Tuesday 7 February 2012
I wrote this article at the turn of the year, shortly after visiting the exhibition in question. I held it over until today to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, one of England’s greatest writers and most generous spirits.
I loved all of my grandparents, but father’s father was the biggest single influence in my life. He died when I was twenty, almost six years ago now. I still miss him, I miss the things we used talk about and the stories he used to tell, wonderful stories of his time in India both before and during the Second World War, stories of his life at school, stories of his Norfolk boyhood.
It was he who introduced me to the tingly pleasures of the ghost story. It’s the winter nights I remember best, cold outside, warm within, when he read aloud, fire blazing and lights dimmed (candle light was best), the tales of haunting long ago. It was by his fireside that I was introduced to the delights of Elizabeth Gaskell, Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James (really scary!), E. F. Benson and so many others. It was by his fireside that I first heard Charles Dickens’ tales of the supernatural, not just A Christmas Carol, the most famous ghost and morality fable ever written, but others like The Signalman and The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber.
Like me, Dickens was introduced to ghost stories early in life. It was the tales told in childhood that left him with a life-long hankering after ghosts, which just so happens to be the title of a rather charming little exhibition presently being held in the Folio Society Gallery in the British Library!
Scheduled to run until early March, A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural displays the author’s interest through a variety of printed media. I went not long before Christmas, which added to the general cosiness of the whole thing. So far as I am concerned the way it was laid out could not be bettered. It presents, if you like, a study in ambivalence: Dickens’s fascination with the subject, informed by his childhood influences, on the one hand, and the scepticism of a mid-Victorian rationalist, on the other.
It’s a kind of voyage in several stages, beginning with childhood, illustrations from The Arabian Nights along with a copy of The Terrific Register, a kind of penny dreadful that the writer read in his teens with lasting effect, not surprising, given the lurid nature of its content. He later recalled that it used to frighten the wits out of his head!
But he recovered them sufficiently to treat some of the more farcical Victorian obsessions, particularly with spiritualism, with amusing condescension. Apparitions and other manifestations of the supernatural could be reduced to natural causes, so he believed. In Well Authenticated Rappings, a satirical sketch published in 1858 in Household Words, an uncanny voice in the narrator’s head turns out to be no more than a thumping Boxing Day hangover. There is more of spirits than spirit about you, one is tempted to observe.
While he could mock the spiritualists, Dickens entertained his own fashionable notions, including a belief in spontaneous combustion (think of Krook in Bleak House) and, most particularly, in mesmerism. His own efforts here were to cause a slight rift with his wife Catherine, as an 1853 letter shows, after the author’s magnetism with one Augusta de la Rue appeared to her to be a little too animal!
In the end one is simply left with the ghost story as a story, all rational explanations aside. It’s not about the real or even the surreal world; it’s simply about imagination and the power of imagination. Here Dickens did so much to stimulate contemporary interest. His ghosts, it might be said, are comfortably bourgeois, no longer inhabiting Gothic piles but Victorian firesides; his apparitions are ever more fearful for appearing by the side of something as modern as the railway.
Now let me say a word or two in appreciation of John Leech, the man who created the splendid illustrations that make A Christmas Carol even more memorable. There is the manifestation of Marley, the magnificent Odin-like figure of The Ghost of Christmas Present and, the most chilling of all, The Last of the Spirits pointing to Scrooge’s doom. As an aside here I have to say that a lot of the film adaptations of A Christmas Carol hopelessly miss the point, seeing this encounter as the decisive moment. It’s not; it’s only the final part of Scrooge’s gradual redemption.
Andrea Lloyd, the curator of the exhibition, has written of its theme and purpose;
Dickens is already closely aligned with Victorian ghost stories in many people’s minds largely because of the success of A Christmas Carol. However, Dickens touches upon the supernatural in many of his other works, revealing his thoughts about unexplained phenomena, which in turn reflect the evolving scientific theories and beliefs that were prevalent in 19th century England. At this time people were debating the virtues of mesmerism and animal magnetism, getting caught up in the Spiritualism craze that arrived from America, and actively investigating and recording ghostly phenomena. By engaging with this vogue for the supernatural, and by tapping into the Victorian attraction to the macabre, Dickens created some of his finest works.
He did more than that. As G. K Chesterton once wrote, he did not strictly make a literature; he made a mythology. I thought of Dickens; I thought of the ghosts of Christmas past, not long past, my past; I thought of my beloved grandfather, to whose memory this article is dedicated.