What The Dickens?

Published on December 6, 2018
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Charles Dickens; I wrote an article a few weeks ago called ‘Ghosts are not just for Christmas’. This led to further consideration regarding the history surrounding the English writer, Charles John Huffam Dickens, and perhaps where he may have got his inspiration and fascination for ghosts.

In ‘The Pickwick Papers’, his first successful publication – there are five ghost stories. This theme that continues in ‘The Haunted Man’, ‘The Ghost’s Bargain’ and of course ‘A Christmas Carol’, which is possibly the most popular piece of fiction that he ever wrote.

Dickens had this to say about A Christmas Carol:

'I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,

C. D.
December, 1843'

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

The height of Dickens’ writing was of course during the Victorian era, which was interesting historically and evolutionary for many reasons. The period between 1837 and 1901 was very affluent for some and this afforded an increase in education, innovation and inventions like electricity, telephones, vaccinations, railways and motorcars.

A desire for modern thinking, along with an increase in immigration perhaps might explain what triggered some challenges towards religious ideas, which in turn expanded thoughts towards more scientific approaches regarding many discoveries, including exploring the paranormal, known as 'The Age of Enlightenment'.

Largely because of a creepy death culture, most people including the monarch at the time, Queen Victoria had an obsession with after death communication. Firstly, in 1846 with the clairvoyant Georgiana Eagle, at Osborne House. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert both participated in séances. In 1861 (the year Prince Albert died) on the Isle of Wight, Roberts James Less a thirteen-year-old boy from Leicester passed on a message from Albert to the Queen in which he called her by the pet name known only to her and her late husband. After her death Queen Victoria has also been reported to communicate from the other side to her last surviving daughter, Princess Louise, through the amazing direct voice medium Lesley Flint. 

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Leslie Flint (1911-1994)

Whereas now people are quickly removed from our sight and our homes upon dying, this didn’t happen during Victorian times. With no medicine as we know it now, life expectancy was half what it is today, child and maternal mortality was high and hospitals were full of typhoid, diphtheria, cholera, smallpox and tuberculosis.

Mourning was also a very serious affair, particularly for women. Trinkets to preserve the memory of those loved ones taken too soon called ‘memento mori’ (literally meaning ‘remember you must die’) took many forms, wax death masks, locks of hair kept in lockets and post mortem, or death photos (daguerreotype).

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An example of a postmortem photo, where the youngest child, deceased, has been included in a family picture.

Being buried alive was a constant fear for Victorians, which is another reason for them keeping corpses around for longer than we would now consider acceptable. They had to be sure that the corpse was in fact decomposing before being buried in the ground and then only with a bell and string attached to the coffin just in case!

Victorian Seances

In Victorian England séances were at the height of fashion as was occultism. Other popular social activities included elaborate mechanical extravaganzas and pantomimes so it’s truly no wonder that so many writers were inspired to tell stories full of gothic dreams, demons, vampires, spirits, premonitions and second sight.

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A Victorian seance

Even as a child, Dickens had a fascination with ghosts. His Nanny, Miss Mercy would tell him stories which fed his interest in otherworldly matters and indeed seemed to influence his thinking later, in adult life. Dickens appears to have considered greatly the importance in taking notice of the lives of those around us…

“It is required of every man,” the ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.”

Dickens, although still at times rather skeptical, had by this time developed an interest in dabbling with the rising controversy of Animal Mesmerism, created by Franz Anton Mesmer. This involved putting people non-verbally in to a hypnotic trance state to re-balance invisible ethereal ‘magnetic like’ energies and supposedly alleviate and cure illness. Dickens became exceptionally skilled at this method of healing and had particularly effective responses treating John Leech, the illustrator for ‘A Christmas Carol’ for concussion and also made very frequent medicinal visits to Madame De La Rue (much to Mrs Catherine Dicken’s displeasure!) who claimed that her anxiety was being caused by a phantom that perused her. Dickens however, flatly refused to allow himself to be mesmerized or hypnotized, ever.

By this time, Victorian England had such a surge in arguments surrounding ghosts and the continuation of human existence beyond the physical that pretty much everyone got involved, from politicians to scientists and others that were even considered just crazy.

But in 1855 some well to do gentlemen from Trinity College, Cambridge starting talking of setting up a paranormal organisation to research ghosts, apparitions and fraudulent mediums, an idea which came under attack by columnists in The Times, however by 1862 this had emerged in London as a formal society, with Dickens being signed up as a founding member of ‘The Ghost Club’. The club actually crumbled for a while after the death of Dickens in 1870, such was his impetus within the society.

Thankfully The Ghost Club rose from it’s grave on All Soul’s Day 1882, being reopened by the famous Reverend and medium William Stainton Moses and is still alive and kicking today with monthly meetings at the Victory Services Club in Central London. Membership is by invitation only and it’s possibly the oldest paranormal investigation group of it’s type in the world, in fact it was the precursor to the world famous S.P.R. – ‘The Society for Psychical Research’. Dickens wasn’t the only author roped in to ghostly investigations at The Ghost Club, as W.B Yeats and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame were also avid paranormal enthusiasts.

The eccentric and secretive Ghost Club’s first serious investigation involved Ira Erastus Davenport and William Henry Davenport; brothers claiming to be mediums who could contact the dead. Travelling from America, with an act that needed to be debunked in one way or the other as mere illusions, or indeed something of a supernatural nature, The Ghost Club was keen to find out. Sadly it is still unknown what results the society finally decided upon but given that the Davenport’s act was to launch what has become known as the spirit cabinet, still used with popularity within trance and physical mediumship today perhaps there was really something in it!

It also still remains a mystery if the questioning Mr Dickens truly ever experienced a real afterlife communication of his own although it is thought that he had indeed had encounters with ghosts. However, apparently he turned up in spirit form during a séance in America, just five days after his own death, to depart final instructions for his then unfinished novel ‘The Mystery Of Edwin Drood’. The remaining team from The Ghost Club were unable to travel to America to verify the claim but thankfully in spirit or otherwise Charles Dickens will be forever immortalised by his marvellous contributions and his words..

‘An idea, like a ghost must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself’

Charles Dickens

IMAGE REFERENCES:

'The Daily Telegraph' – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/10580182/Charles-Dickens-in-pictures.html)

'The Leslie Flint Educational Trust' – https://www.leslieflint.com

'Against the Wicked City' – http://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2016/02/bx-class-mesmerist.html

'The Last Tuesday Society' – http://www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org/listings/event/halloween-sceance-philipp-oberlohr/)

'Writers in London in the 1890's' – http://1890swriters.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-ghost-club.html_

'Viralnova' – http://www.viralnova.com/post-mortem-victorian-photographs/?fbclid=IwAR2ghp2IPLwQVBftu3BAt4wlVOrxXYYpCGwXb1NeCf2rfX_qeqUQpfXThgo

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