Autograph letter signed, Genoa, 4 February 1845, to Emile de la Rue
Purchased in 1968
For several years prior to first meeting Dickens in 1844, Madame de la Rue had suffered from such generalized symptoms as insomnia, headaches, nervous tics, and convulsions. Over the course of his numerous mesmeric sessions, Dickens concluded that she was haunted by an evil phantom, alternately referred to in his detailed and extensive letters to her husband as "the bad figure," "Bad Spirit, "this creature," or "the shadow." Dickens came to believe that he was engaged in a powerful struggle with "this Phantom" for control of the "mind and body" of Madame de la Rue. In this letter he asserts confidence in his mesmeric abilities: "Pursuing that Magnetic power, and being near to her and with her, I believe that I can shiver it [the phantom] like Glass."
In his life and art, Dickens worked energetically for healing. His fiction exposed many of the social ills of his day, and a significant portion of his later journalism is devoted to an impassioned campaign to improve sanitation and public health. Although he was a committed evolutionist and progressive in his attitude toward science and the improvements wrought by technological advances, he was also, by imagination and temperament, attracted to the fantastic and pseudoscientific. This was manifested in his interest in spontaneous combustion and phrenology as well as his fervent belief and active experiments in mesmerism (or "animal magnetism"), an early type of hypnotism.
Dickens was introduced to mesmerism through Dr. John Elliotson, his family physician and one of his "most intimate and valued friends." He became convinced of the therapeutic effects of mesmerism after witnessing Elliotson's demonstrations in 1838, and, although there is no record of Dickens undergoing the procedure, he learned to mesmerize others. Throughout the 1840s, he conducted mesmeric experiments on his wife and friends.
shadow, and that she has told me, in this last note, all it said when it broke silence in her bedroom. On the other hand, I cannot but observe that her fear of it is greater than her subservience to me. I find this exemplified in a slight incident, but one which shews it as strongly as a greater circumstance could. She had written me that she would leave the Casino Ball, exactly at One: remembering that I had appointed that hour before: and thinking it would please me. She laid great stress on this, and underlined the words. Notwithstanding this promise and her desire to keep it, her dread of the shadow becomes so great that she utterly disregards her voluntary pledge to me, and remains abroad until the morning is far advanced (as I learn from you) to escape it. I see in this, an increasing power on the part of the figure, beyond all kind of question.
As to what she says of her confidence in not requiring the Magnetism (if need were) until my return to Genoa, we can place no reliance on it