A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural 29 November 2011 - 4 March 2012

The Last of the Spirits. Ebenezer Scrooge visited by the last ghost © British Library Board

“Among his good things should not be omitted his telling of a ghost story. He had something of a hankering after them …”
- John Forster, The life of Charles Dickens

The British Library is to mark the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth with an exhibition, A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural, in the Folio Society Gallery from 29 November 2011 to 4 March 2012. The exhibition will explore the many ways in which Dickens uses supernatural phenomena in his works, while placing them in the context of scientific, technological and philosophical debates of his time. http://www.bl.uk/

Dickens’ interest in the macabre was apparent from an early age. As an adult he was caught up in the ‘mesmeric mania’ that swept Britain and developed an interest in the power of the human mind’. He believed that all supernatural manifestations must have rational explanations, but his investigations into animal magnetism and psychology showed him that science could be as chilling as any ghost story. As a result he became wonderfully adept at suspending readers between psychological and supernatural explanations in his fiction.

Curated by Andrea Lloyd, Curator of Printed Literary Sources (1801-1914), this richly illustrated exhibition includes such items as:

  • A Letter from Charles Dickens to his wife, Catherine (1853) this letter alludes to a marital disagreement that arose after Catherine became jealous of the close attention her husband was paying to a lady named Augusta de la Rue. Dickens used mesmerism to treat her nervous condition after he learnt how to mesmerise people himself.

  • ‘Well authenticated rappings’ in Household Words (1858) – Dickens had an ongoing dispute with the 19th century Spiritualists after he mocked them in several articles in Household Words and All The Year Round. In ‘Well authenticated rappings’ he questions the motivation of spirits who would return to make general idiots of themselves by conveying inane messages full of spelling mistakes.

  • The Terrific Register: or, record of crimes, judgements, providences and calamities (1821) – Dickens was greatly affected by the things he read in his youth. One of the teenage Dickens’ favourite reads was The Terrific Register a penny weekly magazine which covered such topics as murder, ghosts, incest and cannibalism. He claimed the stories ‘frightened the very wits out of [his] head.’

Andrea Lloyd, curator of the exhibition, comments:

“Dickens is already closely aligned with Victorian ghost stories in many people’s minds largely because of the success of A Christmas Carol. However, Dickens touches upon the supernatural in many of his other works, revealing his thoughts about unexplained phenomena, which in turn reflect the evolving scientific theories and beliefs that were prevalent in 19th century England. At this time people were debating the virtues of mesmerism and animal magnetism, getting caught up in the Spiritualism craze that arrived from America, and actively investigating and recording ghostly phenomena. By engaging with this vogue for the supernatural, and by tapping into the Victorian attraction to the macabre, Dickens created some of his finest works.”

A Hankering after Ghosts is part of Dickens 2012, an international celebration of the life and work of Dickens as we approach the bicentenary of his birth. http://www.dickens2012.org/

Events accompanying A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural include talks by renowned biographer, Claire Tomalin, author of Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit, John Bowen, writer and broadcaster, Brian Sibley, and interludes of bafflement out of the Victorian conjuror's box of tricks from David Weeks of The Magic Circle.

As part of the schools programme to accompany the exhibition, a series of lectures will be offered to AS and A-Level students. The lectures will support the transition from A-Level to undergraduate level, giving students a taste for university-style lectures. In accordance with feedback from teachers, the lecture series will focus more broadly on the Gothic and 19th century literature with reference to Dickens. Students will have the opportunity to explore the exhibition independently, looking at original collection items, either before or after the lecture.


Notes to Editors:

The Folio Society was founded in 1947 to create exceptional editions of the world’s greatest books through the highest standards of printing, binding, typography and illustration. Over sixty years on, its aim remains the same - to publish reasonably priced books that will stand the test of time, in handsome, imaginatively designed and beautifully crafted editions. www.foliosociety.com

Exhibition opening hours
Monday, Wednesday-Friday 9.30 – 18.00, Tuesday 9.30 – 20.00, Saturday 9.30 – 17.00, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11.00 – 17.00/ FREE. For further information about the British Library and its exhibitions please see: www.bl.uk/whatson

Events running alongside A Hankering after Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural will take place in the British Library’s Conference Centre. £7.50 / £5 concessions/ http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/cdickens/index.html

Learning programme
As part of the schools programme to accompany the exhibition, a series of lectures will be offered to AS and A-Level students.

The lectures will provide students with an opportunity to:

- hear from expert speakers (including the chance to ask questions)

- be inspired by speakers and their passion for the subject as well as the books themselves

- broaden their understanding of Dickens in the context of 19th-century Gothic literature

Lectures will take place in the Learning Centre accommodating between 30-60 students in each session. Each speaker will deliver the same lecture twice and these will run from 11-12pm and 2-3pm and will include academics, authors, actors and directors. The series will be advertised to schools in November/December 2011 and places allocated on a first-come first-served basis.

  • 21 February, 11-12pm and 2-3pm, John Bowen
  • 22 February, 11-12pm and 2-3pm, James Clarke
  • 23 February, 11-12pm and 2-3pm, Charmian Knight
  • 24 February, 11-12pm and 2-3pm, Phil Davies

For more information on Learning programme events please call +44 (0)20 7412 7797 or email learning@bl.uk

For more information contact:


The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.  



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