The Doctor, in an early episode of the new Doctor Who series, enlists the help of the profoundly skeptical Charles Dickens to solve a ghostly crime in mid-nineteenth century Cardiff (trust me, there will be a payoff to this story). A mortician and his comely, clairvoyant maid are plagued by spirits who reanimate the dead and attack the living. Dickens, completely unconvinced by table readings or the appearance of the spirits themselves, calls upon science to help him explain the strange happenings. This portrayal is keeping with the Dickens of modern, popular imagination—a hyper-rational man who deeply understood the workings of the mind and society, one who, though interested in the spiritual, used it purely as a device to further the development of his main characters—bears little in common with the more complex Dickens that Alison Winter writes about in Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain.
In this case, Dickens alongside his Victorian brothers and sisters struggled simultaneously with skepticism and confidence, science and the supernatural. From the vantage point of hindsight, a well-defined science with a clearly articulated scientific method triumphed over the supernatural and superstitious during the nineteenth century. Because of this, we see the victory, not the battle—an oversight Winter and the mesmerists she studies attempt to correct by arguing that the diversity of the early and mid-nineteenth century, where clairvoyance and mesmerism co-existed with physics and medicine, was responsible for the development of a clearly defined scientific discipline in the late nineteenth century with unassailable authority over the minds and bodies of the Victorian citizenry.
Intimately related to her primary argument, Winter suggests a secondary purpose for using mesmerism: that the Victorian understanding of the mind was profoundly influenced by the mechanization they saw all around them. On one hand, this argument is self-evident. Clearly the ever increasing speed and productivity of production, transportation, communication, and technological advancement affected the people in Victorian Britain. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, the ubiquitous nature of industrial goods is just part of the background—the casually thrown aside lab equipment, the process of cashing a check, or the cheap paper of scribbled notes are all around the characters and define the ways they exist in London. In fact, the murder of Mr. Carew was witnessed by a young maid sitting at her window, probably daydreaming about a hero from one of the new novels or serials (Stevenson describes her as “romantically given”1). Female literacy, new forms of entertainment, new class identification are all present in this one scene though never called attention to, which supports Winter’s first understanding of the role of machines in Victorian society.
On the other hand, Winter argues that through the course of the mid-nineteenth century the human mind and body were increasingly seen as machines. Whereas Winter uses mesmerism to understand this across the period in question, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a single snapshot of a moment in this process—where the methodology of a medical case study, exactly like Elizabeth O’Key would have had, is being superimposed over a scientific experiment with supernatural ramifications. In my favorite scene, Mr. Utterson, the lawyer, shows his clerk Mr. Hyde’s signature. As if mesmerized by the mere proximity to death, Mr. Utterson says, “But there it is; quite in your way: a murderer’s autograph.”2
One aspect of Winter’s argument I find difficult to understand is the relationship between the machine as knowable and controllable, as presented here, and other depictions of the machine in Mesmerized, as the medium of confusing change in Victorian society. How do the positive and negative connotations work together within Winter’s understanding of the more mechanized mind?
In the end, Winter’s work bridges a historiographical gap between the exterior and the interior of the Victorian. On the outside, society was increasingly catalogued and systematized. New methods of organizing knowledge (the card catalogue), of recording the Empire (Levine’s anthropological photographs), of building machines (take your pick), and of understanding the mind (physiognomy) were ways which a rational and logical society imposed order on itself and the world around it. Here is where modern-day popular imagination has created a scientific Dickens, for example.
However, on the inside, there was a deeply troubled Victorian mind, one which was struggling to understand itself—sexuality, morality, and authority—and existed in such a divergent, ever changing world. The Victorians it seems were obsessed with their own minds, using the strange and abnormal in order to access the normal. In this way the Victorians believed that “the mesmeric mind,” writes Winter, “rendered comprehensible, would illuminate the Victorian mind.”3
In order to understand the connection between these two worlds in which Victorians existed, Winter continuously returns to the idea of “plausibility.” For the Victorian, she successfully argues, clairvoyance was plausible in the exact same way medicine was. As the nineteenth century continued on, these divergent urges coalesced into a disciplinary approach to the sciences and, I would add, all forms of knowledge.
This battle over the mind is thus reimagined in Mesmerized as a struggle, a struggle of diverse actors who sought to employ the inner parts of the mind in a variety of contradictory ways. Eventually science as we know it would emerge, but it is my impression that it could have easily have gone the other way—Dr. Hyde (or Frankenstein’s Monster or Mr. Griffin (aka the Invisible Man) could have easily won the day.