William Hughes, That Devil’s Trick: Hypnotism and the Victorian Popular Imagination

William Hughes, That Devil’s Trick: Hypnotism and the Victorian Popular Imagination (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2015) 256 pp. Hb £70. ISBN 978-0-7190-7483-7

It is the sign of a good book when the reviewer’s main criticism is a quibble with the accuracy of its title. Despite the suggested focus on hypnotism, the main emphasis throughout is on mesmerism, and its chronological investigation begins half a century before the Victorian period. Despite its reference to the popular imagination, That Devil’s Trick predominantly focuses on mesmerism’s medical applications, ignoring its broader cultural presence in stage shows and other entertainments. With the exception of George Du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, Hughes also eschews what Roger Luckhurst has termed ‘trance gothic’, a body of literary fiction that reflected mesmerism’s last cultural gasp at the fin de siècle.

That said, this is an engaging book that mounts a persuasive challenge to our historical understanding of the distinctions between mesmerism and hypnotism in the nineteenth century. Whereas the former has typically been understood as a pseudoscience that never quite escaped the taints of occultism and quackery, the latter is usually presented as a more respectable medical technique employed by Victorian proto-psychiatrists.  Hughes argues that the relationship between mesmerism and hypnotism should be understood as ‘one of co-existence and retention rather than evolution and succession’, a situation in which divisions ‘established between the two are at best questionable and at worst misleading’ (13). This, as Hughes is quick to point out, is not to simply suggest mesmerism and hypnotism were the same thing operating under different names. He draws attention to the important epistemological shift, from external, invisible magnetic fluids capable of being manipulated by the controlling mesmerist to an internal, psychologised technique that required the patient or client’s compliance. Yet, in the non-medical press at least, Hughes suggests the ‘controversy that surrounded animal magnetism […] was apt to attach itself to its successors, however much they diverged intellectually from the fluid-based dogma’ (3) of mesmerism. There is certainly an argument to be made for this claim; despite James Braid’s attempts to appropriate the hypnotic trance as a more scientifically respectable practice, the terms mesmerism and hypnotism were frequently used interchangeably into the late nineteenth century, in the popular press, gothic fictions, and even some medical handbooks.

That Devil’s Trick is constructed around three extended chronological chapters. The first explores the way the British popular press reported on late eighteenth-century continental practices and criticisms of animal magnetism. The second chapter moves from the theatricality of the salon to the lecture theatre of the teaching hospital as it analyses how some British medical practitioners took up the idea of ‘medical magnetism’ in the 1830s. In particular, it sets the work and significance of Dr John Elliotson, one of early Victorian Britain’s most public advocates of mesmerism, in a richer web of continental influences. The third chapter examines what Hughes terms ‘surgical hypnotism’, although the emphasis on continuity with earlier practices means it is largely an investigation of medical mesmerism’s protracted decline once Elliotson resigned from his post at University College Hospital, London, at the end of 1838.

Hughes’ book succeeds in a number of ways. Firstly it reappraises the significance of individuals who have been reduced to brief biographical sketches in recent histories of mesmerism and magnetism. For example, the Irish physician John Bonnoit de Mainaduc, often considered the first indigenous practitioner of mesmerism in the British Isles in the 1780s, and the Marquis of Puységur, a developer of magnetic somnambulism, are presented as key figures in early attempts to demarcate between the mountebank and the medical professional. His focus on Scottish surgeon James Esdaile and the creation of the Calcutta Mesmeric Hospital is particularly fascinating, as much for its insights into imperial and racial attitudes as for Esdaile’s role in medical mesmeric history. Through emphasising continuities and connections, in terms of press reportage and interaction between continental practitioners and British medical professionals, Hughes undermines the familiar narrative of a sudden and hitherto unconvincingly explained ‘revival’ of mesmeric mania in Britain in the 1830s.

Secondly, Hughes, an expert in Gothic literature, carefully and sensitively reads his sources, mainly metropolitan and provincial newspaper accounts, through his familiarity with gothic tropes. The issue of xenophobia found in later trance fiction (most obviously Du Maurier’s Trilby, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is here applied to press reports on late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century continental practitioners of mesmerism and magnetic influence. In doing so, Hughes demonstrates how uncertainty about the validity of mesmeric practices and suspicions of charlatanism became entwined with prejudices against the foreign ‘other’, especially their potential sexual threat to prone and passive female subjects in private salons.

Thirdly, Hughes’s study skilfully uses mesmerism to explore how the boundaries of nineteenth-century heterodox medical knowledge were policed in both medical journals and the lay press. Interestingly, when Elliotson failed to secure a foothold for mesmerism in respectable medical practice he too turned to the period’s burgeoning market for periodicals and journals, using his editorship of The Zoist to champion his cause. Yet, more broadly, this is a history of mesmerism’s search for a medical application. Although it was initially touted as a supposed curative for a vast array of illnesses and ailments, by the early Victorian period its function had narrowed to a possible use as a surgical analgesic, a debate that was superseded by the development of more consistently reliable chemical alternatives such as ether and chloroform. Finally, by the 1880s, French medical practitioners such as Jean-Martin Charcot were using hypnotic trances as a therapeutic and diagnostic aid, not to perform surgery on a body rendered insensible through mesmeric trance but to (temporarily) calm hysterical minds.

That Devil’s Trick makes a valuable contribution to the history of nineteenth-century mesmerism and medicine. In focussing on the non-medical press, Hughes has greatly expanded our appreciation of both the range and longevity of contemporary debates on mesmerism. In doing so, he presents us with a rich and nuanced history of a pseudoscience that, for all its fluidity, ultimately remained fixed at the fringes of medical respectability.

Karl Bell, University of Portsmouth