Charles Dickens Day Part II: Haunted Dickens: Mesmerism, Spiritualism & ‘Enjoyable Nightmares’

By Romany Reagan 

Noises? I myself have sat in the dismal parlour listening, until I have heard so many and strange noises that they would have chilled my blood if I had not warmed it by dashing out to make discoveries. Try this in bed, in the dead of the night; try this at your own comfortable fireside, in the life of the night. You can fill any house with noises, if you will, until you have a noise for every nerve in your nervous system.

—Charles Dickens, Haunted House

In honour of Charles Dickens Day, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death on 9 June 2020, I’m dedicating both last week’s and this week’s posts to one of my favourite storytellers. For this week, I’ll delve deeper into the meaning behind Dickens’s ghosts.

Did you know that Charles Dickens had an enduring obsession with Mesmerism? It’s so strange when you start to dig into it, because you can begin to see how this belief informed his conception and presentation of ghosts and the supernatural within his stories. The themes that Dickens addresses most famously in his writing are the state of Victorian society and its treatment of the poor; but his ideas about the workings of the mind come through in his writing when you start to see his characters and their hauntings through the lens of his mesmeric philosophy. 

Even more curious still, is Dickens’s rejection of Spiritualism; even though he had what his good friend and biographer John Forster called ‘a hankering after ghosts’. Not that Dickens exactly believed in ghosts—but he was intrigued by our belief in them. Within this paradox lies the possibility of ghosts, but also the continuation of the mesmeric idea that actually these could be ghostly experiences of the mind. Despite his views on ghosts one way or the other, Dickens’s popular journals helped establish the Christmas ghost story as a tradition.

Science & Magical Thinking in the 19th Century

The 19th century was an era that saw an explosion of ingenuity. From the Industrial Revolution to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it was a time of massive upheaval in both the way people thought and lived. We can look back today, with the benefit of subsequent 20th-century research, to see clearly what was ‘good science’ and what was ‘good theatre’—but at the time, it wasn’t so easy to differentiate between the two. 

Parlour magic manual, John Henry Anderson, 1855

It has often been noted that the Victorian era was a time of the demotion of the Church and an elevation of secular thought; a time when the disciplines and institutions of modern science were founded and cultural authority shifted from the traditional authority of religion to scientific explanation of natural laws. But breaking away from the established Church didn’t mean that everyone suddenly held a scientifically sound secular outlook. Darwin shook up the established Christian narrative, however science and magical thinking were still deeply intertwined. 

The trial of ‘Dr.’ Henry Slade in 1876, a medium who claimed to have spirits write on slates, a trial which threw the popular spiritualist movement into doubt. Such investigations led to Psychical Research, but also cast doubt on the worth of the discipline.

Developments in both the physical and life sciences lured a few prominent scientists into an investigation of Spiritualism. Spiritualism attracted all members of society, including some quite prominent intellectuals. These scientists were not charlatans or showmen—they included fellows of the Royal Society and Nobel Prize winners who supported the Society for Psychical Research.

Investigation of the mind from a biological point of view was in its early stages. Psychical research had the potential to contribute to a new science of the mind. Modern psychology actually owes much to the early days of psychical research. Rather than being regarded as a pseudoscience, the interest in Spiritualism and psychic research reflected the cultural and intellectual concerns of the time and illustrates the difficulty in drawing sharp lines between ‘hard’ science and ‘marginal’ science. 

At a time when scientific study seemingly every day offered up new discoveries—some of which were very real and exciting—the general public and scientific luminaries alike were open to every new discovery offering insight into the human condition, even those that we see today as quaint or far-fetched. 

[The Victorian era] was a golden age of belief in supernatural forces and energies, ghost stories, weird transmissions, and spooky phenomena. […] Every scientific and technological advance encouraged a kind of magical thinking and was accompanied by a shadow discourse of the occult. For every disenchantment there was an active re-enchantment of the world. Because the advances in science were so rapid, the natural and the supernatural often became blurred in popular thinking, at least for a time. And no area of the literary culture of the Victorians was left untouched by this interplay of science and magic. (Luckhurst 2014) 

Spiritualism and Mesmerism seem to come from the same pseudoscientific school, but there were marked differences and rivalries between them. Mesmerism was the study or practice of an invisible natural force within living beings that could affect other living beings—spiritualism focuses, rather, on the existence and possible powers of non-living beings—in other words, spirits. 

Dickens & Mesmerism 

A Key to Physic and the Occult Sciences, Ebenezer Sibly, 1800

Although originally an 18th-century French craze, Mesmerism enjoyed a Victorian revival in the 1830s. University College Hospital founder and professor of practical medicine, Dr John Elliotson, was a firm believer in Mesmerism for medical treatment. And while Elliotson was a celebrated physician who, among other things, was the first in Britain to use and promote the stethoscope, he was forever overshadowed by the scandal of Mesmerism, for which he was fired from UCH and relegated to the fringes of the scientific community.

One of Elliotson’s biggest defenders was Charles Dickens, who believed himself to also be an expert Mesmerist.The friendship between Elliotson and Dickens was created through their shared interest in mesmeric phenomena, in fact it was through Elliotson that Dickens had his first encounter with Mesmerism. On 24 November 1838, Charles Dickens sent a note to George Cruikshank to invite him to accompany him to John Elliotson’s mesmeric experimentations: 

‘Elliotson has written to me to go and see some experiments on Okey at his house at 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon.’

—Charles Dickens to George Cruikshank, 1838 

Elliotson began using the mesmeric trance to treat patients in 1837, and in 1838 started to conduct his experiments with mesmerism in the form of public displays:

Elliotson relied upon the spectacular powers demonstrated in particular by two patients in the hospital, Elizabeth O’Key and her sister Jane. Extraordinary scenes began to unfold in the hospital, which were witnessed by considerable groups of people and reported in detail in The Lancet. Alison Winter has explicated this epistemological tussle that seemed to be taking place in these demonstrations, with Elliotson trying to explicate and demonstrate the physical laws governing Mesmerism, and the sisters taking the opportunity to display mischievous irreverence to authority and to lay claim to supernatural and clairvoyant powers, telling the future, reading books with their stomachs or the backs of their hands. The most obviously symbolic challenge to medical-scientific authority came when Elizabeth O’Key started to claim medical powers for herself, claiming to be able to see the figure of ‘Big Jacky’ (Death) hovering over one of the patients in the hospital, who, obediently terrified, duly expired. (Connor 2010)

Today, the idea of holding medical experiments in front of an entertained public would be considered comically unprofessional, but this was also the era of the surgical theatre, which performed surgeries on patients that were open to the ticket-holding public. The line between scientific inquiry and public event was blurred. However, these mesmeric displays were one step too far for University College Hospital, even in the Victorian era. Elliotson’s experiments with the O’Key sisters finally came to a head at the house of Thomas Wakley, the editor of The Lancet, “who had by now become a fierce opponent of Mesmerism and tricked the O’Key sisters into revealing their fakery. Elliotson was forced to resign his position”. (Connor 2010) Despite this dramatic fall from respectability, Dickens had become very close to John Elliotson, supporting him through the bitter scandal and remaining a friend thereafter.

Title page of pamphlet published by E Hancock, 1842

Far from retreating from public life and changing his alternative scientific views, Elliotson seemed to double down on his beliefs when he founded the journal The Zoist in 1843.

In this journal, Elliotson further explored mesmeric phenomena now in a strange combination with phrenology that Elliotson called ‘phrenomesmerism’. He forged a link between mesmerism and phrenology in order to—ironically—put mesmerism on the sound footing of material science, but it was this very association that led Mesmerism down the road of pop science theatre held in less orthodox institutions like open public lecture halls and roadside shows.

1843 cartoon in Punch depicting John Elliotson playing the head of a mesmerised woman like a piano

Dickens learned mesmeric technique from Elliotson and began by experimenting on his wife Catharine (lucky her) in Pittsburgh, PA in March 1842. When he returned to England later that year, he began experimenting on other members of family and friends (joy for all). But it wasn’t until 1845 that he began to study mesmeric forces in true earnest. After the completion of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens was travelling in Genoa, Italy when he took up the project of experimenting on Augusta de la Rue, the English-born wife of a Swiss banker. Madame de la Rue had suffered for some years from one of those generalised and unnameable clusters of symptoms on which mesmerism was so often brought to bear—in her case, headaches, insomnia, tics, convulsions. He felt that he was becoming quite adept at mesmeric technique. “Dickens’s firsthand experience of the mysterious powers of the mind displayed during Mme de la Rue’s illness and the mesmeric treatment he applied made a deep impression upon him and coloured his subsequent attitude to ghosts.” (Henson 47) 

Although Dickens’s clinical deployment of the science [of Mesmerism] substantiated his credence in its therapeutic possibilities, his final and unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) explores the malevolent mesmerist, John Jasper, who penetrates Rosa Bud’s mind to impose his sexual desire. The incomplete novel is Dickens’s finest exposition of altered states of consciousness in which Mesmerism’s potential remains undisclosed, anticipating the science’s ambiguous position in medicine and fiction in the 19th century. (Willis, Wynne 2)

While this dedication to Mesmerism might lead one to think Dickens had an open mind to the esoteric, it wouldn’t be an entirely accurate assessment. “Dickens’s interest in Mesmerism was largely therapeutic, and decidedly non-spiritual, and he shared John Elliotson’s phrenological interest in the material configurations of the body and mind.” (Henson 50) The idea behind Mesmerism that struck Dickens was its (supposed) link with material science. Ideas belonging to Spiritualism, however, he did not take seriously. And it’s interesting to think of this remembering that he was arguably the literary father of the Victorian ghost story—most famously of course, as the author of A Christmas Carol, that ‘enjoyable nightmare’, as Chesterton calls it.

Dickens & Ghosts

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

—Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol

‘Marley’s Ghost’, A Christmas Carol first edition, 1843

Dickens had a central role in the development of the Victorian ghost story. While his Christmas Books of the 1840s forged the cultural association of ghosts with Christmas, his “passion for collecting and classifying ghost stories was given greater focus after 1850 when he launched Household Words. The staff journalists echoed Dickens’s opinions on ghostly matters. There was always a place for the well-authenticated ghost story, but Dickens’s opinions about such things as mesmeric clairvoyance were apparent in the writings of others, particularly Henry Morley and W.H. Wills, and were reflected in articles which discussed a range of sympathetic mental phenomena and warned against uncritically attributing such phenomena to the manifestation of ghosts.” (Henson 53) Hidden behind Scrooge’s “undigested bit of beef” statement in A Christmas Carol lies an entire belief system in core causes of supernatural phenomenon that Charles Dickens held. 

The visionary sequences commence as the protagonists sit by the fire meditating upon the day’s events and subsequently undergo a change of consciousness, suggestive of magnetic sleep. In A Christmas Carol, the visionary sequence revolves around Scrooge’s memories of Marley on Christmas Eve, the anniversary of his death. The two men ‘had been kindred spirits’; Marley’s name still shows above the warehouse door, Scrooge still answers to it and lives in the apartments of his deceased partner. The traces of Marley still around him, his hallucinatory vision of a face in the door-knocker, and the ideas and emotions triggered by the Christmas season, stimulate the ideational content of Scrooge’s visions. (Henson 48)  

With the founding of the journal All the Year Round in 1859, Dickens further attempted to normalise the extraordinary powers of the mind. Drawing on the material science links he saw between the powers of the mind and supernatural phenomena, the stories that he and his journalists gathered for All the Year Round upheld the theory that ghostly experiences could be attributed to the workings of the mind. “The ‘thought-impressing’ hypothesis substituted the agency of the supernatural with a theory of ‘moral electricity’, similar in its conception to the mesmeric rapport between individuals, for its basic premise was that man has on man an influence, emanating from the mind, and from peculiar states of cerebral excitement; an influence which may, occasionally, touch the springs of consciousness within another’s brain.” (Henson 53-54) These kinds of experiences, the theory goes, could be caused by electrical impulses—that the power of the mind of one individual could impress itself on another using the same theories that led to the development of the telegraph. And in fact, the concept of ‘telegraphic motions’ of the human brain was part of burgeoning psychological theory and mental philosophies of the 1850s. 

From his popular Christmas ghost story anthology Haunted House—the first Christmas story for All the Year Round—all of the ghosts in the stories collected for the piece, written by himself and five other popular authors, can be traced back to psychological origin. So while there is a flair for the supernatural in the ghostly tales, it might be the supernatural of telepathy or of unexplained mental phenomena, not necessarily the wandering souls of the dead. 

Dickens & the Supernatural

There is an interesting link between what Dickens saw as the scientific basis of Mesmerism and the scientific aspects of Spiritualism: notably the concept of magical technologies. This is the one aspect of Spiritualism that did interest Dickens, although for him these technologies were not to reach ‘beyond the veil’ but rather to reach deeper into the possibilities of the living mind.

As addressed at the beginning of this piece, the Victorian era was a time when all technologies were quite magical. The telegraph was invented in 1838; electric light was invented in 1879. It is not miles away to make the cognitive leap to think if invisible forces could bring us communication with each other across miles and bring invisible flowing forces into devices to create light, what else might be able to travel along these invisible flowing lines linking people and objects separated by distance—maybe even by death? Perhaps Dickens wasn’t ready to make that leap, but many men of science were converts to Spiritualism, most famously the evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace, partly because Spiritualism was consistently figured in terms of new magical technologies like the telegraph or telephone. 

The Signalman, Bleak December Players, audiobook, 2018, artwork by Sam Heimer

Dickens’s last ghost story for All the Year Round, and perhaps his most enduring tale after A Christmas Carol, is the 1866 Christmas ghost story ‘No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman’. The story blends several aspects of ghostly encounter into one tale: spectral illusion, clairvoyance and psychic sympathy, and notions of suggestion and expectation. 

Dickens’s sensitive exploration of the psychology of ghost-seeing, and his startling juxtaposition of the signs and signals of spectral communicants with those of an advanced technology, disorientate the interpretive strategy of the narrator, which oscillates between an understanding of these apparitions as cognitive delusion on the part of the Signalman, and an acceptance of real supernatural intervention. This ambiguity helps to maintain the complexity of the narrative, as the narrator cannot quite allow himself to believe the Signalman, nor to dismiss his story as that of a madman. The confusion that the text evokes reflects that experienced by many contemporaries who attempted to define the boundary between madness and sanity in questions of the uncanny and the marvellous. (Henson 57) 

‘The Signalman’ is, arguably, the pinnacle of a Victorian urban ghost story. It addresses the mix of thrill and distrust with which people greeted the rush of technological advancements that came fast and thick at the time. In Britain, the telegraph was an integral part of the expanding railways, and the ring of the electric bell had particular associations for the popular mind. Frederick Knight Hunt observed that: “The greater part of the dispatches sent by this wonderful invention in England relate, we believe, to occasions of disaster and surprise.” It’s no wonder then that a mode of transport reliant on this very technology would carry with it the heightened emotional associations with the telegraph in private life. 

‘The Signalman’ also introduces a new environment for ghostly horror: a modern railway line. Taking the supernatural out of the realm of the shadowed country manor house and placing it firming in the rational working day shakes up expectations of where we might find ghostly terror. And yet, the Signalman isn’t in a bustling station, he is a lone worker isolated from his co-workers in a signal box in a damp embankment faced with the gaping black hole of a tunnel. His job should have every aspect of modernity about it, and yet there is something dark and isolated about his post. In this way, the story brings the essence of the shadowed country manor into his railway isolation. 

The ‘Authenticated’ Ghost Story

Dickens’s second journal All the Year Round carried many more ghost stories and articles about ghosts than his first journal Household Words had done. The cynical perspective here could be that Dickens was merely responding to the public’s ravenous desire for all things ghostly and he knew that ghost stories would sell. However, I think it could equally be argued that it was the era’s passion for Spiritualism that simply led to a glut of content on the subject. There was just so much out there to publish. 

Dickens’s journalism and fiction reveal how broadly the subject of ghosts was defined in the early Victorian period. In Household Words and All the Year Round, under misleading titles referring to ‘ghosts’ there are to be found articles that promote naturalistic concepts of mind, and explanations of the nature of optical delusions and the aetiological causes and apparitions, as well as articles that treat clairvoyance and sympathetic phenomena within a worldview inseparable from the growth of communication technologies. Dickens’s position in the ghost controversy can thus be identified as a naturalistic one, although the explanations he endorsed rely on occult as well as known physical forces. Dickens’s writings, those of his associates, and his adversaries, moreover, reveal how complex ideas and debates about the nature and origins of ghosts were before 1860. […] The pre-1850 corpus of literature about apparitions, and the spiritual and non-spiritual uses of Mesmerism, are important contexts for the early Victorian ghost story. But indicating the terms upon which the cultures of supernatural belief and non-belief were taking shape before 1850, these contexts can offer new insights into the work of such figures as Dickens, from whom authentic ghost stories and Spiritualism were very different phenomena. (Henson 61)

A ghostly 19th-century story illustration by FS Coburn

The Victorian ghost story occupied a unique position in society because it at once featured as a popular form of entertainment, while at the same time being cause for genuine religious, philosophical, and scientific debate and investigation. Any journal worth its salt would want to weigh in with such fertile stuff ripe for publication—and Dickens delivered. Some of the most celebrated ghost story writers of the day came under his editorial direction, including Wilkie Collins, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Sheridan La Fanu. 

It wasn’t all just gothic camp and grey ladies though. The fictional ghost stories chosen for the journal had to be original, not just the repurposing of an old legend. And the stories presented as firshand factual narratives came under the same rigorous scrutiny. One way of sidestepping active endorsement of any firsthand ghostly encounters was to publish the sort of caveat that we’re all quite familiar with today, with an introduction to the stories offering “no theory of our own towards an explanation of any part of this remarkable narrative…”, reminding us of today’s “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental”. However, this didn’t save Dickens from becoming seen as an accidental advocate for Spiritualist belief—which given his staunch feelings against it, is rather amusing. 

Dickens’s willingness to circulate unexplained ghostly encounters was seized upon by the Spiritual Magazine as a means of attacking his integrity, and he was accused of secretly endorsing Spiritualism. Modern scholars have also perceived apparent inconsistencies in the way that All the Year Round strongly endorsed scientific explanations for ghosts, at the same time as retelling the most sensational ghost stories. Dickens, it must always be acknowledged, was ever ready to exploit the popular appeal of the ghost story. Yet, quite apart from this, the combination of rationalism and anecdote to be found in All the Year Round was a convention which appeared not only in credulous treatises in favour of ghosts, but also in the medical and scientific writings of such sceptics as Samuel Hibbert. The accumulation of ghost stories, however sensational, was as important to many contemporaries as the theories that were circulated to explain them. Dickens’s own ghost story, ‘To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt’ takes up this point, and attributes the mystery shrouding ‘psychological experiences’ ‘of a strange sort’ to individuals’ hesitancy in recounting them. (Henson 60)

Despite the need for perceived authenticity of the ghost story, for it to be popular there needs also to be something familiar and prescribed about it as well. It is the very comfort of the established tropes that makes its nightmares enjoyable. One other attribute required is brevity. “‘Our modern attraction to short stories’, writes Chesterton in his 1906 study of Dickens, ‘is not an accident of form; it is the sign of a real sense of fleetingness and fragility; it means that existence is only an impression, and, perhaps, only an illusion.’ The natural habitat of the ghost would seem in this light to be the short story, the domain of the glimpse, of the fleeting impression. We might think of Poe’s insistence on the need to make the ‘tale of terror’ short enough to be devoured in a single sitting, but see it now as a writerly privileging of textual restraint: as Poe sensed, in other words, only a strategic lack of narrative signifiers, not their excessive proliferation, will allow the literary spectre to show itself. (Thurston 52) 

The genius in what Dickens created with his annual Christmas ghost stories was what Chesterton calls ‘the kinship between gaiety and the grotesque’. It was with this very strange combination that he became a ‘prophet of the hearth’. With the cosy family tableau of telling tales around the roaring home fire, which contained such spine-tingling delights, he tapped into a now commonly acknowledged source of ‘cosy’: the amplification of one’s own sense of warmth and safety juxtaposed against cold and danger elsewhere. Within the iconic middle-class Victorian Christmas ideal was one little unheimlich gift in the Christmas bag, heightening the joy and warmth of all the rest.

I have always had a strong interest in the subject [of ghosts], and never knowingly lose an opportunity of pursuing it. But I think the testimony which I cannot cross-examine sufficiently loose to justify me in requiring to see and hear the modern witnesses with my own senses, and then to be reasonably sure that they were not suffering under a disordered condition of the nerves or senses, which is known to be a common disease of many phases. Don’t suppose that I am so bold and arrogant as to settle what can and what cannot be, after death. The truth is not so at all.

— Charles Dickens to William Howitt, 6 September, 1859

Sources and further reading…

Bell, Katie, Dickens After Dickens, (York: White Rose University Press) 2020. Book.

Connor, S. ‘All I Believed Is True: Dickens Under the Influence’, Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 19:10, 2010. Journal. https://19.bbk.ac.uk/article/id/1521/

Henson, Louise, ‘Investigations and fictions: Charles Dickens and ghosts’, Bown, Nicola; Burdett, Carolyn; Thurschwell, Pamela (editors), The Victorian Supernatural (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2004. Book. 

Luckhurst, Roger, ‘The Victorian supernatural’, British Library Articles ‘Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians’, 15 May 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural

Mullen, John, ‘Ghosts in A Christmas Carol’, British Library Articles ‘Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians’, 14 May 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/ghosts-in-a-christmas-carol

Thurston, Luke, Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval (Abingdon: Routledge) 2012. Book. 

Willis, Martin; Wynne, Catherine (editors), Victorian Literary Mesmerism, (Amsterdam: Costerus New Series) 2006. Book.

One thought on “Charles Dickens Day Part II: Haunted Dickens: Mesmerism, Spiritualism & ‘Enjoyable Nightmares’”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s