The magnetic Mr Dickens

Earlier this week I highlighted Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Charles Dickens. I have been pleasantly surprised by the numerous revelations of surprising idiosyncrasies and quirks that make him a particularly fascinating subject.

One of the most surprising facts is that Dickens was a passionate believer in mesmerism (sometimes referred to as magnetism). He even went so far as to practice this unconventional form of medical treatment with his wife as a frequent patient.

In the nineteenth century, mesmerism, magnetism or animal magnetism (as the practice was variously known) was controversial, influential and excited the popular imagination. The basis of mesmerism was found in the work of Anton Mesmer. Mesmer held European audiences enthralled (or, perhaps more appropriately, mesmerised) by his theories that embraced physics, metaphysics, spirituality and the healing power of the mind.

The core of his philosophy was that the cosmos was permeated by an invisible magnetic fluid. This fluid greatly influenced all life, including humans, and could be encouraged and strengthened by the use of magnets. He also believed that the mind could be healed whilst in a state of trance.

By the time Dickens came into contact with mesmerism its use in medicine was well established. Dickens was strongly influenced by John Elliotson, an eminent and controversial doctor who had been shunned by the mainstream profession because of his strong beliefs in the power of mesmerism.

Dickens went on to absorb Elliotson’s teachings and go so far as to practice them. His sister-in-law and wife were successfully induced into a trance but Dickens was less successful on his dour Scottish friend Charles Macready. His most intensive treatment was reserved for Augusta de la Rue, treated by Dickens during his family’s extended visit to Italy in 1844.

All of this may not be as mad as it first appears. Although some of mesmerisms claims are now completely discredited, the idea of healing the mind via trance-like states is the basis of hypnotism. Hypnotism is an accepted weapon in a wider arsenal had has been successfully deployed in the treatment of stubborn mental health issues.