How Dickens became mesmerised by hypnotism by Wendy Moore
On 4 January 1838 Charles Dickens walked from his house at 48 Doughty Street to University College Hospital, some twenty minutes away, in Gower Street. There he witnessed a spectacle which changed his ideas, his fiction and his life. Soon afterwards Dickens told a friend, ‘I am a believer.’ He used the same words to a doctor in America. So what did Dickens see that made such an impression on him that day? The answer is mesmerism – hypnosis as we know it today.
Dickens not only became a fervent believer in mesmerism, he learned the technique himself and mesmerised his wife, sister-in-law and several friends – though he would never submit to being mesmerised himself. At one point he declared, ‘I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a Frying Pan.’ He wove ideas about mesmerism into his novels too.
Charles Dickens as a young author and journalist by Margaret Gillies
© Charles Dickens Museum
Dickens was a young journalist, aged 25, on the brink of success as a novelist when he walked to UCH that day in 1838. His first novel, Pickwick Papers, had proved popular and he had just begun publishing his second, Oliver Twist, in monthly instalments. Buoyed by his relative prosperity, he had moved into Doughty Street the previous year with his new wife, Catherine, and their baby son Charley. Arriving at UCH, with his friend, the artist George Cruikshank, Dickens met John Elliotson, professor of medicine at University College London who was a senior physician at the hospital. Escorted to ward three, Dickens and Cruikshank watched as Elliotson prepared to mesmerise one of his patients.
The patient, a 17-year-old housemaid named Elizabeth Okey, had become almost as famous as Dickens. She was babbling incoherently when the men arrived. When Elliotson pricked her with pins and pinched her, she made no response. Then as he slowly extended his hand towards her head she stopped babbling and fell into a deep sleep. Dickens was entranced. Previously a complete sceptic, he had poked fun at mesmerism a year earlier in a spoof sketch in Bentley’s Miscellany. He was not the only cynic in Victorian Britain.
A mesmerist at work © Wellcome Images
Mesmerism was named after the German physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, who had discovered in the late 1700s that he could induce a kind of sleep in his patients by using repetitive hand motions. In this state patients would follow his commands, lose their inhibitions and become impervious to pain. Moving to Paris, Mesmer attracted hordes of wealthy patients to his salons. Adopted by enthusiastic disciples, mesmerism flourished on the Continent. But in Britain mesmerism was largely ignored – until 1837.
That summer a French mesmerist, Baron Jules Dupotet, arrived in London and advertised his demonstrations. But the baron’s arrival was scarcely noticed by the public or the medical profession – with the exception of John Elliotson. Although he was one of the most respected doctors in Britain, Elliotson was a maverick who loved testing new ideas. Keen to witness mesmerism for himself, Elliotson invited the baron to try his skills on some patients at UCH. Elliotson was so impressed by what he saw, he learned the technique himself and mesmerised dozens more patients.
John Elliotson © Wellcome Images
The majority of those patients were female with vague diagnoses such as ‘hysteria’ which probably had psychological roots. One 12-year-old girl, who had been paralysed since the age of five, regained the use of her legs. An 18-year-old woman with ‘delirium and hysteria’ recovered after six weeks. But none responded as dramatically as Elizabeth Okey and her 15-year-old sister Jane. Both diagnosed with epilepsy, they were mesmerised daily for 18 months. Over this time their epileptic symptoms diminished but this detail was overlooked in the fascination with the bizarre behaviour the girls exhibited.
Ordinarily meek and demure, as befitted their gender, age and class, when mesmerised the girls underwent a complete change of personality. They danced wildly, made lewd jokes and insulted spectators. They could also lift 80lb weights and showed no pain when pricked with pins or connected to an electric battery. As news of Elliotson’s experiments spread, visitors flocked to see the girls put through their paces on the wards and in demonstrations in the hospital lecture theatre. It was hardly surprising that Dickens was eager to see the spectacle for himself.
After watching Elizabeth Okey being mesmerised, Dickens told his friend, the Countess of Blessington: ‘I have no hesitation in saying that I have closely watched Dr. Elliotson’s experiments from the first … and that after what I have seen with my own eyes and observed with my own senses, I should be untrue both to him and myself, if I should shrink for a moment from saying that I am a believer, and that I became so against all my preconceived opinions.’
It was the start of a lifetime’s fascination with mesmerism. Dickens not only consumed books on the subject, he asked Elliotson to teach him the technique and as we know went on to mesmerise his wife Catherine, his sister-in-law Georgina and several friends. Mesmerism even got him into hot water when one woman, Augusta de la Rue, became rather too dependent on Dickens’s mesmerising skills. At the same time Dickens introduced mesmerism into his fiction. In Oliver Twist, he describes Oliver falling into a trance-like state while the hero of Nicholas Nickleby reads a book as if ‘in a magnetic slumber’. Dickens even brought mesmerism to the stage, reviving the 18th century play Animal Magnetism and co-writing The Frozen Deep with Wilkie Collins.
Meanwhile Dickens became a life-long friend of Elliotson, even after the physician was forced to resign from the university in the resulting furore over mesmerism. Elliotson became Dickens’s doctor and the pair enjoyed dining, hiking and even watching public hangings together. Describing Elliotson at one point Dickens said: ‘If I were to tell you what I know of his skill, patience, and humanity, you would love and honor him as much as I do. If my own life, or my wife’s, or that of either of my children were in peril tomorrow I would trust it to him, implicitly.’ They would always be mutual friends.
Wendy Moore is the author of The Mesmerist: The Society Doctor who held Victorian London Spellbound (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016).
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