This is a longer, illustrated version of a review that first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of 2 September 2015. The black-and-white illustrations are from our own website. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them, and for more information about them.]

"What do you think of my setting up in the magnetic line with a large brass plate?" Dickens asked his future biographer John Forster in 1849. He wasn't really contemplating a change of career, but he was rather pleased with himself for putting the Punch caricaturist John Leech "under." Leech had been knocked off his feet by a wave on the Isle of Wight, and the "nap" relaxed and restored him. Why then, asks William Hughes, did Dickens and his friends also make fun of the practice in repeat performances of Elizabeth Inchbald's late eighteenth-century farce, Animal Magnetism? One answer is that mesmerism was originally a Continental vogue, taking its name from the Austrian Dr Mesmer with his iron wand dispensing invisible but potent magnetic "fluid." Hughes demonstrates that Mesmer's showmanship was later exaggerated, but the idiosyncrasy and occultism associated with such practices were bound to generate a rich mix of fascination and scepticism when they reached these shores.

Hughes avoids imposing a falsely chronological structure on later developments, which proliferated under a variety of names, and infiltrated the popular imagination and therapeutic practice alike. Perkinism, for example, arrived from America and claimed to alleviate pain by the use of metallic rods or "tractors" waved over the body, while Leyden-jar mesmerism had people sitting round a supposedly charged "baquet," locking thumbs to circulate the receptacle's healing energy. Moving on from what the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine called "Drawing Room Necromancy," in two later chapters Hughes deals with more professional medical and surgical applications – practitioners included East India Company surgeon James Esdaile in Calcutta, and Dickens's friend, Dr John Elliotson, leading light of the Mesmeric Infirmary in London — and of course the controversies surrounding them. Both were firmly convinced of mesmerism's efficacy:

The power of modifying with safety the human system, and of introducing new movements into it opposed to the continuance of diseased action, is the essential requisite in every remedy; and where shall we find an agent capable of modifying innocuously the nervous system (the main-spring of life) to the same extent as is done by mesmerism? If asked,—"what single power do you covet most for the cure of disease" I should reply,—"enable me to extinguish pain and to put people to sleep as long as is desirable, without any of the subsequent bad effects of narcotic drugs, and I will engage to cure a great variety of complaints by this agency alone" [8]

Whether the cure was a lasting one, however, was in doubt:

mesmerism, it seems, might very well display some temporary alleviation of symptoms, or an improvement, even, on the part of the patient, but its application apparently vouchsafed no lasting curative value. Firm reassurances of the latter, indeed, are what appear to be consistently missing from the public discourse on mesmerism and hypnotism from the eighteenth-century fin de siècle to its Victorian equivalent. [Hughes 219]

Left: Ellen Monroe acts as a mesmerized clairvoyant in G. Stiff's illustration for G. W. M. Reynolds's The Mysteries of London 1.257. Right: "Et maintenant dors, ma mignonne!": George Du Maurier's illustration of his own sensational novel, Trilby, as serialised in Harper's New Monthly Magazine 89 (July 1894): 280.

What was it all about, then? Showmanship, quackery, pseudo-science or alternative therapy? The brave and suggestible are still willing to try the anaesthetic potential of hypnosis, but, in general, by the end of the nineteenth century chemical anaesthesia had won the day. With the use of chloroform and the rise in prestige of the professional annaesthetist,

the day of the lay mesmerist was over, and the seemingly utter reliability of chemically induced unconsciousness, even taking account of the occasional fatalities which occurred under chloroform, far exceeded the apparently variable analgesia produced by the waving of hands or the strained ocular gaze. [Hughes 198]

Hughes ends as he began, with a scene from popular drama, this time Paul Potter's 1895 dramatisation of George du Maurier's Trilby, in which Svengali's hypnosis of Trilby leads to her untimely death, and is denounced as "that devil's trick" of his title. Hughes, whose scarily photoshopped picture on the back cover justifies his position at Bath Spa University as Professor of Gothic Studies, writes entertainingly and leaves us in no doubt of his subject's relevance for Victorianists of every discipline.

Related Material


(Book under review) Hughes, William. The Devil's Trick: Hypnotism and the Victorian Popular Imagination. Hardback. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015. 244 + x pp. £66.44. ISBN: 978 0 7190 7483 7.

Elliotson, John, with James Esdaile. Second half-yearly report ... from 1st March to 1st September, 1849. Mesmeric Hospital (Calcutta, India). London: H. Baillière, 1850. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Wellcome Library, London. Web. 20 March 2018.

Created 21 March 2018