More Borrowing Historical Figures for Jane Austen Fan Fiction

More Borrowing Historical Figures for Jane Austen Fan Fiction

Even great authors fail to anticipate future needs. P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, later bemoaned the fact that he put Blandings Castle in Shropshire because it meant characters couldn’t toddle off to London and be back on the same day, thus slowing the plot. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle obviously didn’t think his list of Sherlock Holmes’ limits in A Study in Scarlet would come back to haunt him later or that he would forget into which limb of Doctor Watson that Jezail bullet struck.

In similar vein, I didn’t know that my mention of Franz Anton Mesmer in My Particular Friend would conflict with another character in my sequel to that book, Our Mutual Friends. It was only an offhand mention in the first book, admittedly. I suggested that my character, Charlotte House, had a commanding manner and could through careful control of her voice put people in a suggestible state. She could, in fact, mesmerize people.

Now for those of you unfamiliar with the man, Franz Anton Mesmer was a German physician born in 1734 who promoted something he called “animal magnetism,” and who claimed to be able to cure any number of maladies using magnetism and electricity. He was a celebrity of the age and among his followers were Marie Antoinette and Mozart. In fact in his comic opera Così fan tutte, Mozart cures two lovers with a Mesmer magnet.

Unfortunately Mesmer’s claims rubbed another celebrity the wrong way. Benjamin Franklin was also a darling of the French court and he had been asked by the French Academy of Sciences to investigate Mesmer’s claims. It didn’t help that Mesmer often played for his clients music performed on the glass armonica, an instrument that Franklin developed. In fairness to Mesmer, the eerie sounds of the glass harmonica does seem the perfect accompaniment to his treatments.

Mesmer’s fame (and infamy) had grown after he “successfully” treated the acclaimed blind pianist Maria Theresa von Paradis, an 18-year-old Viennese girl who had gone blind at age three. Despite her disability, she’d received the best education and the best medical care of the day. Various doctors had attempted to treat her with cures involving leeches, purgative, diuretics or electrical shocks about her eyes. None of them worked, however, and by the time Mesmer treated her, she’d been considered a hopeless case.

Mesmer took her into his home and presumably had her drink iron filings and passed magnets over her body and spoke soothingly to her and in time the girl announced that she’d regained her sight, but that’s when the troubles began. Apparently the girl’s family had received a stipend from the Empress Maria Theresa, who was the girl’s godmother, and if the girl regained her sight, then goodbye stipend. The family removed the girl from Mesmer’s home and in short order, her blindness returned. Mesmer left Vienna with his fame outrunning his infamy and ended up at the royal court in Paris.

Mesmer managed to avoid an outright confrontation with the scientific panel meant to investigate him, sending substitutes to defend his theories, but eventually the commission, at least to the satisfaction of Louis XVI, disproved Mesmer’s claims of “magnetic fluid” in the body.

Mesmer also dabbled in electricity, most famously with his baquet. Mesmer would hold séances (the word originally meant a meeting of a seated learned society) where his followers would touch the metal wands or chains depending from his large wooden barrel that contained water, iron filings, sulfur and broken glass. A surviving baquet also contained a Leyden jar, which was an early form of capacitor that could hold a considerable electric charge.

A 1994 movie starring Alan Rickman as Mesmer gives some idea—maybe a little inflated—of Mesmer’s effect on the impressionable. Here you see a bevy of women, some of a certain age, deriving the benefits of electrical … stimulation.

In my book, Mesmer becomes Herr Doktor Anton Meissner and the baquet becomes a sort of electrical hot tub and the clientele is almost exclusively women of a certain age.

Admittedly there’s very little direct connection to Jane Austen here, other than that Jane straddles the Enlightenment and Romanticism. I don’t know that Jane was ever mesmerized or touched a baquet, but she may well have heard a glass armonica and she might have heard Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18 in B flat major, K. 456 (1784), which might have been written for Maria Paradis.

As learned men, I like to think Elizabeth Bennet’s father or Austen’s own father would have been aware of Mesmer and possibly Austen herself might have used the word mesmerize, as it was coined by the man himself.

Of course that’s the problem I’ve run into. I’ve created a character that is very similar to Mesmer, but I’ve already acknowledged the real figure in my previous book. And mesmerize is a handy word because the word hypnosis won’t be coined until the 1840s by Doctor James Braid, the “father of hypnosis.”

So what I’ve decided to do is what countless authors before me have done. I’m going to ignore it, the same way Conan Doyle ignored Sherlock Holmes’ “limits” throughout much of the Canon. After all, even Homer nods.

6 Responses to More Borrowing Historical Figures for Jane Austen Fan Fiction

  1. How interesting! I have never seen the movie with Alan Rickman or heard of Mesmer. I can commiserate with your writing dilemma. It’s very difficult to foresee all the consequences of the characters and settings we choose.

  2. I love Sherlock Holmes and am aware of the inconsistencies in his writing and others, but have never let them intrude on my enjoyment for reading. I figure an author just didn’t plan on a sequel or continuation of their writing. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. I am sure if Alan Rickman was in the movie I would have been ‘mesmerized’ Jennifer! 🙂 Very interesting post for I learned something I did not know. And, as for writing things that come back to haunt you, rest assured at least someone will remember and point it out–usually in a review on Amazon! 🙂

  4. Interesting your references to Maira von Paradis who is mentioned in the music appreciation book that I use for one of my classes. I think that with “the age of Enlightenment” which pervaded the Classic Era lends itself to philosophers and scientists like Dr. Messmer. So Mozart ascribed to Messmer. In addition he was a Mason? Curious how historical persons and what not filter their way into our books.

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