How The Novelist Charles Dickens Became A Mesmerist

On January 4th 1838, Charles Dickens went to the University College Hospital in Gower Street, with his friend and artist, George Cruikshank. When they arrived, they witnessed Professor John Elliotson mesmerizing the then 17-year-old Elizabeth Okey.

Professor John Elliotson was renowned for his medical knowledge, but also his daring attitude to innovation in the industry. His works prove that he was a man who wanted to help people, either by established medicine, or in other, more pioneering ways.

Previously, Dickens had ridiculed the practice of Mesmerism, but after seeing the demonstrations of John Elliotson, he was amazed by what he saw, and later professed to 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.’

At home, Dickens began to study books on the work of Mesmerism, and asked Elliotson to teach him the techniques. He used the techniques to mesmerize his wife, sister-in-law Georgina, and some of his other friends. 

Charles Dickens John Elliotson Mesmerism
Charles Dickens John Elliotson Mesmerism

Inspiration For Fictional Work

After learning the ways of Mesmerism, Dickens began to include references to the practice in his fictional work.

In Oliver Twist, he writes about Oliver falling into a trance-like state, while the hero of Nicholas Nickleby reads a book as if ‘in a magnetic slumber’.

He also brought the idea of Mesmerism to the stage, when he revived the 18th century play Animal Magnetism and co-wrote The Frozen Deep with Wilkie Collins.

His evil characters such as Quilp and Carker were depicted as having some form of mesmeric powers over others.

The Accident of Illustrator John Leech 

John Leech (29 August 1817 – 29 October 1864) was  British illustrator, renowned for his work in Punch magazine. He later became the Illustrator for Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol.

Leech would unfortunately become the subject of Charles Dickens and his knowledge of mesmerism, after an accident had left him incapacitated.

While on the Isle of Wight, Leech was hit by a large wave, and suffered concussion. Dickens told his friend that he could help him recover through mesmerism, to which Leech agreed.

The two were in a dark room, and after half an hour, Dickens managed to tranquilize him, after which John claimed he felt comfortable and happy. Dickens was convinced that it was mesmerism that had been the primary aid in Leech’s recovery.

Madame Emile De La Rue

In 1844, Charles Dickens went to visit Genoa, where he met with the Swiss banker Emile De La Rue and his wife Augusta.

Augusta had developed an anxiety disorder, and with it, tics, facial spasms, insomnia and convulsions. Dickens was enlisted to help Augusta overcome her disorder. He began to mesmerize her, which was for a short time successful in relieving her symptoms, but he then told her that she needed deeper treatment, which involved her going into a trance-like state.

Augusta agreed to a more involved treatment, and Dickens recalled how she had identified a phantom while in a trance, and how she claimed that this mysterious phantom was responsible for her illness. The following section from a letter to Emile details the mesmeric session.

“That figure is so closely connected with the secret distresses of her very soul—and the impression made upon it is so entwined with her confidence and trust in me, and her knowledge of the power of the Magnetism—that it must not make head again. From what I know from her, I know there is more danger and delay in one appearance of that figure than in a dozen fits of the severest bodily pain. Believe nothing she says of her capacity of endurance, if the reappearance of that figure should become frequent. Consult that mainly, and before all other signs.”

The treatment of Augusta took years, and it had a severe impact on Dickens’ marriage, but his study of mesmerism was a life-long obsession, and he truly believed his teachings and practices made a difference to people’s lives.