Social Subversion and Monarchic Mistrust: The Use of Mesmerism in The Notting Hill Mystery

Sam Saunders is an MRes student at Liverpool John Moores University, studying female characters and their various depictions in archetypal character-roles in Victorian detective fiction. He completed his undergraduate degree at Bangor University, where his third year dissertation explored the evolution of the use of medievalism as social commentary in literature over the nineteenth and twentieth century. His general research interests lie in nineteenth century-crime, detective and sensation fiction, the Victorian novel and print culture.

The Notting Hill Mystery, called ‘the first detective novel’ and authored by the pseudonymous Charles Felix, was originally published between 1862 and 1863 as an eight-part serial in the magazine Once a Week. [1] It remains relatively obscure in the face of more recognisable crime-fiction works, such as those by Wilkie Collins and (later) Arthur Conan Doyle, however, due to recent republication from The British Library, awareness of its importance as a precursor to the modern detective story has begun to circulate. [2]

220px-The_Notting_Hill_Mystery,_section_V,_Once_A_Week

Cover illustration

The text itself is presented in an extraordinary and irregular format; as a collection of letters, reports, interviews, diary entries and even a map of a crime scene. This collection of documents is arranged by the would-be ‘detective’ figure of Ralph Henderson, an insurance investigator who is attempting to determine whether a life-insurance policy should be paid to one of the novel’s primary antagonistic characters, the sinister, silent character of Baron R**. The novel unapologetically plays with numerous popular Victorian social issues, including the concept of social class, antiquated notions of monarchism, middle-class institutions (specifically law, inheritance and marriage), death and perhaps most notably the distinction between science and supernaturalism. These elements combine to portray a complex tale of subversion against middle class values that contemporary readers would have accepted as irrefutable.

The Baron is suspected of murdering his wife, Madame R**, who (gruesomely) drinks acid whilst apparently sleepwalking. A little investigation reveals two more apparent murders; the Baron’s sister-in-law and her husband (Mr and Mrs Anderton). Mrs. Anderton is in fact Madame R**’s long-lost twin sister, and they have an apparent ‘mesmeric link’ that the Baron exploits in order to cause both sisters’ illnesses and deaths. These three deaths suspiciously place the Baron in line for a £50,000 payment; a combination of £25,000 worth of inheritance, and £25,000 worth of life insurance that the he himself has taken out on his wife. Henderson, whilst suspecting the Baron of foul-play on the part of all three murder victims, is unable to pin the crimes on him, and the novel leaves the reader with an ambiguous ending, as the murders go unproved.

The format of the novel earned it mixed reviews in contemporary literary circles. One commentator from the Dundee Courier and Argus remained unconvinced by the novel’s strange structure, commenting that it was a ‘strange and curious production, and requires to be read with care and attention’. [3] Later, critics were less impartial; some going so far as to call the author a ‘genius’ and to commend him on his successful depictions of realism. [4] Others were more scathing, as one critic in The Athenaeum claimed that the only mystery to be found in the novel was deciphering the novel itself. [5]

Saunders1

Map of the crime scene

The use (and dangers) of mesmerism is a strong theme of this novel, and it is a device that the author uses to effectively destabilise hitherto ‘concrete’ and established social institutions – marriage, the law and inheritance. Mesmerism was a popular and controversial pseudo-science in the Victorian era, an age when a new interest in science and strong beliefs in supernaturalism were frequently combined, in attempts to create rational explanations for impossible happenings. [6] The use of mesmerism in this novel is therefore firstly designed to invoke strong feelings of fear in the reader; the use of it enables the sinister character of the Baron to hypnotise his wife into drinking acid, thereby killing herself and allowing him to claim both the inheritance and the insurance. By portraying ‘mesmerism’ as a science (as opposed to a fictional supernatural occurrence), the author makes the story believable to contemporary readers. By allowing the Baron to get away with it, the author further inspires fear in the reader by demonstrating this as an effective and real method of successfully concealing murder.

The effect of this is that the author depicts the use of mesmerism as an untrustworthy, underhanded and despicable method of disrupting acceptable society and societal institutions. Upon discovery of the exploitable ‘mesmeric link’ between the two sisters The Baron, the main conduit for the supernatural theme of this novel, marries Rosalie under an assumed name for the specific purpose of placing himself in line for her inheritance upon her death – a death which he himself instigates. [7] The assumed name itself suggests foul-play or at the very least that the marriage is not for a legitimate reason and it is implied that Rosalie does not really have a choice in the marriage. This action destabilises both the accepted ‘infallible’ social institutions of marriage and law, through the use of supernatural science.

The Victorian era was an age of increasing democratic interest and mistrust in monarchic power centres, and the character of Baron R** is therefore immediately a suspicious character, due to his position as both an aristocrat and a foreigner. [8] His aristocratic title hearkens to both the heightening distrust of antiquated monarchic power centres characteristic of the medieval period, in increasingly democratic Victorian society, and the titled antagonists of Gothic novels such as Manfred in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) or Signor Montoni in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1796).

This is another way in which the reader is presented with threats to established, irrefutable society – the Baron is designed to be a throwback to the ‘dark’ days of absolute monarchism, a sinister and powerful figure who utilises his own supernatural abilities to assert his own (antiquated, but still formidable) authority over the innocent. Though by the same token, The Baron is somewhat reduced to wielding his power through subversion and covert mesmerism, rather than by acting in an overt way, as if he operates in fear of discovery by the new, righteous democratic society that replaced monarchism in the Victorian age.

A significant area of my own research examines the effect that the Baron has on both his wife, Madame R** and Mrs. Anderton, the murdered twin sisters. These women are exploited by the Baron in the same way as the detective, Ralph Henderson and critically the reader. The lack of a ‘solution’ to the mystery, caused by the use of inexplicable ‘mesmerism’ causes both the detective-character and the reader to become frustrated with the novel as it offers no resolution to the crimes (of both murder and fraud), evident from The Athenaeum’s review of April 1865. Madame R- and Mrs. Anderton’s victim-characters experience the exact same consequence, and as a result are victimised through no faults, inabilities or weaknesses caused by their femininity. They suffer the same irreversible fate of inexplicable exploitation, by ‘unfair practice’ as the reader and the detective.

The Notting Hill Mystery


[1] Symons, J., Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, London: Faber and Faber (1972), p. 51.

[2] Flood, A., ‘First Ever Detective Novel Back in Print After 150 Years’, in Guardian, online resource available at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/21/first-detective-novel-notting-hill-mystery, accessed 13 April 2015 (2012).

[3] Dundee Courier and Argus, ‘Literature’, 9 January 1863.

[4] Standard, ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’, 25 May 1865.

[5] Athenaeum, ‘The Notting Hill Mystery’, 15 April 1865.

[6] Noakes, R., ‘Spiritualism, Science and the Supernatural in mid-Victorian Britain’ in The Victorian Supernatural edited by Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett and Pamela Thurschwell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2004), p. 23.

[7] Adams, C. W., The Notting Hill Mystery, London: The British Library (2012) (originally published 1862) pp. 100-101.

[8] Knight, S., Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2004), p. 43.

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