Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A Hankering after Ghosts: Dickens and the Supernatural

It feels somehow appropriate that A Hankering after Ghosts has taken over from the Mervyn Peake exhibition in the Folio Society space at the British Library. Given that people will possibly be sick to the back teeth with Dickens by the end of his bicentenary year in 2012, curator Andrea Lloyd has wisely got in early with this small but fascinating look at the ways in which Dickens was influenced – and influenced in turn – perceptions of the supernatural in the Victorian period. It is also a rather appropriate display for the Christmas period, given the influence of A Christmas Carol’s spectres, while demonstrating that Dickens’s fascination went far further than the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

As that book’s fame suggests, this could easily have been merely a look at the ways in which Dickens utilised supernatural themes, illustrated by his own stories. The exhibition, however, sets the author’s output in the context of contemporary debates about the relationship between the paranormal and scientific advances. Dickens was clearly torn between scepticism on the one hand and his fascination with the supernatural, not to mention its commercial potential, on the other. The resulting tension makes his forays into it all the richer.

The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first briefly examines his childhood influences, such as the horrible stories his nurse told him, and displays a copy of the fabulously-named penny dreadful The Terrific Register: or, Records of Crimes, Judgements, Providences and Calamities, which he devoured as a teenager, along with classics like The Arabian Nights. Dickens’s A Child’s Dream of a Star is shown, his tale inspired by wanderings he undertook as a child in a churchyard with his sister, who died two years before he wrote it and who reappears in the story as an angel, welcomed into Heaven.

The second section deals with mesmerism. Dickens was passionate about it, having witnessed John Elliotson’s demonstrations at University College Hospital, London, in 1838. On display are copies of Ebenezer Sibley’s A Key to the Occult; Gustavus George Zerffi’s Spiritualism and Animal Magnetism; Catherine Crowe’s classic but uncritical The Night Side of Nature (echoed in Harry Stone’s study The Night Side of Dickens), which was reviewed unfavourably by Dickens in The Examiner; and Dickens’s reading copy of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ (labelled by the curator “A contagion of hysteria”).

The influence of mesmerism can be seen in David Copperfield, where Uriah Heep has mesmeric powers. Oliver Twist has a dream in which he clairvoyantly sees Monks and Fagin plotting, one of the ‘higher phenomena’ of mesmerism in action. Unlike ghosts, Dickens saw mesmerism as having a rational basis which was amenable to scientific enquiry. He was open to debates about the power of the human mind and the ability of the will to impose itself on others, not surprising given that audiences commented on Dickens’s own mesmeric force when giving readings. This undoubted charismatic power, plus trials with his wife Catherine, sister-in-law Georgina, and selected friends, gave him the confidence to believe that he too could put subjects into a mesmeric trance.

As an indication of his abilities, Dickens claimed to have assisted A Christmas Carol illustrator John Leech recover after he suffered a head injury. A less happy outcome to another effort is indicated by a letter in the exhibition, sent by Dickens to Catherine in 1853, in which he is still trying to justify himself over his mesmeric treatment of Augusta de la Rue in Italy in 1845 (general tone: “I’m Dickens, it’s what I do”). He had treated Mrs de la Rue’s severe anxiety, which manifested in a variety of distressing physical symptoms, with good results, but with the side-effect, he said, that there developed an intense magnetism between them which allowed him to experience her emotions from afar. The time-consuming and labour-intensive nature, not to mention the intimacy, of the business naturally left Catherine jealous and cannot have helped the parlous state of the marriage.

The third section is called Supernatural Manifestations and displays a rather miscellaneous selection of publications: a a dated history of the Fox Sisters, The Unwilling Martyrs; Table Moving: its Causes and Phenomena; The Fashionable Science of Parlour Magic; and a copy of Dickens’s Household Words, open at ‘Well Authenticated Rappings’. Dickens saw belief in the supernatural having psychological or physiological causes, "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese". He was interested in allegedly true ghost stories as they offered the opportunity of providing a rational explanation for the phenomena. In ‘Well Authenticated Rappings’, published ten years after the Fox sisters made rapping popular, the phenomena turn out to be a thumping hangover rather than a thumping spirit.

He created controversy with spiritualists by questioning the validity of their beliefs, which he satirised, but his scepticism was hedged about by ambiguity. A volume of The Spiritual Magazine from 1860 on display illustrates the problem contemporaries had pigeonholing Dickens (“We can hardly believe that Mr Dickens does really disbelieve in haunted houses, nor in other phases of spiritual phenomena and operation”), his projection of scepticism undermined by common suspicions that his fascination with the subject entailed sympathy towards it, including a prediction that he would eventually embrace its creed. There is some irony to Dickens’s appearances at séances after his death, often with the purpose of explaining the rest of his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (he also assisted Thomas Power James of Vermont complete the novel through automatic writing in 1873). His ghost is supposed to haunt both Rochester and 48 Doughty Street, now home to a Dickens museum and recently seen in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (where a supposed Dickens expert refers to Edward Drood). Included for some reason in this section is a 1930 recording of Conan Doyle discussing Spiritualism.

Part of a serialisation of The Cock-Lane Ghost is shown as Dickens referred to it several times, for example at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities (along with prophetess Joanna Southcott). Dickens was said to have been a member of an early incarnation of the Ghost Club but there are no records from that period so a minute book from the successor organisation started in 1882 is included. Rather curiously there is no mention in the exhibition of Dickens’s illustrator George Cruikshank’s A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap at the ‘Spirit-Rappers’, which was actually dedicated to the Ghost Club, though Cruikshank’ name does appear on the label for Sketches by “Boz”, included in the exhibition to indicate the influence of London on Dickens’s development as a writer. Even more tenuous are a couple of examples of spirit photography from Fred Barlow’s collection, with no connection to Dickens; the label merely states “A collection of psychic photographs’, though it is nice to see The Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882) name-checked.

A book with a beautiful cover, A Wonderful Ghost Story, is labelled “Intuitive precognition” and tells the story of painter Thomas Heaphy’s odd link with Dickens. Dickens had published a story in All the Year Round which corresponded in detail to an experience that Heaphy claimed to have had and had submitted for publication. Understandably he was unhappy at seeing a similar story pre-empting his. Heaphy published his own version, subtitled Being Mr H's Own Narrative: A Recital of Facts, and including correspondence he had had with Dickens, in 1882. (The exhibition label suggests that the offending story was written by Dickens, but a letter from Dickens to Heaphy included in A Wonderful Ghost Story makes it clear that the story was from the pen of a “young writer” and sent to Dickens by “a gentleman of a distinguished position on his behalf”.)

The final section covers Dickens’s own ghostly fiction, both completely spooky tales, and such episodes in longer fictions. On display are A Christmas Carol of course, plus The Lazy Tour of Two idle Apprentices; The Chimes; The Haunted Man; The Signalman; The Ghost in Master B’s Room, in the All the Year Round Christmas number The Haunted House (inspired by a visit to a haunted house; Dickens’s aim was to show that the house was haunted certainly, but by the occupants’ imaginations, not ghosts); The Trial for Murder/To be Taken With a Grain of Salt; Pickwick Papers; To be Read at Dusk; The Lawyer and the Ghost (which asks the very good question why a ghost would choose to revisit places where they had been unhappy during life when the world was, so to speak, their oyster); the Baron of Grogzwig in Nicholas Nickleby, and the spontaneous human combustion of Krook in Bleak House.

Dickens’s talent was to draw on the Gothic for atmosphere and meld it with psychological insight, making him an heir to Ann Radcliffe, who always found a rational explanation for apparently supernatural events. He did though make the genre cosy, transferring the chills of the old ruined castle and abbey to the middle-class setting of the fireside hearth, with the notable exception of the railway tunnel, which unnerves as much as the Castle of Otranto ever did. As with Gothic literature, Dickens showed that if anything, horror generated by the living is worse than anything we might expect from the Beyond. Dickens exemplifies Terry Castle’s somewhat too general notion in The Female Thermometer that ghosts became internalised at the end of the eighteenth century, and his stories can be seen as a foundation for the ambiguity seen most dramatically in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

A Hankering after Ghosts is a small exhibition, but a tasty plum pudding worth a visit if in the neighbourhood. It is usefully supplemented by Louise Henson’s articles, ‘Investigations and Fictions: Charles Darwin and Ghosts’, and ‘”In the Natural Course of Physical Things”: Ghosts and Science in Charles Dickens’s All the Year Round’, the latter of which puts his interest in ghosts second only to that of public health reform, which is as it should be.

A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural is on at the British Library 29 November 2011 - 4 March 2012. Entrance is free.