A Hankering After Ghosts: British Library's Charles Dickens and the Supernatural

By Jenni Davidson | 06 December 2011
A black and white picture of an old man sitting in a chair by a fire with a ghost in the room.
Ebenezer Scrooge visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley
© British Library Board
Exhibition: A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural, British Library, London, until March 4 2012

According to his biographer John Forster, Charles Dickens loved a good ghost story. Indeed, Forster says, he had "something of a hankering after them".

Of course, we already associate Dickens with ghosts thanks to A Christmas Carol, but his more general interest in the supernatural is less well known.

Dickens enjoyed scary stories from a young age and read The Terrific Register as a teenager, a penny weekly magazine featuring macabre tales of murder, incest, ghosts and cannibalism. Elements of the supernatural appear in a number of his works.

A picture of Ebenezer Scrooge kneeling on a grave with his own name on it and a ghost dressed in a black cloak looking over him.
Ebenezer Scrooge visited by the last ghost© British Library Board
Now the British Library has put together an exhibition examining Dickens' interest in the otherworldly to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens birth in 2012, looking at how he used the supernatural in his works and set it in the context of the scientific and philosophical thoughts of the time.

Victorian England had a fascination with mortality, death and the macabre. Spiritualism had reached 19th century England from America and people were interested in ghostly activity. But along with this fascination for the dark and unexplained, there was also a growth in science and a new understanding of how the mind worked.

Dickens himself believed that all supernatural phenomena must have rational explanations and he was interested in psychology and animal magnetism or "mesmerism" - a popular practice in the 19th century of inducing a trance-like state, similar to hypnosis, by waving hands over the body.

Among the items in the exhibition is a letter from Dickens to his wife referring to a disagreement they had had over a lady he had been treating for a nervous disorder with mesmerism and an article called "well authenticated rappings", in which Dickens makes fun of spiritualists for believing that spirits would waste their time conveying pointless messages full of mistakes.

A programme of events to accompany the exhibition will include talks by the well-known biographer, Claire Tomalin, author of Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit, writer and broadcaster, John Bowen, and Victorian magic tricks from David Weeks of The Magic Circle.

There is also a lecture series for schools on Gothic and 19th century literature in relation to Dickens.

Open 10am-6pm (8pm Tuesday, 5pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday). Admission free.
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