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

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by Sandra Lawson (subscribe)
To paraphrase Dorothy: 'There is no place like London.' I hope I can convince you of that here. Also check out my blog at damselwithadulcimer.wordpress.com and my theatre reviews at www.playstosee.com
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If ever an English novelist was defined by Christmas, it has to be Charles Dickens. 'A Hankering After Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural' is an exhibition currently running at the British Library. This is the perfect time of year to learn a little about the man responsible for one of the most well known Christmas tales.

A Hankering After Ghosts
Charles Dickens


Even those who have never read A Christmas Carol are probably aware of the story and the moral behind it. This is probably also fostered by the several versions that have been made of the film over the years and that are frequently repeated on television at this time of year. However the view of Christmas portrayed in the story is not all cosy and bright as Victorian images on Christmas cards would have us believe. Dickens also depicted miserliness and grumpiness, and weaves a tale of the change that comes over a man by being presented with ghosts who take him back to his past and into the future.

A Hankering For Ghosts
Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley


A Hankering After Ghosts
Scrooge is Visited by the First Ghost


A Hankering After Ghosts
Scrooge is Visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present


The exhibition that is currently on display at the British Library examines how Dickens was influenced by current debates and beliefs on mesmerism, hysteria, hypnosis and the supernatural. It explains that the writer wasn't actually a believer in these phenomena, but tried to explain them scientifically. Many Victorians believed in spirits and attended sťances, although Dickens was sceptical. This didn't stop a group of Americans claiming that his ghost appeared to them five days after his death. Later, in 1927, Arthur Conan Doyle, believed that Dickens's spirit paid him a visit. You can listen to a recording of him talking about it as part of the exhibition.

Dickens's imagination was also fuelled by stories told him by his nursemaid, Mary. A visit paid to his sister's grave in 1848 was the basis of the short story, 'A Child's Dream of a Star'. He devoured melodramatic reports in the Terrific Register, a penny weekly magazine that related stories about cannibalism, ghosts and murder. In later life when he edited the magazines Household Words and All the Year Round, he entered into debates with spiritualists, but also encouraged and published Christmas ghost stories.

A Hankering After Ghosts
The Charles Dickens Coffee House at 26 Wellington Street. He lodged above here and edited All the Year Round in the 1860s


I recommend a visit to this exhibition in the Folio Society Gallery at the British Library. It costs nothing, and is appropriate to our love of ghost stories at Christmas. You will be able to read commentaries on extracts from Dickens's works, as well as seeing early editions of some of his books. You can also listen to a 1960 short audio recording from A Christmas Carol. To quote the writer's friend, John Forster 'Among his good things should not be omitted the telling of a ghost story. He had something of a hankering after them...' Let's all gather round a cosy fire and tell ghost stories in the best tradition of this master story teller.

You can find more information on the website. This also ties in with the general celebrations of Dickens's bicentenary next year, as referred to in my earlier review
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Why? To celebrate and learn about Charles Dickens
When: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 09.30 - 18.00, Tuesday 09.30 - 20.00, Saturday 09.30 - 17.00, Sundays and Public Holidays 11.00 - 17.00
Where: The British Library
Cost: Free
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