A new exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum entitled To Be Read At Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts & the Supernatural celebrates Dickens’s interest in the paranormal. Opening in time for Halloween, the exhibition runs from 5 October 2022 – 19 February 2023 at 48 Doughty Street, Holborn, the home of Dickens and his family in the late 1830s.
Charles Dickens wrote twenty ghost stories throughout his life, published from 1836 onwards. From A Christmas Carol to The Signal Man, to elements of Bleak House and Nicholas Nickleby, as well as The Chimes and The Trial for Murder.
The exhibition brings together a collection of objects, posters, letters and books to reveal just how much Dickens enjoyed creating eerie scenes, disturbing characters and building tension to toy with the emotions of his audiences. It will be accompanied by a new programme of events, including after-hours house tours, as well as haunting soundscapes in Dickens’s home.
Among the highlights of the exhibition:
The first public display of a letter from Dickens to his spiritually-minded acquaintance, William Howitt, in which Dickens asks whether Howitt can suggest a haunted house that his friend might visit. On 31 October 1859, Dickens writes to Howitt about ghosts and asks whether he knows of “any haunted house whatsoever within the limits of the United Kingdom where nobody can live, eat, drink, sit, stand, lie or sleep without sleep-molestation” as he has a friend ready to pit himself against it.
Charles Dickens’s own copy of The Haunted Man, his 1848 ghost story. Dickens physically altered copies of his books for his public readings, adding stage directions and, in this edition, uses different coloured inks to indicate deletions, express emotions and emphasise emotive words.
The first depiction of the four ghosts from A Christmas Carol. Pencil sketches by Dickens’s illustrator, John Leech, which were used in preparation of the full colour illustrations that featured in the first edition of the book in December 1843. While Dickens was undeniably fascinated by the notion of ghosts and hauntings, he was certainly skeptical, becoming more so as he grew older. The skepticism finds its way into A Christmas Carol, as illustrated by this passage:
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.
“I don’t,” said Scrooge.
“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”
“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.
“Why do you doubt your senses?”
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.”
The power of Dickens’s ‘in person’ performances of his tales was notorious, and he enjoyed evoking emotions in his live audiences, as well as his readers, with ghostly stories. He performed his ghost-laden A Christmas Carol reading 127 times and, after writing another Christmas book, The Chimes, gathered a crowd so he could test out the effects of the book.
Dickens was a lifelong admirer of ghostly fiction and influenced many who followed him, including Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. As a boy, Charles Dickens read the weekly horror magazine, The Terrific Register, later admitting that it had “frightened my very wits out of my head.” It is possible that its weekly publication influenced the way that Dickens marketed his own work, releasing his books in serial format. When he became an editor, a popular feature of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round was the special Christmas number, which included, at various times, ghost stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Charles Collins, and Amelia B. Edwards.
Exhibition and Museum Information
To Be Read At Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts & the Supernatural
The Charles Dickens Museum, 48-49 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX
Dates: 5 October 2022 – 19 February 2023.
Opening hours: 10am to 5pm, Wednesday – Sunday (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
For more information or to book tickets, visit the Charles Dickens Museum website here
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