By W. Wilkie Collins



The Leader

January-April 1852




‘Magnetic Evenings at Home’ is Wilkie Collins’s longest non-fiction work in a periodical. He wrote it for The Leader, a radical, left-wing, weekly newspaper founded in 1850 by George Henry Lewes and Thornton Leigh Hunt. Within a year the paper needed financial help and Collins’s friend Edward Pigott bought a controlling share. They had known each other since boyhood, studied for the bar together, and shared sailing trips throughout their lives.

Collins’s first piece for The Leader—‘A Plea for Sunday Reform’—appeared in September 18511. It was a polemical work calling for art galleries and museums to open on Sundays. ‘Magnetic Evenings at Home’ followed as a series of letters addressed to G.H.Lewes. All six, and a letter responding to a sceptical critique of them by Lewes, are signed W.W.C. During their publication Collins quarrelled with Pigott over the editorial attitude to religion in The Leader and would not allow his name to be used on pieces he wrote after ‘Magnetic Evenings at Home’.

On 16 February 1852 he wrote to Pigott

"I don’t see the distinction you mention, between the Portfolio part of the Leader and the other parts, and, if I did, I would not take advantage of it. I refuse my name in principle; and am by no means desirous of seeing it appear under protest, in a part of the newspaper specially set apart for protesting contributors! I always give it unreservedly—or I don’t give it all."2

Despite this lack of a by-line, Kirk Beetz, the Wilkie Collins bibliographer, has identified 29 pieces in The Leader written by Collins, and he tentatively identifies a further 503.

‘Magnetic Evenings at Home’ is a series of six accounts of mesmerism and clairvoyance witnessed by Collins in early January 1852 when he visited friends in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside town on the west coast of Somerset. He may indeed have been visiting Pigott himself, who could be the friend and barrister referred to in Letter V as ‘Mr. S’. He was a barrister – called to the bar with Wilkie on 20 November 1851; he had returned from Paris in December; and the ‘S’ could refer to Smyth – his full name was Edward Francis Smyth Pigott. The demonstrations of these manifestations were all by a man called simply ‘Count P—’.

The final essay was followed two weeks later by a sceptical rebuttal by Lewes both of clairvoyance and Collins’s evidence for it. Wilkie wrote a seventh piece arguing for the accuracy of his accounts.

Such exhibitions of what we would now call hypnotism and stage magic were popular at the time and it seems that Wilkie was the unwitting dupe of a clever act staged between the Count and his young assistant Mademoiselle V—. Let us hope so. Otherwise some of the events in the letters, particularly those in Letters II and VI, are little short of assaults and those witnessing them accessories to crimes. The careless way in which V— is treated and put in danger is more reminiscent of the sadomasochistic tales by the Marquis de Sade or Pauline Reage’s later The Story of O than it is of the sensitive treatment of women for which Wilkie Collins is known in his fiction.

In 1857 Collins and Dickens performed in a play called Animal Magnetism by Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821). Dickens played Doctor Mesmer. And at least a dozen of Collins’s books contain references to mesmerism, clairvoyance, or magnetic attraction. The best known is probably the clairvoyant boy in The Moonstone. But the earliest identified reference is in The Woman in White. The doctor, Mr Dawson, called to treat Marian Halcombe, says to the housekeeper, Eliza Michelson, about Count Fosco

"Mrs Michelson, the fat old foreigner is a quack."
This was very rude. I was naturally shocked at it.
"Are you aware, sir," I said, "that you are talking of a nobleman?"
"Pooh! He isn’t the first Quack with a handle to his name. They’re all Counts—hang ’em!…This foreign nobleman of yours is dying to try his quack remedies (mesmerism included) on my patient; and a nurse who is brought here by his wife may be a little too willing to help him."

Perhaps by 1860 Collins had understood what had happened eight years earlier. When these essays were published early in 1852 Collins had already published four books, was writing regularly for Bentley’s Miscellany, and had met Dickens. Shortly after his final rejoinder was published in The Leader, his first story appeared in Household Words4. Four years later, after he had left The Leader and was about to join the staff at Household Words, he took the mirror made of coal from Letter IV and used it in an amusing piece on the pleasures of sailing compared with the perils of travelling abroad ‘My Black Mirror’5.

George Henry Lewes (1807-1878) wrote books and plays and contributed to periodicals. He met Marian Evans (George Eliot) in 1851 and from 1854 they lived together in London, without marrying, until Lewes’s death. In the early 1860s Collins used to join Saturday dinner parties at their home in Blandford Square – the same Square he and his mother moved to after his father’s death in 1847. On 30 November 1861 George Eliot records in a letter and in her diary that Pigott and Collins were there and Collins told an amusing story about Bulwer Lytton. Marian Evans is thought to be a model for Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White. Wilkie named his first daughter Marian.

This text is taken directly from copies of The Leader and retains all the original spelling, typographical errors, punctuation and paragraphing. Note Wilkie’s eccentric spelling ‘Shakspeare’ and that he punctiliously italicises the French words clairvoyance and its derivatives, whereas Lewes does not. As well as the six original essays, this edition includes Lewes’s rational and sceptical response to them and Wilkie’s final rejoinder. 

1 Republished by the Wilkie Collins Society, July 2000
2 The Letters of Wilkie Collins William Baker and William Clarke, Cambridge 1999 I p82
3 Victorian Periodicals Review XV No.1 Spring 1982 pp20-29
4 ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’ Household Words 24 April 1852, V No.109 pp129-137.
5 ‘My Black Mirror’ Household Words 6 September 1856, XIV No.337 pp169-175, reprinted in My Miscellanies 1863.


All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2002