Wandering Between Two Worlds:
Victorian England's Search for Meaning

by Paul Roach

Victorian England's fascination with pseudo-sciences such as phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism was a cultural phenomena which arose during a time of great social upheaval. Whether it was head reading, hypnotic trances, or hyperactive spirits the English Victorians were receptive to ideas which provided explanations for their lives. The chaos and sweeping social reform in the early nineteenth century caused by the Industrial Revolution ushered in an era where people were torn between the new materialism and the old religiosity. Phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism were used by many to bridge that gap. Public lectures which explained these new "sciences" were attended widely throughout England. Thus the working classes were no less exposed to this new cultural phenomena than their upper-class counterparts. What elevated these pseudo-sciences to the level of phenomena was the way in which they were filtered through the minds of the men and women who championed their causes. Free-thinkers such as Dr. John Elliotson, Harriet Martineau, George Combe, and Mrs. E.M. Sedgewick translated these parapsychologies in such a way as to meet the uncertainties of the times.

However mapping the terrain between progressive science and the realm of religion was not unique to the Victorian era. Phrenology and mesmerism sprang from the minds of Viennese doctors while spiritualism was imported from America. The way in which English Victorians adopted these "sciences" into their culture was unique. The doubt and search for meaning in a world seemingly gone mad reflected the outlook of a time when "the romantic era had been superseded by a new faith in technology and progress"(5).1 This rush towards progress left many lost souls in its wake who were either crushed under the wheels of materialism or who embraced any ideology which would help them explain their situation. This frenzy for reason was not limited to the working classes. There is evidence of Queen Victoria attending seances and using a medium(5). Charles Dickens practiced mesmerism on his own wife(70).3 In 1838 approximately 170 of the 1,000 members of the newly formed phrenological societies were physicians and surgeons(29).4 As for the working class, spiritualism provided a way to deny the permanent separation caused by the massive numbers of deaths brought about by their miserable living conditions. Lectures given at the Mechanic's Institutes provided many laborers an opportunity to ride the wave of the new pseudo-sciences. Yet in order to examine the cultural phenomena occurring in Victorian England it is necessary to examine the eighteenth century roots from which it grew.

While phrenology and mesmerism can be seen entering the Victorian consciousness at about the same time, it is phrenology whose origins seemed to have inspired the exploration of the mind. Phrenology began around 1800 with the Viennese physician Dr. Gall. Early in his career Gall formed a theory as to why his fellow students who had good memories also had large eyes. He believed that there was a relationship between facial features and character -between the shape of the head and the intellect. During the 1790's Gall performed research in the hospitals and asylums of Vienna. Here again he made the connection between faces and mental characteristics. This idea was not new, having its origins in the work of Johann Caspar Lavater. Lavater, a Swiss priest, began writing about what he termed "physiognomy" in the mid-to late 1700's(5).5 Physiognomy made the connection between facial traits and character. Lavater's "science" was a part of the folk culture during Gall's time(5).6 In his Essays on Physiognomy and One Hundred Physiognomical Rules Lavater set forth many principles concerning the human head. 7 Most interesting however is his discussion of the resemblances between man and beast, in particular what he termed the "nature of man and monkey"(227). Here we can see Darwin's theories in their crudest beginnings. Lavater observed that in terms of a monkey's skull "no skull of any beast certainly has so much the human form as this" (227).9 Yet he steps away from the road of logic which led Darwin to fame stating, "inconceivable is the distance between the nature of man and monkey"(227).1

However Lavater did set forth some axioms that served as the direct forerunners of Gall's phrenology as well as what could be termed the Victorian obsession with death. According to physiognomy the "form height, arching, proportion, obliquity, and position of the skull, or bone of the forehead show the propensity, degree of power, thought, and sensibility of man"(378). Lavater formulated some easier to remember axioms such as "the more the chin, the more the man"(231) and "as are the lips so is the character"(394).12 Even more fascinating was Lavater's description of the dead countenance:

Of the many dead persons I have seen, I have uniformly observed that sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-four hours after death (depending on the disease) they have had a more beautiful form, better defined, more proportionate, harmonized, homogenous, more noble, more exalted than they ever had during life(371).13

Here Lavater can be seen anticipating the spiritualist craze in England and America by at least one hundred years. Equally as important there is evidence in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton that physiognomy was still a part of the folk culture of England as late as 1848. 14 In describing the crowd at the trial of Jem Wilson, Gaskell allows the reader to overhear the common man's deliberations concerning Jem's face:

I try to trace in the features common to humanity some expression of the crime by which they have distinguished themselves from their kind. I have seen a good number of murderers in my day, but I have seldom seen one with such marks of Cain on his countenance...I am no physiognomist but I don't think his face strikes me as bad...Only look at his brow, his downcast eye, his white compressed lips...(385).15

By 1848 Gall's adaptation of Lavater's physiognomy, phrenology, was well a part of Victorian England. Phrenology discovered that the external signs of character depended on the "internal geography and operation of the brain''. 16 It has been noted that Gall's original aim had been to designate the brain as "the seat of reason so as to discredit the institutions of power that depended on blind faith, superstition, and spontaneous irrational behavior"(111).17 As a result the threat of hell as a mode of social control would be lessened and reason would take the place of religion. Regarding this aspect of phrenology it is hardly a wonder that it was embraced by Victorian England. Yet it is Spurzheim, Gall's pupil and assistant, who is credited with bringing phrenology to England. Gall and Spurzheim separated because of ideological differences. While Gall wanted phrenology to remain a strict science, Spurzheim was interested in applying it to social reform. Thus Spurzheim was well received when he arrived in England in 1814. However the most popular work on phrenology was done by a man Spurzheim converted to the "science", George Combe.

Combe's, The Constitution of Man (1828) was the most popular book on phrenology in England and its subsequent reprinting in 1835 sold 2,000 copies in ten days(3).18 Before this time Combe had also published Essays on Phrenology in 1819. The last chapter of The Constitution of Man dealt with crime, education, religion, and government. This allowed phrenology to be considered as a means of social reform in England. At public lectures on phrenology working class audiences were told that "they might secure a better life if they were always directed by self-knowledge and inspired by mental discipline"(61).19 Combe's phrenology offered to exercise each part of the mind, enabling a person to develop mental faculties that he or she had been lacking. The attendance at public lectures proved that many people were interested in this mode of self-improvement. In 1842 over 5,000 people attended the Dumfries' Mechanics Institute for a phrenological lecture. 20 In 1844 over one hundred thousand people witnessed William Bally's exhibition on phrenology at Manchester's Mechanic's Institute. 21 It is not hard to visualize some of the fictional characters in Mary Barton being in the audience at this lecture.

Many lectures were sponsored by such groups as the Association for Providing Instruction in Useful and Entertaining Sciences or the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. However these organizations are said to have embodied the "elitist interest of British phrenologists in molding the supposedly sensual, irrational, and fragmented minds of the lower orders"(138).22 In addition to the fertile ground for social reform provided by these uninformed masses there was no shortage of halls in which they could receive the message. By 1851 there were over 700 Mechanic's Institutes in England with over 120,000 members(161) 23

The use of phrenology as a social tool took on radical dimensions in the ideology of Richard Carlile. He proposed that phrenology could provide answers to questions about the mind and free will. Carlile gave his first lecture in Manchester in 1828. In Halifax, England in 1829 authorities posted signs warning people to stay away from Carlile's lectures(219).24 Carlile presented a threat to social order with his New Reform Plan which proposed "to create people who were completely atheist and encourage mental organizations in which all the faculties could be balanced"(215) 25 This rhetoric resulted in Carlile being shunned by many of phrenology's supporters. In 1829 an issue of the Phrenological Journal said that Carlile was "contributing to the universal disruption of the times" (220).26 It appears that the more phrenology attempted to embrace social reform the less popular it became. A representation of the decline in phrenology's popularity is found in the fact that lecturers who were able to charge a half-guinea(six pennies) per person for a lecture in 1827 were forced to charge only one penny per person in 1840(155). 28 Phrenology descended from science into quackery as so-called "professors of phrenology" sold head readings, charts, manuals, and pamphlets to supplement their income.

Dr. John Elliotson, founding member of the Phrenological Society (1838),was responsible for bringing about the popularization of mesmerism in Victorian England. Mesmerism was developed by Franz Anton Mesmer , a Viennese physician in the eighteenth century. Like phrenology, mesmerism had its origins in the search for meaning in the void between God and science. Mesmer's theories can be traced back to the appearance of Newton's Principia in 1687. In this book Newton had written of a "subtle spirit or fluid that permeated solid bodies, binding them together, lying at the root of electricity and heat, and facilitating all biological processes(74).29 Newton's ideas were central to Mesmer's formation of mesmeric principles. First Mesmer proposed that certain individuals were endowed with healing powers which they could activate by staring into the eyes of another person or by touching them. Second, Mesmer embraced the concept of Newton's fluid and suggested that this fluid could be activated by a magnet. Finally, he proposed that the planets exerted an influence on the earth by means of a force he called "animal gravity." This animal gravity could influence the flow of the aforementioned fluid and cause disturbances which could result in nervous disorders or physical pain. Mesmer refined his theory by demonstrating that a mere pass of the hand over the afflicted body of a patient could produce the same response in the fluid as a magnet. While being treated mesmerically many patients experienced convulsions followed by a form of deep sleep which we know today as an hypnotic trance. When the patients were awoken they claimed that their affliction was relieved if not entirely cured. Mesmer rose to great popularity in Vienna but was exiled to Paris when officials declared his practice a public menace. Mesmer achieved popularity in Paris due to a situation remarkably similar to the one in England which allowed phrenology to gain wide acceptance.

During a period of social upheaval prior to the Revolution public lectures on the occult sciences were being given in France (12).30 The same search for reason that prompted nineteenth century interest in pseudo-science was already present in eighteenth century France. Thus Mesmer, like the early English phrenologists, enjoyed a period of acceptance and increased wealth. Eventually his movement was investigated through a Royal Commission set up by Louis XVI. This commission found that mesmerism was dangerous because it put its female patients at risk. The supposed danger that sexual temptation would overtake the mesmerist and cause him to violate his female patient brought an end to Mesmer's practice. A similar claim would be responsible for anti-mesmerist attacks in England.

Mesmerism was brought to England in the 1830's by French disciples of Mesmer such as Chenevix, who converted Dr. Elliotson to the practice. Other French mesmerists who came to England included Baron Dupotet in 1837 and Monsieur La Fontaine in 1841. The conversion of Dr. Elliotson was important because he had already gained popularity through his association with the phrenological movement. Although mesmerism, through Elliotson, was most popular in England during the 1830's and 40's there is evidence to suggest that Victorians were not the first to be exposed to the concept of electricity that lay at the heart of Mesmer's theories. Newton's Principia did not go unnoticed by English physiologists in the late eighteenth century. An ad in a London paper in 1777 "offered the public the opportunity to test the powers of an [electric] eel"(53).31 Some scientists were "providing entertainment for the masses by discharging Leyden jars through circuits composed of human beings"(52).32 The English fascination with electricity continued into the Victorian age as evidenced by the strange occurrences surrounding the monster in Mary Shelley's first publication of Frankenstein in 1818.

Dr. Elliotson capitalized on the times by giving public demonstrations of mesmerism at the London University College Hospital. He also "championed mesmerism's use as an anesthetic in medical operations"(190).33 Elliotson was the founder of The Zoist : A Journal of Cerebral Physiology and Mesmerism in 1843. His public lectures and private demonstrations were attended by the leading literary figures of the time such as Dickens, Carlyle, Thackery, and Tennyson(190).34 It is the relationship between Elliotson and Dickens which serves as an excellent source for the demonstration of popular culture in the fiction of the time.

There is evidence that while in the process of writing Oliver Twist, Dickens visited Elliotson at University College Hospital on January 14,1838(27). By 1842 Elliotson had taught Dickens to perform mesmerism. The earliest reference to Dickens's interest in mesmerism can be found in Chapter IX of Oliver Twist, which was originally published in 1837:

There is a drowsy state between sleeping and waking, when you dream more in five minutes with your eyes half open and yourself half conscious of everything that is passing around you, than you would in five nights with your eyes fast closed, and your senses wrapped in perfect unconsciousness. At such times, a mortal knows just enough of what his mind is doing, to form some glimmering conception of its mighty powers(88).36

Similarly the power flowing from the eyes in mesmerism is embodied in that same chapter by the character of Fagin:

As the Jew uttered these words, his bright dark eyes which had been staring vacantly before him, fell on Oliver's face; the boys eyes were fixed on his in mute curiosity; and although the recognition was only for an instant... it was enough to show the old man that he had been observed (89).37

In addition to experimenting with mesmerism on his wife, Dickens developed an intense doctor-patient relationship with a Madame La Rue while vacationing in Italy in 1844. Dickens frequently put her under a mesmeric trance in an attempt to heal her of a nervous tic. During this time he was also in the process of writing Dombey and Son whose first chapters began appearing in 1846.38 Dickens' preoccupation with mesmerism can be found in the pages of this novel as well. While under a mesmeric trance induced by Dickens, Madame de La Rue had a vision of a person she called her brother. This brother was standing by a window, staring sadly at the sea, and thinking of his sister. This is an almost direct parallel to the description in Dombey and Son of Paul Dombey staring out the window of his room at Dr. Blimber's house and longing for his sister Florence. The world that Dickens created in Dombey and Son appears to be a world that is continually productive of dream states and mesmeric trances for its characters. Paul Dombey falls in and out of consciousness as he nears his death. People appear to him as fading images - half real, half apparition. Florence is described wandering through the deserted Dombey home followed by shadows and dreaming of Paul or her mother.

In the character of James Carker, Florence encounters the invisible power found in mesmerism. Upon meeting Carker in Chapter 24 (published in 1847) Florence notices the strange aura he produces:

It was not that but something in the gentleman himself Florence could not have said what _ that made her recoil as if she had been stung...Florence meeting his eyes, saw rather than heard him say, 'There is no news of the ship!' ... Confused, frightened, shrinking from him, and not even sure he had said those words, for he seemed to have shown them to her in some extraordinary manner(427-429).39

Similarly, in the character of Paul Dombey, Dickens had created a pint-sized mesmerist whose gaze seems locked on Mrs. Pipchin:

...Paul would sit staring in his little armchair by the fire, for any length of time. He never seemed to know what weariness was, when he was looking fixedly at Mrs. Pipchin... There he would sit, looking at her, and warming his hands, and looking at her... Once she asked him when they were alone, what he was thinking about.(164).40

Finally, Dickens draws the distinction between the sweet fantasy of a mesmeric trance and the harsh reality of life:

Paul had sunk into a sweet sleep, and dreamed that he was walking hand in hand with Florence through beautiful gardens, when they came to a large sunflower which suddenly expanded itself into a gong, and began to sound. Opening his eyes, he found that it was a dark, windy morning, with a drizzling rain; and that the real gong was giving dreadful note of preparation down the hall(225-226).40

Gaskell's novel, Mary Barton, appearing at roughly the same time as Dombey and Son is not without its own mention of mesmerism. Mary is literally lulled into a trance by a physical manifestation of Mesmer's invisible fluid - the sea:

The measured beat of the waters against the sides of the boat, and the musical boom of the more distant waves, were more lulling than silence, and she slept sound...The men spoke to Mary, but though she mechanically replied, she did not stir...She stood up shivering and puzzled as to her whereabouts(360).42

Gaskell also hints at Mary's own ability for inducing mesmeric power. Mary's strong wish that her aunt Esther would leave her alone are somehow transmitted through thin air:

As if, according to the believers in mesmerism, the intenseness of her wish gave her power over another, although the wish was unexpressed. Esther felt herself unwelcome, and that her presence was undesired(297).43

Whether it was in Dickens' London or Gaskell's Manchester, mesmerism had pervaded the Victorian literary landscape. However, it was the same charge of sexual impropriety that Mesmer experienced in Paris which accounted for mesmerism's decline in popularity in England.

The Victorians were not done with their exploration of the unknown quite yet. Spiritualism became popular as a movement in the 1850's. The key idea behind spiritualism was that it allowed communication with the spirits of the dead. The followers of spiritualism came "mainly from the ranks of pious Christians who, in the face of bereavement, sought a more substantial consolation than could be achieved through conventional worship"(6).44 Spiritualism was able to gain acceptance over mesmerism because it produced visible results. One of the most famous spiritualists, D.D. Home, came from America to London in 1855. Home performed his seances in full light, a fact that distinguished him from other spiritualists practicing at the time. Reports of Home's seances included the shaking of the room, a levitation of the table, spirits who spoke through Home, and the occasional materialization of hands, arms, or legs. On some occasions Home was reported to have levitated himself. Home also became popular because he never charged fees for his performances. He relied on the support of patrons and hosts(16).45 In addition to the popularity of Home, the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 has also been credited with the rise in interest pertaining to spiritualism:

...(it) climaxed a naturalistic trend that challenged the prevailing belief in the divine nature of humankind... the spiritualist claims offered the possibility that the challenge might be met by direct evidence of a spiritual component of personality that could survive death(16).46

As spiritualism grew in popularity, journals such as the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph and the British Spiritual Telegraph began to be published. One researcher has identified the town of Keighley, England as the "cradle of British spiritualism”(10).47 A man named David Richmond who had been traveling in America (where the spiritualist movement is said to have begun with the Fox sisters in 1848), returned to Keighley in 1853. Along with David Weatherhead, a Chartist, he funded the building of the Keighley Working Men's Hall. Richmond would perform spiritualistic exhibitions in the hall where "upwards of four hundred people were said to have been attending at any given time"(14).48 As spiritualism blossomed from Keighley more spiritualist journals began to de published. These journals included: Light, Medium and Daybreak: a weekly Journal devoted to the History, Phenomena, Philosophy, and Teachings of Spiritualism, and the Planchette .

The axioms set forth in spiritualism allowed for a type of solution to the problem of death. Death was not considered a finality but a transition. Communication with the spirits of the deceased eased the pain caused by the loss of a loved one. A typical spiritualist funeral was designed to appear optimistic in spite of death. "Mourners" wore white instead of the traditional black. The deceased was laid in a white coffin surrounded by white flowers. Death was to be viewed as a change in life rather than the end of it. The spiritualist movement even pervaded the upper ranks of Victorian England's government. W.E. Gladstone, the Prime Minister of England in 1884, was quoted as saying that psychical research was "the most important work being done in the world today"(6)49 The Earl of Balfour became president of the newly formed Society for Psychical Research in 1882. Committees were formed to investigate psychic phenomena which resulted in the collection of studies in the paranormal. Phantasms of the Living (1886) and Report on the Census of Hallucinations (1894) were among the studies published in England. Even Queen Victoria used a medium to contact Prince Albert after his death(5).50 Spiritualism also tried to make its way into literary circles. Journals such as the Planchette quoted lines from Tennyson while the Medium and Daybreak cited Emerson and Carlyle(92).51 In 1871 someone named "Henry Novra published a book titled Spirit Rapping Made Easy"(27).52 In 1853 Charles Dickens is said to have attended an exhibition of slate writing, where a spirit supposedly communicated in writing through a medium. Like mesmerism and phrenology before it, spiritualism became a part of Victorian life. It would also eventually suffer the same scrutiny and rejection as those movements.

Whether in lecture halls, private rooms, journals, or novels belief in the pseudo-sciences was a legitimate part of life in Victorian England. Rather than being regarded as some bizarre sideshow oddities, the ideas of phrenology, mesmerism,and spiritualism were extended into the realm of social reform. Although they did eventually dissolve into quackery, these "sciences" were initially embraced by Victorians as means of making sense out of a confusing world. The clash of materialism and faith resulted in the formation ideological void. Where was one to stand in the face of massive technological progress, where belief in the divine nature of man seemed irrational? Phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism filled this void and eased the fear of many Victorians. These "sciences" were cutting-edge answers to the problems brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Upon first glance, Dickens's dabbling in mesmerism may seem like the odd hobby of an eccentric literary genius. Yet a closer look reveals that Dickens was merely familiarizing himself with the current attempts of solving the social ills of the times. The view we have of phrenology today may be reduced to the idea of head reading but to Victorians it symbolized the promise of a better life through its doctrine of self-improvement. Our concept of spiritualism may have been tainted by too many low budget horror films. However, Victorians regarded spiritualism as the last line of defense against the bleak determinism found in Darwin's theories. Phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism offered direction to those Victorians wandering between two worlds.


1 Fodor, Nandor. Between Two Worlds New York : Parker, 1964.

2 Fodor 5.

3 Kaplan, Fred. Dickens and Mesmerism : The Hidden Springs Of Fiction. New Jersey: Princeton UP, !975. 70.

4 Cooter, Roger. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth Century Britain. New York : Cambridge UP, 1984. 29.

5 Cooter 5.

6 Cooter 5.

7 Holcraft, Thomas, trans. Essays on Physiognomy / One Hundred Physiognomical Rules . By Johann Caspar Lavater. Leeds: McCorquodale and Co. Ltd., n.d.

8 Holcraft 227.

9 Holcraft 227.

10 Holcraft 227.

11 Holcraft 378.

12 Holcraft 231, 394.

13 Holcraft 371. f

14 Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton .Stephen Gills, Ed. 1848. New York : Penguin Books Ltd., 1985.

15 Gaskell 385.

16 de Giustino, David. Conquest of the Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social Thought. London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1975. 14.

17 Cooter 111.

18 de Giustino 3.

19 de Giustino 61.

20 Cooter 150.

21 Cooter 150.

22 Cooter 138.

23 Cooter 161

24 Cooter 219.

26 Cooter 220.

27 error, go to note 28.

28 Cooter 155.

29 "Parapsychology: a historical perspective". Rush, Joseph H. Foundations of Parapsychology. Edge, Hoyt L.; Morris, Robert; Rush, Joseph H.; Palmer, John. Boston: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1986. 74.

30 Tatar, Maria M. Spellbound: Studies on Mesmerism and Literature. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1978. 12.

31 Tatar 53.

32 Tatar 52.

33 Tatar 190.

34 Tatar 190.

35 Kaplan 27.

36 All references to Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist will be Signet Classics edition ( New York: Penguin, 1980) and will appear in parentheses according to page number in my text.

37 Oliver Twist. Chapter IX, 89.

38 All references to Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son will be to the Penguin Classics edition (Ed. Peter Fairclough. New York: Penguin, 1985) and will appear in parentheses according to page number in my text.

39 Dombey and Son. Chapter XXIV. 427-429.

40 Dombey and Son. 164.

41 Dombey and Son. 225-226.

42 Gaskell. Mary Barton. 360.

43 Gaskell Mary Barton. 297.

44 Fodor. 6.

45 Edge, Morris, Rush, Palmer.48.

46 Edge, Morris, Rush , Palmer.16.

47 Barrow, Logie. Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebeians 1850 -1910 . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. 1 0 .

48 Barrow. 14.

49 Fodor. 6.

50 Fodor. 5.

51 Cottom, Daniel. Abyss of Reason: Cultural Movements, Revelations and Betrayals. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 90.

52 Cottom.27.

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