A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural

Dickens constantly suspended his readers between psychological and supernatural explanations, and this exhibition goes far to explain the reasons behind the writer’s continual fascination with unexplained phenomena. With a section on his Christmas novels, A Hankering after Ghosts is an enjoyably festive, literary treat.

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“For now a vision came before him, as constant and more terrible than that from which he had escaped. Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy...the body was in its place, and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away...” (Oliver Twist)

For a long time, Charles Dickens has been closely associated with Victorian ghost stories in the public consciousness, largely as a result of the success of A Christmas Carol. However, as this new exhibition at the British Library seeks to explore; aspects of the supernatural can be found throughout his work and can be contextualised within scientific, technological and philosophical debates of his time. A Hankering after Ghosts is organised into four categories: Childhood Influences, Mesmerism, Supernatural Manifestation and Ghostly Fiction. Alongside several early editions of Dickens’ novels; there are also, letters, illustrations, posters and an abundance of fascinating contextual information about the evolving scientific theories and beliefs that prevailed in 19th century England.

We learn that Dickens’ interest in the supernatural was cultivated from a young age.  As an impressionable young boy, even his own childhood toys used to frighten him at times. Dickens had a nurse, Mary, who delighted in terrifying him with tales of the macabre, and some of her more frightening anecdotes are recalled in Nurses Stories, on display. The Arabian Nights was a favourite childhood book of Dickens and in later life he often returned to supernatural imagery found in these stories. As a teenager, Dickens read the penny weekly magazine, The Terrific Register, a sensationalist journal which covered topics such as ghosts, incest and cannibalism.

Mesmerism refers to a movement, circulating during Victorian England, which advocated the idea that every living being had a form of animal magnetism running through them, which could be manipulated via the process of mesmerism (an early form of hypnosis). We learn that Dickens experimented with mesmerism by practising it on a lady called Madame de la Rue in order to treat her nervous condition. Mesmeric theory had a noticeable effect on Dickens’ attitude to the superhuman world and in particular it convinced him of the power of the human mind.

Whilst Dickens was undoubtedly a rational man, he was always open to ideas of the supernatural circulating at the time. Dickens collected and classified ghost stories throughout his life and it has even been speculated that he was a member of The Ghost Club, a society originally formed in London in 1862 to research superhuman phenomena and one which later included the writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B.Yeats. However, we learn that Dickens’ interest in the occult, never extended as far as to embrace spiritualism, a movement he was constantly critical of throughout his career. As the Editor of two periodicals, Household Words and All The Year Round, he wrote several articles that mocked the practises of spiritualists.

By the mid 19th century, the Christmas books of Dickens had become a national institution and towards the end of his life he called on contributors to to assist him in their composition. The Haunted House (1859), written for his periodical, All The Year Round, includes contributions from prominent writers of the time, such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. The exhibition finishes on a discussion of supernatural elements in Dickens’ most famous novels; Mr. Krook’s spontaneous human combustion in Bleakhouse and Miss Haversham’s slow decay in her living tomb in Great Expectations. We learn that Dickens’ use of the supernatural is an example of the evolution of his art: as his career progressed he realised that using a ghost is not necessarily the best way to frighten people, the human psyche can be just as frightening.  

Dickens constantly suspended his readers between psychological and supernatural explanations, and this exhibition goes far to explain the reasons behind the writer’s continual fascination with unexplained phenomena. Despite the limited size of the Folio Society Gallery, there is a wealth of information to digest: A Hankering after Ghosts is an enjoyably festive, literary treat.

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’ 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.’

Venue: The Folio Society Gallery

Free exhibition

British Library

96 Euston Road
London Greater London United Kingdom NW1 2DB

Open daily
Monday 09.30-18.00
Tuesday 09.30-20.00
Wednesday 09.30-18.00
Thursday 09.30-18.00
Friday 09.30-18.00
Saturday 11.00-17.00
Sunday 11.00-17.00