Dickens, Mesmerism, and Ghosts

October 26, 2020

Just in time for Halloween, Dr. Romany Reagan explains how the Victorian revival of Mesmerism of the 1830s allowed Dickens to explore "ideas about the workings of the mind [that] come through in his work when you start to see his characters and their hauntings through the lens of his mesmeric philosophy."



Did you know that Charles Dickens had an enduring obsession with mesmerism? It’s not so strange when you start to dig into it because you can begin to see how this belief informed his conception and presentation of ghosts and the supernatural within his stories. The themes Dickens addresses most famously in his writing are the state of Victorian society and its treatment of the poor, but his ideas about the workings of the mind come through in his work when you start to see his characters and their hauntings through the lens of his mesmeric philosophy.

Even more curious still, is Dickens's rejection of Spiritualism; even though he had what his good friend and biographer John Forster called ‘a hankering after ghosts’. Not that Dickens exactly believed in ghosts—but he was intrigued by our belief in them. Within this paradox lies the possibility of ghosts, but also the continuation of the mesmeric idea that actually these could be ghostly experiences of the mind. Despite his views on ghosts one way or the other, Dickens's popular journals helped establish the Christmas ghost story as a tradition.

Although originally an 18th-century French craze, Mesmerism enjoyed a Victorian revival in the 1830s. University College Hospital founder and professor of practical medicine, Dr. John Ellitoson, was a firm believer in Mesmerism for medical treatment. And while Elliotson was a celebrated physician who, among other things, was the first in Britain to use and promote the stethoscope, he was forever overshadowed by the scandal of Mesmerism, for which he was fired from UCH and relegated to the fringes of the scientific community. One of Elliotson’s biggest defenders was Charles Dickens, who believed himself to also be an expert Mesmerist. On 24 November 1838, Charles Dickens sent a note to George Cruikshank to invite him to accompany him to John Elliotson’s mesmeric experimentations: 

The friendship between Elliotson and Dickens was created through their shared interest in mesmeric phenomena. Elliotson began using the mesmeric trance to treat patients in 1837, and in 1838 started to conduct his experiments with mesmerism in the form of public displays, and it was through Elliotson that Dickens had his first encounter with mesmerism. Elliotson relied upon the spectacular powers demonstrated in particular by two patients in the hospital, Elizabeth O’Key and her sister Jane. Extraordinary scenes began to unfold in the hospital, which were witnessed by considerable groups of people and reported in detail in The Lancet. Alison Winter has explicated this epistemological tussle that seemed to be taking place in these demonstrations, with Elliotson trying to explicate and demonstrate the physical laws governing Mesmerism, and the sisters taking the opportunity to display mischievous irreverence to authority and to lay claim to supernatural and clairvoyant powers, telling the future, reading books with their stomachs or the backs of their hands. The most obviously symbolic challenge to medical-scientific authority came when Elizabeth O’Key started to claim medical powers for herself, claiming to be able to see the figure of 'Big Jacky' (Death) hovering over one of the patients in the hospital, who, obediently terrified, duly expired. (Conner 2010)

Today, the idea of holding medical experiments in front of an entertained public would be considered comically unprofessional, but this was also the era of the surgical theatre, which performed surgeries on patients that were open to the ticket-holding public. The line between scientific inquiry and public event was blurred. However, these mesmeric displays were one step too far for University College Hospital, even in the Victorian era. Elliotson’s experiments with the O’Key sisters finally came to a head at the house of Thomas Wakley, the editor of The Lancet, “who had by now become a fierce opponent of mesmerism and tricked the O’Key sisters into revealing their fakery. Elliotson was forced to resign his position”. (Connor 2010) Despite this dramatic fall from respectability, Dickens had become very close to John Elliotson, supporting him through the bitter scandal and remaining a friend thereafter.

Far from retreating from public life and changing his alternative scientific views, Elliotson seemed to double down on his beliefs when he founded the journal The Zoist in 1843. 

In this journal, Elliotson further explored mesmeric phenomena now in a strange combination with phrenology that Elliotson called ‘phrenomesmerism’. He forged a link between mesmerism and phrenology in order to—ironically—put mesmerism on the sound footing of material science, but it was this very association that led Mesmerism down the road of pop science theatre in less orthodox institutions like open lecture halls and roadside shows. 

Dickens learned the mesmeric technique from Ellitoson and began by experimenting on his wife Catharine (lucky her) in Pittsburgh in March 1842. When he returned to England later that year, he began experimenting on other members of family and friends (joy for all). But it wasn’t until 1845that he began to study mesmeric forces in true earnest. After the completion of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens was travelling in Genoa, Italy when he took up the project of experimenting on Augusta de la Rue, the English-born wife of a Swiss banker. Madame de la Rue had suffered for some years from one of those generalised and unnameable clusters of symptoms on which mesmerism was so often brought to bear—in her case, headaches, insomnia, tics, convulsions. He felt that he was becoming quite adept at the mesmeric technique. “Dickens's firsthand experience of the mysterious powers of the mind displayed during Mme. de la Rue’s illness and the mesmeric treatment he applied made a deep impression upon him and coloured his subsequent attitude to ghosts.” (Henson 47)

Although Dickens's clinical deployment of the science [of Mesmerism] substantiated his credence in its therapeutic possibilities, his final and unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) explores the malevolent mesmerist, John Jasper, who penetrates Rosa Bud’s mind to impose his sexual desire. The incomplete novel is Dickens's finest exposition of altered states of consciousness in which Mesmerism’s potential remains undisclosed, anticipating the science’s ambiguous position in medicine and fiction in the 19th century. (Willis, Wynne 2)

While this dedication to Mesmerism might lead one to think Dickens had an open mind to the esoteric, it wouldn’t be an entirely accurate assessment. “Dickens's interest in mesmerism was largely therapeutic, and decidedly non-spiritual, and he shared John Elliotson’s phrenological interest in the material configurations of the body and mind.” (Henson 50) The idea behind mesmerism that struck Dickens was its (supposed) link with material science—ideas belonging to spiritualism, however, he did not take seriously. And it’s interesting to think of this remembering that he was arguably the literary father of the Victorian ghost story—most famously of course, as the author of A Christmas Carol, that ‘enjoyable nightmare,’ as Chesterton calls it. 

There is an interesting link between what Dickens saw as the scientific basis of Mesmerism and the scientific aspects of Spiritualism: notably the concept of magical technologies. This is the one aspect of Spiritualism that did interest Dickens, although for him these technologies were not to reach ‘beyond the veil’ but rather deeper into the possibilities of his fellow man. 

The Victorian era was a time when all technologies were quite magical. The telegraph was invented in 1838; electric light [in the home] was invented in 1879. It is not miles away to make the cognitive leap to think if invisible forces could bring us communication with each other across miles and bring invisible flowing forces to create light, what else might be able to travel along these invisible flowing lines linking people and objects separated by distance—perhaps even by death? Perhaps Dickens wasn’t ready to make that leap, but many men of science were converts to Spiritualism, most famously the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, partly because Spiritualism was consistently figured in terms of new magical technologies like the telegraph or telephone. 

The genius in what Dickens created with his annual Christmas ghost stories, was what Chesterton calls ‘the kinship between gaiety and the grotesque’. With this very strange combination he became a ‘prophet of the hearth’, with cosy family tales around the roaring safety of the fire containing such spine-tingling delights, he tapped into a now commonly acknowledged source of ‘cosy’: the amplification of one’s own sense of warmth and safety juxtaposed against cold and danger elsewhere. Within the iconic middle-class Victorian Christmas ideal was one little unheimlich gift in the Christmas bag, heightening the joy of all the rest.

Sources and further reading…

Bell, Katie, Dickens After Dickens, (York: White Rose University Press) 2020. Book.

Connor, S. ‘All I Believed Is True: Dickens Under the Influence’, Interdisciplinary Studies in the LongNineteenth Century, 19:10, 2010. Journal. https://19.bbk.ac.uk/article/id/1521/

Henson, Louise, ‘Investigations and fictions: Charles Dickens and ghosts’, Bown, Nicola; Burdett, Carolyn; Thurschwell, Pamela (editors), The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2004. Book

Luckhurst, Roger, ‘The Victorian supernatural’, British Library Articles ‘Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians’, 15 May 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural

Mullen, John, ‘Ghosts in A Christmas Carol’, British Library Articles ‘Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians’, 14 May 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/ghosts-in-a-christmas-carol

Thurston, Luke, Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval (Abingdon: Routledge) 2012. Book.

Willis, Martin; Wynne, Catherine (editors), Victorian Literary Mesmerism, (Amsterdam: Costerus New Series) 2006. Book.



old-operating-theatre-seance-profile-picture.jpgRomany Reagan received her Ph.D. from Royal Holloway, University of London in performing heritage in 2018, with a focus on creative public engagement. Her practice-based research project ‘Abney Rambles’ is comprised of four audio walks that she researched, wrote, and recorded from 2014 to 2017 within the space of Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington. Researching the layers of heritage that make up Abney Park led to a study of the occult literary heritage of Stoke Newington, ‘earth mystery’ psychogeography, and folklore. Since completion of her Ph.D., Romany has continued her creative public engagement work and expanded her folklore research scope to encompass legends and lore from the British Isles, which she is documenting on her blog, Blackthorn & Stone. All Romany's audio walks through various places in London are available to listen to for free on her SoundCloud page. 

Website: https://blackthornandstone.com/ 

SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/romany-reagan

Twitter/Instagram: @msromany 



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