Catherine Jinks, Charlatan The Dishonest Life and Dishonoured Loves of Thomas Guthrie Carr, Stage Mesmerist

Vintage Books, Penguin Random House Australia, North Sydney, 2017, pp 1-256 (plus notes), ISBN: 978 0 14378 554 5

Between 1865 and 1886 Thomas Guthrie Carr was rarely out of the celebrity spotlight. Known throughout the Australian and New Zealand colonies, Carr was a one-man travelling circus of many different, and eclectic ‘talents’; medical quack, mesmerist, phrenologist, electro-biologist, amputater, pamphleteer, public speaker and entertainer. His seven-foot plus frame inspired awe in some and many people avidly followed his lecture circuits and showered him with lavish praise and money. He often performed at large theatres and filled the lecture halls of mechanics’ institutes and schools of arts in towns and cities across the colonies. Yet celebrities then, as they do today, strongly divided public opinion into devoted supporters and ruthless detractors. Carr had many of these too.

Some contemporaries believed that mesmerism was nothing but a hoax, a false sham, together with hypnotism, pain-free surgery, animal magnetism and astrology which, were related ideas of whack-quackery then in vogue.  As such they regarded Carr as a complete shyster, a peddler of humbuggery and balderdash, an imposter, a charlatan and a criminal fraudster. Carr’s personal temperament did not do much to lessen this damning view of him. He could be charming and brilliantly witty, but he was also at times violent, litigious, cunning, offensively rude and ruthlessly cutting – all personal traits that perhaps well fitted his rather dubious line of work. Scandals, bankruptcies, defamation and libel cases followed him throughout his turbulent career. If Carr had lived fifty years earlier, when ‘pistols at dawn’ often settled disputes between gentlemen, he would have certainly been the sort of rogue cad to find himself embroiled in such affairs of honour.

But it was an affair of honour involving an allegation of mesmerising one Eliza Grey and then committing a rape upon her which forms the pivotal focus of Catherine Jinks’ new book Charlatan. This alleged crime and the subsequent court case which ensued, turns a remarkable and at times ‘un-make-up-able’ colonial figure and his extraordinary life and career into a thrilling piece of crime, intrigue and suspense. The author keeps the mystery tightly wrapped up until near to the end. It is a very effective hook and whilst the story ebbs and flows with Carr’s travels across colonies and different decades, the central premise is always there in the background. It is highly effective because the reader is simply enthralled to get to the bottom of the mystery. And so pages keep getting turned.

Readers are unlikely to warm to Thomas Guthrie Carr. However the story is just so brilliantly bonkers and so curious as to be utterly compelling. Jinks’ has a lovely light style of writing and throughout there is a dry, subtle humour. And yet this is also a fascinating piece of social and cultural history. It has been thoroughly researched and many leading figures of the day find their way into the colourful cast of characters. Sir William Manning, the Duke of Edinburgh and the mad Dentist of Wynyard appear, together with a supporting motley crew of dodgy mesmerists, dubious actors, duplicitous publicists and hired tricksters.

The biographical story of Thomas Guthrie Carr is certainly a remarkable one. This book provides a fascinating insight into one man’s extraordinary life but also a vividly painted snapshot into life as it was lived in colonial Australia. Quite simply it is a fabulous book indeed. It will appeal to everyone simply keen to read a great ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ story. Also recommended for readers interested in Australian history, curious eccentrics of the past and the politics and theatre of celebrity and public opinion in the late nineteenth century.

Dr Catie Gilchrist

July 2017

 

Available from all good booksellers! Click here to read an extract on the Penguin Books website.

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