That devil's trick

Hypnotism and the Victorian Popular Imagination

Author: William Hughes

This book explores how the nineteenth-century popular mind envisaged, elided and expressed both magnetism and hypnotism. It supplements and addresses the script of Mesmerized through access to a considerably more dense body of detail derived from the most widely disseminated publications in the British metropolitan and provincial press. The book contends that popular accounts of magnetic and hypnotic practice constitute a comparable form of evidence to those derived from clinical publications. It supplements mesmerism studies by conveying the widely disseminated cultural archive of images, reputations and fears through which the reading public may have approached the mesmeric fictions of its day. In emphasising the pervasive nature of a popular press, the book acknowledges the predispositions and prejudgements that may be embodied in a popular audience. The book begins with a discussion on how British readers perceived the work of Mesmer, his followers and his imitators on the Continent of Europe in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. It charts the transition of mesmerism from its initial theatres of the salon and the drawing room into the regular hospital system. The book also presents a detailed reading of the Doctor's involvement with the London Mesmeric Infirmary, a well-funded institution patronised by the nobility which faded quietly into obscurity around 1870. Finally, it briefly charts the obscure final years of British mesmerism. The book is a methodological pointer as to how the other pseudosciences of the Victorian period could best be revealed in all their richness and variety.

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‘I would thoroughly recommend the book to anyone working in this area since Hughes's new research method has uncovered a host of original new materials and done a massive job of synthesis. He is to be commended for a serious and weighty volume of research that nuances our understanding of this aspect of nineteenth-century culture.'
Roger Luckhurst, Birkbeck, University of London
Victorian Studies (issue 60.1)
Autumn 2017

‘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
British Society for Literature and Science
July 2016

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