Books: He got nowhere with the leopard but made the elephants yawn

Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain by Alison Winter Chicago University Press pounds 23.95
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
If you want to know about Franz Anton Mesmer, there aren't too many places to go. No satisfactory biography exists in English, and most of the material published on him tends to be of the flaky New Age variety. A recent film of his life (scripted by Dennis Potter, starring Alan Rickman) was never distributed, thanks to a nervy legal dispute between its makers and its backers. All of which makes it rather frustrating that Alison Winter's Mesmerized assumes that its readers are already au fait with the man and his works. Mesmer fails to make an appearance in her book, even as a bit player. You won't hear about how he got his doctorate for a plagiarised dissertation on how the planets affect the human body, or how he developed his ideas about a strange, ubiquitous magnetic fluid from those of a Viennese Jesuit named Maximilian Hell. You won't hear the tragic tale of how he enjoyed the patronage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - until he was denounced as a fraud by a committee that included Benjamin Franklin, and forced to live the rest of his life in obscurity.

The focus of Winter's study is Victorian Britain, and her stated aim is to investigate the functions of mesmerism, rather than the efficacy of the practice itself. But her refusal to look Mesmer in the eye will, I think, irritate most readers. Fortunately, her central argument - that mesmerism was not a cranky, marginal doctrine, but an idea that engaged the Victorians like few others - is argued so persuasively, and supported by such a wealth of meticulous research, that most readers will be inclined to forgive the oversight.

Keen that we shouldn't dismiss the advocates of Mesmerism as gulls or mountebanks, she rolls on the all-star endorsements: Thomas Carlyle, we're told, observed his friends "sleeping magnetic sleep"; George Eliot shaved her head for a phrenological reading; Herbert Spencer, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote on the subject; Michael Faraday built an apparatus for testing the veracity of table-turning events. There were mesmeric celebrities, too - practitioners such as Alexis Didier, a clairvoyant who came to the aid of a disgraced army colonel, using his powers to track down the only witness to the military man's forgotten acts of heroism in the Peninsular War.

Mesmerism, however, wasn't just a parlour-game or a media event: it was a serious project to extend medical knowledge. It was, Winter suggests, only the sudden modishness of ether that prevented mesmerism from becoming a standard form of hospital anaesthetic. (In India, she notes, magnetic

anaesthesia was pursued more enthusiastically, and seems to have been particularly effective in the removal of scrotal tumours.) And the culture of mesmerism was so well established that it had its own system of etiquette: when a man mesmerised another man, they sat with their knees touching, hands interlaced (in order to maximise the flow of invisible magnetic fluid). When a male mesmerist put a woman under the influence, he stood over her as she sat in a chair or lay in her bed.

Reassuringly, Winter is not so determined to take mesmerism seriously that she can't allow herself to revel in the activities of some of its great eccentrics: men such as Dr John Wilson, who successfully mesmerised two cats called Kitty and Fuzzy. He then progressed to dogs, a drake, three ducks, a pool of fish, and a pair of "healthy, fat" pigs, which he mesmerised in their sty, noting that "spasmodic convulsions of the ear, snout, and whole body were strongly developed". He then sought to exercise his talents on wilder specimens in the Surrey Zoological Gardens, getting nowhere with a leopard and waving his fob-watch in front of a pair of Ceylon elephants for nearly a week until one of them "yawned, thrice, wide and long".

Perhaps because she is so insistent on the intellectual reasonableness of mesmerism, Winter declines to mention some of its more delicious sillinesses. For instance, she argues - very convincingly - that the Victorian journalist Harriet Martineau used the science to redefine women's experience of illness. However, she doesn't tell us that Martineau spent some time trying to mesmerise a cow. Similarly, she flags up the interest taken in the subject by the novelist Wilkie Collins, contending that high-impact fiction such as The Woman in White (1860) attempted to cast a kind of mesmeric spell over its readers. But she neglects to mention that Collins persuaded his mistress, Caroline Graves, to use magnetic influence to relieve rheumatic pains in an unexpected part of his anatomy: "Caroline to mesmerise my feet, and to mesmerise me into sleeping so as to do without the opium," Collins once wrote to his brother.

Winter's analysis of The Woman in White provides a good example of the strengths and failings of her study. She suggests - rather tentatively - that the novel was "an experiment in mental influence", but she fails to make other points that would allow her to put her case more forcefully. She seems not to have noticed that one of the book's main characters was based on the mesmeric writer Chauncey Hare Townshend, or that its central villain, Count Fosco, plainly admits that he is a practitioner of "magnetic science". As soon as Collins's original readers learned of the Count's mental powers, they would have begun to wonder how much they should trust the novel's multiple first-person narrators - might they be labouring under his influence, as entranced as Fuzzy the cat?

Such omissions, however, demonstrate more about the vastness of the subject - and thus the truth of Winter's assertion of mesmerism's ubiquity - than expose faults in her methodology. Her study gazes very deeply into a series of well-defined areas, but you're left with the impression that there's still a whole world of material there to be examined. Happily, on the evidence of Winter's book, the more you stare at mesmerism, the more entrancing it becomes.