysts, as far as I know, have not raised the possibility that the hypnotic interchange – first seen as the absorption of an occult fluid – might be based on the infant experience of suckling. Nor has there been an explanation of the way the ability to dissociate alters in accordance with the culture. The kind of patient described in Freud’s first book is never seen now in Western culture: hysterical crises and fits have vanished – concurrently, people are harder to hypnotise.

On the other hand, huge numbers of people, after hypnotic investigation, are convinced that they have been kidnapped and operated on by aliens. Others, again under hypnosis, give detailed accounts of their past incarnations, or channel messages from angels and wise ones from other galaxies. Some, in the hands of therapists, ‘remember’ childhood abuse that is hotly denied by the rest of the family. And of course there are those people who go up on stage and pretend to be someone else, to the point of exhaustion; or sit at their desks inventing people and places that are more real to them than their ordinary lives. Imagination: we don’t understand it yet.