“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.
Dickens and Ghosts, at British Library

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.