Cover image for Mesmerized : powers of mind in Victorian Britain
Mesmerized : powers of mind in Victorian Britain
Winter, Alison, 1965-2016.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, [1998]

Physical Description:
xiv, 464 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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BF1125 .W56 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Across Victorian Britain, apparently reasonable people twisted into bizarre postures, called out in unknown languages, and placidly bore assaults that should have caused unbearable pain all while they were mesmerized. Alison Winter's fascinating cultural history traces the history of mesmerism in Victorian society. Mesmerized is both a social history of the age and a lively exploration of the contested territory between science and pseudo-science.

"Dazzling. . . . This splendid book . . . gives us a new form of historical understanding and a model for open and imaginative reading."--James R. Kinkaid, Boston Globe

"A landmark in the history of science scholarship."--John Sutherland, The Independent

"It is difficult to imagine the documentary side of the story being better done than by Winter's well-researched and generously illustrated study. . . . She is a lively and keen observer; and her book is a pleasure to read purely for its range of material and wealth of detail. . . . Fruitful and suggestive."--Daniel Karlin, Times Literary Supplement

"An ambitious, sweeping and fascinating historical study. . . . Beautifully written, thoroughly researched, and well-illustrated."--Bernard Lightman, Washington Times

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Victorians were fascinated with all things phantasmagorical. One of the more common and societally accepted incarnations of the fantastic during that time was mesmerism. Historian Winter presents a truly enlightening study in combining social history with the history of medicine as she explores the mesmeric forces present in nineteenth-century Britain and its colonies. In a time when the natural and physical sciences themselves were under great scrutiny and only slowly emerging from their precarious state of heterdoxy, mesmerists were able to include themselves among the scientific and medical community. Mesmerism was not only the stuff of salons and parlors, but Winter introduces readers to entire university departments involved in studying the medicinal, theological, and social validity of mesmerism. Through this wonderful journey into the "island of Mesmeria," Winter presents mesmerism as reflective of Victorian society itself: repressed sexuality, a struggle with modernity, and extreme class consciousness were all elements involving mesmerism's rise to popularity, and contributions to its demise. Anyone with an interest in Victorian society, politics, or history will find this work remarkable. --Michael Spinella

Publisher's Weekly Review

Winter, an associate professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, delivers an accessible account of one of the most overlooked episodes in the history of medicine and popular culture. Equal parts cultural study and history of science, Winter's book uses mesmerism‘the practice of using suggestion and "magnetic fields" to induce trancelike states‘as a window onto the development of experimental science in 19th-century Britain. With a healthy pragmatism, Winter dismisses as uninteresting the question of the objective reality of mesmeric phenomena. Instead, she concentrates on the social and intellectual conditions that made it possible for many respectable Victorians (among them, Carlyle, Dickens and Harriet Martineau) to believe in the unlikely technique named after the Prussian charlatan Franz Anton Mesmer. Winter skillfully dissects the heated ideological debates over mesmerism between the medical faculties of progressive University College and traditional King's College. Similarly keen is her critical examination of class and gender in early mesmeric experiments, staged events that typically used destitute women as guinea pigs. Most impressive, though, is a marvelous chapter on the relationship between mesmerism and British imperialism, in which Winter shows how the British used "animal magnetism" to confirm their prejudices toward the subject Indian population. Winter combines a flair for storytelling with a scrupulous attention to historical evidence, offering a history at once intellectually satisfying and, well, mesmerizing. Illustrations. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Backing her study with an extensive bibliography, footnotes, and illustrations, Winter (history, California Institute of Technology) offers new evidence about mesmerism's varied practitioners. Mesmerism created the possibility for self-conscious reflections about racial and social inequality domination through a dialect language that revealed, challenged, and reformed hidden assumptions. Mesmerism uncovered the unconscious, thus contributing to the social psychology of "consensual agreement." Public demonstrations of mesmerism were entertainment for the working and middle classes. Medical researchers looked at its therapeutic qualities. Used as anesthesia to block pain, mesmerism raised issues of self-discipline. Religious leaders debated its charismatic powers as God-given or Satanic. Involuntary mesmerism engaged, among others, Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Browning. The "nervous reflexes" discovered through mesmerism led to the democratization of science and suggested analogies to orchestral conducting as hypnotic, novel reading as sensationalism, theatrical sensationalism as crucial to national unity. In short, mesmerism was a ragbag of physical, medical, theatrical, and psychological concepts, which Winter admits she cannot define. She glues unstructured evidence to a "historical" framework, intermixing serious science, metaphors based on science, and technology resulting from science somewhat indiscriminately. Readers may be better served by Lindsay B. Wilson's Women and Medicine in the French Enlightenment, supplemented by Alan Gauld's A History of Hypnotism (both CH, Jul'93). R. E. Wiehe; University of Massachusetts at Lowell

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: An Invitation to the Seance
1 Discovery of the Island of Mesmeria
2 Animal Magnetism Comes to London
3 Experimental Subjects as Scientific Instruments
4 Carnival, Chapel, and Pantomime
5 The Peripatetic Power of the "New Science"
6 Consultations, Conversaziones, and Institutions
7 The Invention of Anesthesia and the Redefinition of Pain
8 Colonizing Sensations in Victorian India
9 Emanations from the Sickroom
10 The Mesmeric Cure of Souls
11 Expertise, Common Sense, and the Territories of Science
12 The Social Body and the Invention of Consensus
Conclusion: The Day after the Feast