Mesmerism, portrayed in an 18th century graphic print.
Mesmerism, portrayed in an 18th century graphic print. Wikimedia

Charles Dickens the hypnotherapist

The author of “A Christmas Carol” and “Oliver Twist” was also a keen proponent of mesmerism. A Swiss banker’s wife was a notable beneficiary of his mesmeric talents.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

Emile de la Rüe, one of Genoa’s most distinguished citizens, was born in Geneva in 1802 and, together with his brother-in-law William Granet, headed up Genoa’s oldest Swiss bank: Banque de la Rüe frères founded in 1758. The prestigious de la Rüe family were leading lights of the city’s social scene with their connections in politics and banking. In October 1830, Emile married Augusta Granet, daughter of an English banker who also had business interests in Genoa. The formal dances laid on by the de la Rüe needed no introduction, and Emile now had the ideal host in his good lady wife.
Palazzo Brignole Sale: the scene of glittering balls. Hosted by the de la Rue family.
Palazzo Brignole Sale: the scene of glittering balls. Hosted by the de la Rüe family. Wikimedia
It was probably at one of these dances in the Palazzo Brignole Rosso palace that the de la Rüe made the acquaintance of English author Charles Dickens in 1844. He had already been journeying for some time through Italy with his family when he made a stop in Genoa. As much as Augusta de la Rüe may have projected the appearance of the perfect wife by the side of her successful banker husband, the reality was different. She suffered from insomnia, headaches and mysterious convulsions. She was also frightened of a supernatural being that she called “the phantom” and which she claimed appeared regularly before her. Charles Dickens was already an author of considerable repute and a keen proponent of mesmerism. He believed he could heal Augusta with his mesmeric treatment and offered his services. He had already spent some years studying the highly controversial practice that was a precursor to hypnosis. Dickens was an enthusiastic student of Professor John Elliotson whom he held in high regard and who, Dickens believed, represented mesmerism most ably in the face of its numerous critics.
Charles Dickens, author and proponent of mesmerism photographed in 1858.
Charles Dickens, author and proponent of mesmerism photographed in 1858. Wikimedia
Charles Dickens was so taken by the practice that he started mesmerising his family and friends for fun. However, when he got to know Augusta de la Rüe in Genoa in 1844, he took his hobby to the next level. While treating the banker’s wife, he noticed that Augusta responded extremely well to their hypnosis sessions. She really seemed to benefit from them, saying she was sleeping through the night and feeling more relaxed. The sessions became more and more like those between a therapist and a patient. It is not possible to conclusively say to what extent mesmerism helped Augusta de la Rüe’s recovery. She may have simply benefited from talking things through and regained her mental balance in that way. In a letter to Emile de la Rüe, Charles Dickens expressed how impressed he was by the husband's affection for his wife “…true depth, intensity, and earnestness, of your devotion to Madame De la Rüe; 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 …”


In the second half of the 18th century, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) developed the concept of “animal magnetism”. He hypothesised that outward impressions influence the fluids that run through the body. He achieved this same influence through suggestion and by transferring his own body's energy to the patients. His treatment methods were, and indeed still are, highly controversial in scientific circles.
A mesmerism session captured on a 1794 graphic print.
A mesmerism session captured on a 1794 graphic print. Wikimedia
Portrait of Friedrich Anton Mesmer.
Portrait of Friedrich Anton Mesmer. Wikimedia
Charles Dickens returned to England with his family in 1845. His own wife was not sad to leave Italy as she had never approved of her husband spending so much time with another woman. As for the de la Rüe family, they had but a brief respite. In April 1849, Genoa was rocked by an uprising lasting several days as the Genovese fought for independence from the Kingdom of Sardinia. The city was bombarded relentlessly for hours on end. While many of the foreign nationals living in Genoa fled on the ships lying in the port, the de la Rüe sought refuge in Sampierdarena, which at the time was a city in its own right, outside Genoa. Emile de la Rüe died from smallpox in 1870 while returning from Venice. Charles Dickens died in the same year following a stroke. Augusta lived on for another 17 years.

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