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A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens
and the Supernatural

‘Among his good things should not be omitted his telling of a ghost story. He had something of a hankering after them……’

John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens

 

 
The Last of the Spirits
Ebenezer Scrooge visited by the last ghost
 Scrooge's third Visitor
Ebenezer Scrooge visited by a ghost

 

To mark the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, this exhibition explores the many ways in which Dickens used supernatural phenomena in his works, while placing them in the context of scientific, technological and philosophical debates of his time. Dickens’s interest in the macabre was apparent from an early age. As an adult he was caught up in ‘mesmeric mania’ that swept Britain and developed an interest in the ‘power of the human mind’. He believed that all supernatural manifestations must have rational explanations, but his investigations into animal magnetism and psychology showed him that science could be as chilling as any ghost story. As a result he became wonderfully adept at suspending readers between psychological and supernatural explanations in his fiction.

  

The exhibition includes:-

  • A letter from Charles Dickens to his wife, Catherine (1853) – this letter alludes to a marital disagreement that arose after Catherine became jealous of the close attention her husband was paying to a lady named Augusta de la Rue. Dickens used mesmerism to treat her nervous condition after he learnt how to mesmerise people himself.
  • ‘Well authenticated rappings’ in Household Words (1858) – Dickens had an ongoing dispute with the 19th-century Spiritualists after he mocked them in several articles in Household Words and All the Year Round. In ‘Well authenticated rappings’ he questions the motivation of spirits who would return to make general idiots of themselves by conveying inane messages full of spelling mistakes.
  • The Terrific Register: or, records of crimes, judgements, providences and calamities (1821) – Dickens was greatly affected by the things he read in his youth. One of the teenage Dickens’s favourite reads was The Terrific Register a penny weekly magazine which covered such topics as murder, ghosts, incest and cannibalism. He claimed the stories ‘frightened the very wits out of [his] head’.

Free exhibition

Venue: The Folio Society Gallery

See also on our Learning website:

  • Dickens in Context: View rich original source material online to explore the social and historical context in which Dickens was writing

Includes video of performances by Simon Callow

See images from the exhibition on our  Facebook pages

 

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