Autograph letter signed, Naples, 10 February 1845, to Emile de la Rue
Purchased in 1968
Dickens's letters to Emile de la Rue included progress reports on the positive effects of his mesmeric treatment of Madame de la Rue, which was no less fervent for being, by this stage, conducted in absentia. Utterly confident in his powers, Dickens told de la Rue that, "when I think of all that lies before us, I have a perfect conviction that I could magnetize [hypnotize] a Frying-Pan." The biographer Fred Kaplan argued: "Mesmerism provided Dickens not only with a rationale for the working of personality and mind . . . but with a language and an imagery that could be dramatically utilized in fictional creation." But Peter Ackroyd has suggested that for Dickens mesmerism was "part of his need to control, to dominate, to manipulate."
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.
My Dear De la Rue.
We were delayed a day longer than I had expected, in Rome; and did not get here, until yesterday Evening. The Steamer which brought me your most welcome Packet arrived at breakfast-time this morning. I saw it coming; and had your letter in my hand, almost as soon as I had shut the telescope, through which I watched it into Port.
I am much concerned that you should think it possible I had the faintest doubt of the true depth, intensity, and earnestness, of your devotion to Madame De la Rue; or of the affectionate and zealous watch you have kept over her in all her sufferings. Believe me, I admire and feel your constancy under such a trial, scarcely less than hers; and that everything I have seen of you, in reference to her (it has been much, though in a short time) has filled me with a sorrowful pleasure, not easy of expression. When I wrote to you, strongly, on the Great and terrible symptom which is hovering about her, and over which—God be thanked for it!—we know we can exercise great power; I wrote as I felt. As I felt, do I say! Not one twentieth part as strongly as I felt, and feel. For the mystery of her mind in connexion with this Phantom, was then just opening to me. And the vast extent of the danger by which I saw she was beset, made me clench the pen as if it were an iron rod—Made me use it too, as clumsily as if it were a poker, when it became the instrument of conveying such a wrong and groundless idea to you.
My full reasons for entertaining this fervid opinion of the necessity of following up the blow that has been struck at this worst symptom of her state, I cannot give you. For she makes a condition with me that I shall not, until—she looks forward, you see, to being quite composed upon the subject, one day—until she gives me leave. Under the impression that with all your anxious care you might not know what she had kept hidden so fearfully in her breast, I wrote as I did. With no other grain of meaning or intention my dear friend, believe me.
I think it possible, even now—I think it probable, indeed—that as the time approaches for your journey to Rome, she may raise objections, and be disinclined to go. The more she shews this state of mind, the greater the danger is, and the more urgent and imperative the necessity for her being brought—I underline the word "brought" to express—by your determination. You feel with me, I know.
Observe, my dear De la Rue. On Sunday the Second, she confesses to you that she feels stronger against the figures, now that the journey is decided on. That night, she sees the Figure, and apparently overcomes it. But before it disappears, it says something, which she does not distinctly hear. On the next day, she vaguely damps the ardour of your preparations for the journey. I strongly incline, with you, to the belief that trying in the interval to put together what scattered words she heard the figure say, she joined and dovetailed them into some threat, having reference to her venturing to undertake the journey. And I think you will always find that her otherwise unaccountable indisposition to go, manifests itself, after an interview with this Phantom. That her own heart is set on going—that her whole being is full of the most earnest hope and expectation of relief that all her wishes tend that way—I know. In this very last letter, received to day, she speaks of it with greater Earnestness than