The Mystery of Charles Dickens: A Tale of Mesmerism and Murder by John Paulits

9781780921778Between 1844 an 1845, during the time of Dickens’ excursion with his family, he was acquainted with the de la Rues in Genoa. Emile de la Rue, a Swiss banker, confided to Dickens that his English wife Augusta was having troubles with facial tics and sleepless nights. Taught by Dr. Elliotson in London, Dickens returned to Genoa and underwent sessions of mesmerism to put Augusta into a trance-like state, so that she could be cured during the process of awakening and dreaming. However, the One and Only Dickens, the Great Original, the master that all men great and small who gravitated towards this resplendent being, was defeated in this one and only circumstance. During the trance, Augusta divulged to Dickens that she was actually haunted by a “phantom” in her subconscious mind, and little was known by Dickens that twenty-five years later, in doing the justice to the Swiss banker’s wife, and having a righteousness in mind to uncover the deepest depth of a gruesome truth in writing the Mystery of Edwin Drood (what excitement to find out this name is a play of anagram!), the inescapable jeopardy was awaiting Dickens to meet his accursed end.

“You have caused these attacks. You are the source of these attacks. Do not sit there and act as if your wife’s attacks are but a small price to pay to possess the likes of you! You talk as if you were some rare and precious prize. What you have done is to destroy the woman’s peace of mind, her health, and her stability.”(p. 122)

The Mystery of Charles Dickens is one of the most interesting books I have read. One of the aspects which makes this book unforgettable is that there is a great juxtaposition drawn between the nuptial/familial affections of Dickens’ and that of de la Rues. Some dialogues actually remind me of the biographies and fiction I read about Dickens with his wife Catherine.  In Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold, Catherine is also portrayed as an insecure wife, suffered from indisposition and stuck in a rotation of birth-giving confinement. In truth, before the separation in 1858, Dickens even made his instructions to set up a partition wall in the bedroom and accused of Catherine being suffered from mental disorder. In The Mystery of Charles Dickens, Catherine is more belligerent and acrimonious to Dickens, perhaps used to illustrate Dickens being the restless and unique character in search of the truth and justice in this mystery. But still, both Catherine Dickens and Augusta de la Rue were victims in a way that their misfortune was self-disguised as blessings that they believed the total darkness of their lives was illuminated by a rare and precious light like their husbands, but the truth is that the relationships were actually a deception, a psychological detriment, and they were only seen as impressionable beings.

“Dickens seemed now to control the very respiration of his audience. There were passages where taking a breath, making a disturbance, however slight, would have been a sacrilegious impossibility.” (p.138)

On the other aspect, Dickens, when put onto paper in fiction, biographies, and projected on screens as the protagonist of possessing restless and inquisitive mind, is a character who makes one very excitable to dissect, devour, and admire in words. “Dickens’ command over his audience amazed de la Rue. The Room no longer seemed a collection of individuals but had become one attentive thing, pushed, pulled, driven, frightened, amused, and entertained by the man in the small circle of light.” (p. 138) I really enjoy reading these kinds of enlivened passages in the book narrating Dickens with his reading desks, citing aloud his works during his farewell reading performances on stage, and every time he has read the murder scene of Nancy by Sikes in Oliver Twist, Dickens was described as being too exhausted and overwrought that he needed to stagger off from the stage being flanked by two men in assistance.

Vengeance plays a major part in the book. There is Dickens’s vengeance against Emile de la Rue’s immoral filth that he needed to make it come alive in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (admittedly I still haven’t read it), and on the other side, Emile de la Rue’s mistaken vengeance against Dickens for ruining his life and hopeful possibility to attain a high social status in London is ubquitious in the story. Emile de la Rue’s sinful tramps around Rochester is especially making one feel really tense while reading it, even better than the mesmerising chapters on Augusta (I find some dialogues quite humourous, especially the bits when Dickens was convinced he had a great pair of visual rays that could subdue Augusta). Emile was really one of a rogue in the book, and those chapters make me really want to explore Gad’s Hill once in a lifetime. (Although I think it has been turned to a school for a long time but I really hope someday I could visit this place).

By the way, Dr Elliotson is also another interesting person in the book, apart from him being an expert of mesmerist, little did I know he was also an eminent phrenologist. But most importantly, he actually underwent a successful operation of amputating a patient’s penis using mesmerism as an anesthetic. So, one must get hold of this book to dig more information!

Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins (quote 2)

Our faculties are never more completely at the mercy of the smallest interests of our being, than when they appear to be most fully absorbed by the mightiest. And it is well for us that there exists this seeming imperfection in our nature. The first cure of many a grief, after the hour of parting, or in the house of death, has begun, insensibly to ourselves, with the first moment when we were betrayed into thinking of so little a thing even as a daily meal.

Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins (quote)

Nothing was more characteristic of Mrs. Blyth’s warm sympathies and affectionate consideration for Madonna than this little action. The kindest people rarely think it necessary, however well practiced in communicating by the fingers with the deaf, to keep them informed of any ordinary conversation which may be proceeding in their presence. Wise disquisitions, witty sayings, curious stories, are conveyed to their minds by sympathizing friends and relatives, as a matter of course; but the little chatty nothings of everyday talk, which most pleasantly and constantly employ our speaking and address our hearing faculties, are thought too slight and fugitive in their nature to be worthy of transmission by interpreting fingers or pens, and are consequently seldom or never communicated to the deaf. No deprivation attending their affliction is more severely felt by them than the special deprivation which thus ensues; and which exiles their sympathies, in a great measure, from all share in the familiar social interests of life around them.

Hide and Seek, Wilkie Collins

Heart and Science (1883) by Wilkie Collins

Mouchy, Emile Edouard, 1802-1870; A Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog
Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog, by Émile Édouard Mouchy (1802–1870). (ArtUK.org)

“A Christian can’t be expected to care about beasts—but right is right all the world over. Because a monkey is a nasty creature (as I have heard, not even good to eat when he’s dead), that’s no reason for taking him out of his own country and putting him into a cage. If we are to see creatures in prison, let’s see creatures who have deserved it—men and women, rogues and sluts. The monkeys haven’t deserved it. Go in—I’ll wait for you at the door.”

A young person, possessed of no more than ordinary knowledge, might have left the old woman to enjoy the privilege of saying the last word. Miss Minerva’s pupil, exuding information as it were at every pore in her skin, had been rudely dried up at a moment’s notice. Even earthly perfection has its weak places within reach. Maria lost her temper.

“You will allow me to remind you,” she said, “that intelligent curiosity leads us to study the habits of animals that are new to us. We place them in a cage…”

Since the publication of Woman in White (1859), the master of sensation fiction examines moral issues and human weaknesses of the contemporary societies across Europe and the Atlantic. This time, Heart and Science, which has a subtitle named “A Story of the Present Time”, reflects Wilkie Collins’s doubts, or even inflicts severe reprimand regarding animal experiments and vivisection. Just as he quotes words of Walter Scott in the preface, “I am no great believer in the extreme degree of improvement to be derived from the advancement of Science; for every study of that nature tends, when pushed to a certain extent, to harden the heart.”

Knowledge for its own sake, is the one god I worship. Knowledge is its own justification and its own reward. The roaring mob follows us with its cry of Cruelty. We pity their ignorance. Knowledge sanctifies cruelty. The old anatomist stole dead bodies for Knowledge. In that sacred cause, if I could steal a living man without being found out, I would tie him on my table, and grasp my grand discovery in days, instead of months.

This novel might be drawing upon lots of arguments suggested by National Anti-Vivisection Society found by Frances Power Cobbe in the 1870s. “[W]hat proof there is that the effect of a poison on an animal may be trusted to inform us, with certainty, of the effect of the same poison on a man….a pigeon will swallow opium enough to kill a man, and will not be in the least affected by it; and parsley, which is an innocent herb in the stomach of a human being, is deadly poison to a parrot.” The Cruelty to Animals Act (1876) stipulates that a vivisection being licensed and made legal should be based upon the circumstances that objects were anesthetized throughout the test and used only once in the same experiments for purposes which are helped towards medical and scientific researches of human goods; however, the book confronts the law which reflects how society defines and visionalises the position of species that are categorised as inferiors  to humans (which is also resonant to the deplorable and voiceless state and treatment of fairer sex in relation to, e.g., Married Women’s Property Acts in Wilkie Collins’s previous novels), and questions our truest pursuits of knowledge – whether we could attribute this tendency of stocking and application of information to our inbred altruistic virtue of inquisitiveness and humility as a whole, or conversely, degeneration that is owing to avarice in egoism and reputation, which, again, could be alluded to concerns of human relationships between masses and individuals of the Victorian age as well, for instance, regarding the irony of telescopic philanthropy (self-congratulatory egocentrism) at the expense of households prevailing in literature.

after-the-ball-afred-stevens“‘Teresa, my well-beloved friend, – I have considered the anxieties that trouble you, with this result: that I can do my best, conscientiously, to quiet your mind. I have had the experience of forty years in the duties of the priesthood. In that long time, the innermost secrets of thousands of men and women have been confided to me. From such means of observation, I have drawn many useful conclusions; and some of them may be also useful to you. I will put what I have to say, in the plainest and fewest words: consider them carefully, on your side. The growth of the better nature, in women, is perfected by one influence – and that influence is Love. Are you surprised that a priest should write in this way? Did you expect me to say, Religion? Love, my sister, is Religion, in women. It opens their hearts to all that is good for them; and it acts independently of the conditions of human happiness. A miserable woman, tormented by hopeless love, is still the better and the nobler for that love; and a time will surely come when she will show it. You have fears for Carmina – cast away, poor soul, among strangers with hard hearts! I tell you to have no fears. She may suffer under trials; she may sink under trials. But the strength to rise again is in her – and that strength is Love.’”

Wilkie Collins emphasize the importance of Heart over Science, that is to say, the importance of “character”. Throughout his many novels, Wilkie Collins examines egoistic disposition of characters through their reactions towards the confrontation of circumstances. In Man and Wife (1870), Geoffrey Delamyn’s degeneration owning to the extremity of athleticism is shown through by the circumstances. This is also the case in Heart and Science regarding his pleasant didactic approach. Just as his preface says, to the readers in general, “from first to last, you are purposely left in ignorance of the hideous secrets of Vivisection. The outside of the laboratory is a necessary object in my landscape – but I never once open the door and invite you to look in. I trace, in one of my characters, the result of the habitual practice of cruelty (no matter under what pretence) in fatally deteriorating the nature of man – and I leave the picture to speak for itself, and that is Doctor Benjulia, a competitive specialist ambitious in rising to fame but being ignorant of human emotions and kindness, as well as Mrs. Gallilee, a “chatelaine” whose devotion to scientific discussions made her end up being a woman who sticks to nothing by all means. Last but not least, Mr. Le Frank, a gentlemanly looking but a nasty-in-heart and retributive piano master whose vanity and vindictive nature sets a trap on himself in the end. All these characters show that avid passion on one thing does not necessarily improve a person on his/her moral grounds. On the other hand, we have characters such as Mr. Gallilee, Teresa the Italian nursemaid, and Frances Minerva the governess, who implies that there exists universal affections among God’s creations. And among all, Miss Minerva, who resembles Marian in the Woman in White, is the most enigmatic and interesting character in the Novel who is the “goddess” exemplary figure in an unrequited love, with an echo to tragic Rosanna Spearman in the Moonstone. Provided with this hostile dichotomy, this is a duel of survival reality show between humans of avaricious quest of knowledge and humans whose hearts exist a selfless love.

Last but not least, I think Wilkie Collins could be deemed as one of the pioneers who discovers the connectivity of sexism and speciesism of his day. Many ideas, such as animal experiments, regarding the use of cosmetic products, is also relevant today. Heart and Science, to me, is a thought-provoking novel which deserves readers to delve deeply into. It is humourous and nonetheless a moralistic Victorian classic of how a criticism of a big idea could lead to and reflects many social perspectives and human relationships of the contemporaries.