Dickens developed an interest in the macabre from an early age. As an adult he was caught up in the ‘mesmeric mania’ that swept Britain and 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.
Curated by Andrea Lloyd, Curator of Printed Literary Sources (1801-1914), this richly illustrated exhibition includes such items as:
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, record 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.’
Andrea Lloyd, curator of the exhibition, comments:
“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.”
Events accompanying A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural include talks by renowned biographer, Claire Tomalin, author of Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit, John Bowen, writer and broadcaster, Brian Sibley, and interludes of bafflement out of the Victorian conjuror's box of tricks from David Weeks of The Magic Circle.
As part of the schools programme to accompany the exhibition, a series of lectures will be offered to AS and A-Level students. The lectures will support the transition from A-Level to undergraduate level, giving students a taste for university-style lectures. In accordance with feedback from teachers, the lecture series will focus more broadly on the Gothic and 19th century literature with reference to Dickens. Students will have the opportunity to explore the exhibition independently, looking at original collection items, either before or after