Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dickens the disbeliever

In honor of Claire Tomalin's new biography of Dickens, which hits stores this week, our October travels turn to Boz on this blustery autumnal night. Casting my memory back through the biographies of Dickens that I've read, I don't recall any incidents of Dickens encountering any ghost more substantial than the memory of the blacking factory, but as Scrooge is always there to remind us, the idea of spirits was one that interested him. In The Victorian Supernatural, Louise Henson notes that John Forster, in his 1874 biography of Dickens,
recalled that Dickens "had something of a hankering" after ghosts, and "such was his interest generally in things supernatural that, but for the strong restraining power of his common sense, he might have fallen into the follies of Spiritualism." Forster, however, also recognised that "no man was readier to apply sharp tests to a ghost story or a haunted house though there was just as much tendency to believe in any 'well-authenticated' [sic] as made perfect his manner of telling one."
For all his creativity and imaginative sympathy, the sense one gets of Dickens from biographical writing is that he was so consistently busy and engaged with the things of this world--and, to put it bluntly, so self-involved and self-distracting--that the world of ghosts would hold little allure for him. His world is our world, absolutely bursting with physicality and--even in its most far-fetched coincidences--ultimately comprehensible almost solely as a manifestation, not of the spirit, but of the ever-growing and bustling new industrial city. Henson quotes what seems reasonable to think of as Dickens's basic position on the question from an 1848 review for the Examiner of a collection of ghost stories, Catherine Crowe's The Night-Side of Nature:
Dickens protested against this common fault of "seeking to prove too much," when the independent existence of ghosts rested on "independent grounds of proof [and] in vast numbers of cases [spectres] are known to be delusions superinduced by a well-understood, and by no means uncommon, disease. . . . [I]n a multitude of others, they are often asserted to be seen, even on Mrs. Crowe's own showing, in that imperfect state between sleeping and waking, than which there is hardly any less reliable incident to our nature."
His position on the ghost as it shades into fiction, meanwhile, Henson locates in his rejection of a set of ghost stories submitted by Francis Elliot to All the Year Round in 1867:
He recognized among them "an old one, perfectly well known as a story. You cannot tell it on the first hand testimony of an eye-witness." Dickens explained that were he to print them with her claims to authenticity, "I would deservedly be pounced upon. If I were to put them in without your claim, I would be merely republishing a stereotyped set of tales."
Originality above all, in other words. So for all his inventiveness in the genre, we can't count on Dickens for a personal ghost story. But his friend Wilkie Collins . . . well, the stories of Collins's belief that he was stalked by a doppelganger are numerous, but William M. Clarke's account in The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins is the most satisfyingly garish:
[H]e spoke openly to his friends of ghosts standing behind him, and of a green woman with teeth like tusks who appeared on the stairs, along with other ghosts "trying to push him down." He also spoke of "another Wilkie Collins" appearing before him if and when he worked into the night. As the story goes, "the second Wilkie Collins sat at the same table with him and tried to monopolise the writing pad. Then there was a struggle, and the inkstand was upset; anyhow, when the true Wilkie awoke, the inkstand had been upset and the ink was running over the writing table. After that Wilkie gave up writing of nights."
You can always count on an opium addict for a nicely blood-curdling story of apparitions.

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