Charles Dickens sought house where he would meet a real ghost

Exhibition in London will explore the author’s lifelong fascination with the paranormal

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The kitchen at 48 Doughty Street, now the Charles Dickens Museum, and a portrait of the author. Photograph: Alamy, Siobhan Doran

The kitchen at 48 Doughty Street, now the Charles Dickens Museum, and a portrait of the author. Photograph: Alamy, Siobhan Doran

For many people, a haunted house is a place to avoid. But in 1859, Charles Dickens was actively seeking a place where he might be “molested” by a ghost.

Dickens had a lifelong fascination with the paranormal – an interest reflected in the inclusion of spirits, spectres and phantoms in his stories. From October, it will be the subject of an exhibition at the house in central London where the author and his family lived in the late 1830s, now the Charles Dickens Museum.

Among the exhibits is a letter, never displayed before, from the author to William Howitt. Dickens asks whether the spiritualist and fellow writer can suggest “any haunted house whatsoever within the limits of the United Kingdom where nobody can live, eat, drink, stand, lie or sleep without sleep-molestation” that he and his friend John Hollingshead might visit.

The entrance to the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London WC1.
The entrance to the Charles Dickens Museum. Photograph: siobhandoran.com

Howitt recommends an inn in Holborn, which Hollingshead visited only to find it a “tumbledown pothouse … only haunted by the claims of brewers and distillers”. Another apparently haunted house in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, visited by Dickens, Hollingshead and the novelist Wilkie Collins, turned out not even to exist. The trio of ghosthunters had to settle for a good lunch instead, said Emily Dunbar, the exhibition’s curator.

These disappointments did not dent Dickens’s interest in the supernatural, which began when he was a child. His nursemaid, Mercy, told him ghost stories, and he avidly read the weekly horror magazine The Terrific Register, later admitting that it had “frightened my very wits out of my head”.

Dunbar said: “He was fascinated, but we like to term him a fascinated sceptic. Although he was really interested in ghosts, I wouldn’t say he really believed in their existence. But he loved the idea of people being scared of ghost stories.”

After Dickens’s death in 1870, his friend and biographer John Forster wrote that the author had a “hankering after ghosts” and would have “fallen into the follies of spiritualism” had it not been for the “strong restraining power of his common sense”.

His works include 20 books and stories featuring ghostly apparitions, including A Christmas Carol, The Pickwick Papers, The Signal Man and The Haunted Man. He enjoyed his public performances of his ghostly stories, boasting in a letter to his wife, Catherine, of one listener “undisguisedly sobbing, and crying on the sofa, as I read”.

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Charles Dickens’ reading copy of The Haunted Man. Photograph: Charles Dickens Museum

There was undoubtedly an element of giving readers what they wanted, said Dunbar. “Dickens was a businessman. He knew exactly what he was doing. He liked to be close to his audience. He was in touch with the popular culture of the time, and played into that.”

The exhibition includes Dickens’s own, annotated copy of The Haunted Man that he read from during public performances. Different coloured inks indicate deletions and emphasise emotive passages. Objects, posters, letters and books will illustrate Dickens’s understanding of the power of the supernatural.

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The Victorians’ fascination with ghosts and spirits had endured, said Dunbar. In research for the exhibition, the museum found that “more people believe in ghosts than you’d think – especially when you widen out it to things that can’t necessarily be explained.

“If someone has a ghost story, most people are really interested in hearing it, even if they then want to pick it apart. It’s a talking point, and we haven’t really lost that.”

To Be Read At Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural opens at the Charles Dickens Museum in central London on 5 October.

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