MESMERIZED by Alison Winter


Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain
Email this review


An exploration of Victorian culture that views mesmerism as a reflection of human interaction, gender differences, medical and scientific dilemmas, and relations of power and authority in Britain and colonial India. Conceived of by the 18th-century physician Franz Anton Mesmer, the technique of one person’s control over the mind and body of another reached England in the 1830s and remained, according to Winter (History/Calif. Institute of Technology), at the center of Victorian public attention for three decades. The initial propagators of mesmerism were traveling lecturers. They organized public demonstrations in which a subject (usually female) was put in a trance, induced when the mesmerist passed his hands along her body. The trance caused paranormal reactions, including clairvoyance, extraordinary sensitivity, and suspension of pain. Some mesmerists were skilled enough to diagnose and even treat a patient during a seance; a hospital was set up to sponsor experiments testing the healing properties of mesmerism. Perhaps the most fascinating proof of mesmerism’s medical effectiveness was a series of public surgical operations held to remove tumors and limbs: throughout, patients felt no discomfort. The spread of mesmeric pain suppression techniques stimulated research into anaesthetic substances; mesmerism was eventually superseded by ether. Yet along with the medical establishment, the clergy vehemently opposed this psychic practice. (Some priests saw a threat in the potential explanation of Jesus’ miracles as acts of mesmerism.) Even after mesmerism’s demise in Britain, it was practiced in India (where it resembled indigenous healing methods). Mesmerism helped to change English medical practices and contributed to the rise of women as public figures—for many female patients (Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett) regarded their sickness and mesmeric treatment as a source of authority. A captivating inquiry into a bizarre and neglected mystical phenomenon. (59 line drawings, 23 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-226-90219-6
Page count: 451pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1998