sat 13/07/2024

A Hankering after Ghosts, Dickens and the Supernatural, British Library | reviews, news & interviews

A Hankering after Ghosts, Dickens and the Supernatural, British Library

A Hankering after Ghosts, Dickens and the Supernatural, British Library

Dickens's ghosts haunt us, but their spirit is absent from the British Library

Oliver Twist dreams of Fagin and Monks: George Cruikshank's 1838 illustrationAll photos © British Library Board

Well, if you haven’t yet realised that 2012 is Dickens Central, there’s no hope for you. The 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth is still two months away, but Claire Tomalin’s biography has scampered out of the starting gate already, as has Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s more scholarly Becoming Dickens. The Beeb is ready with a Great Expectations film this Christmas, and more adaptations to follow. The Museum of London has a Dickens and London exhibition opening on 9 December.

(Full disclosure: I am involved with some/many of these things, and my own book – trumpet tootle – on Dickens and London will be out next year.)

So this small exhibition in the British Library’s foyer is really just a toe dipped in the water. Dickens is, today, most famous perhaps for Oliver Twist and for A Christmas Carol, with the latter having particularly high recognition from its many film and television adaptations. (I'm a fan of A Muppet Christmas Carol, although I discover that not only is there a Flintstone version, but also one featuring the Smurfs.) (Scrooge visited by Marley's ghost, pictured above.) Given this overload, the Library has, perhaps sensibly, taken only a small corner of what A Christmas Carol represents: Dickens and the supernatural.

Dickens was, very firmly and loudly, a non-believer in ghosts, spirits, table-rapping, séances and things that go bump in the night. He did, however, give credence to mesmerism (the older name for hypnotism), thinking it rooted in science. He even thought he had mesmeric power himself (and with a looser, metaphorical use of the word, his personal charisma very obviously made him mesmeric in person), practising on the wife of a friend in Italy, to his own wife’s great distress. (Pictured left, the letter Dickens wrote to her raking up the event years later, as their marriage disintegrated.) There is also a splendid Punch cartoon of John Elliotson, the doctor who promoted mesmerism, where he looks remarkably like a hairdresser suggesting a trim to his woman patient.

But Dickens also used mesmerism in his most famous novel. When Oliver Twist falls asleep (main picture, above), he “dreams” he somehow mystically can see his enemies Monks and Fagin plotting, as they truly are: Dickens believed that mesmerism gave a level of clairvoyance, and this, he thought, was the rational explanation to the idea of ghosts, which otherwise he dismissed. 

But even as he spent much of his journalistic life mocking the credulous and writing, or commissioning, debunking pieces, he also wrote a number of stories that utilised ghosts and spirits. What this exhibition fails to take into account, however, is that Dickens’s greatness lay in knowing it is our own minds, our own fears, that are the “ghosts” – it is what we do to ourselves, and to others, that is the real torment. Dickens was far greater than this little glimpse of a show allows. That ghost should be allowed to rest in peace.


Did Judith visit the same exhibition as I did earlier today, or was her visit cut short before she had a chance to see the 'Ghostly Tales' section? One of the labels includes a line explicitly stating that an aim of Dickens was to show that people were haunted by their own imaginations and memories. Even if you ignore this direct reference surely the fact that one of our greatest fiction writers so readily employed the supernatural is testament to the fact that he knew his readers' imaginations and fears – both real and unreal – would do the rest. This is surely the overarching theme of the exhibition. How explicitly does it need to be stated?

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