Charles Dickens loved Christmas and he loved a good ghost story too. His first attempt at a seasonal story, A Christmas Carol (1843), combined these two passions.
The tale of Scrooge’s haunting and redemption was subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas, and its four ghosts, the remorseful Marley shackled by the chains he has forged in life; the gentle Ghost of Christmas Past; the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present; and the ominous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, are the organising points that structure and drive Dickens’s narrative.
He followed it with four further Christmas novellas:The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). But whereas A Christmas Carol endures in popular culture, and even sits proudly on the GCSE English Literature curriculum, defying the efforts of Gradgrind educationalists and examination boards to drain the joy from its message, his four follow-ups are now rarely read.
Dickens undoubtedly peaked early with A Christmas Carol, but his subsequent efforts all sold well in their day, and enjoyed stage adaptations. The critical reception was sometimes mixed, but Dickens’s readership delighted in the way all four books took up and developed themes from A Christmas Carol, including the power of ghosts to deepen human understanding and bring about a character’s redemption. In the fiercely anti-Malthusian The Chimes, goblin spirits persuade the lead character, Trotty Veck, to shake off his debilitating assumption that the poor are ‘born bad’. But it is in the last of his stories, The Haunted Man, or the Ghost’s Bargain, that Dickens achieved his most interesting take on a Christmas ghost story.
The man haunted in the book’s title is Professor Redlaw, a ‘taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy’ academic, who we first meet on a darkening winter’s night, ensconced in his study, and staring into a fire that sends ‘a crowd of spectral shapes’ dancing across his wall. These, however, are not the phantoms that haunt him. Redlaw’s tormentors are the ghosts of his memories, of ‘sorrow, wrong, and trouble’ past that play upon his mind and are etched in the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks of his face. He yearns for release from this pain and towards the end of the first of the book’s three chapters, ‘The Gift Bestowed’, he makes the bargain of the book’s subtitle.
A doppelgänger phantom, ‘an awful likeness of himself’, emerges from the gloom and offers Redlaw the chance to cancel all painful remembrance. He agrees, and only then learns that this gift, once bestowed, is contagious, and that he will involuntarily bestow the same destruction of painful memories on all he meets.
The consequences of this power are explored in chapter two, ‘The Gift Diffused’, where Redlaw sees the kind, and previously happy, Tetterby and Swidger families become mean, selfish, and argumentative as they lose the ability to recollect painful and sorrowful memories. In the final chapter, ‘The Gift Reversed’, Redlaw sees the memories restored to those around him, and reaches the realisation that our sorrows, as much as our pleasures, are necessary for our happiness. ‘[M]y point’, Dickens explained to his publisher John Forster, ‘is that bad and good are irredeemably linked in remembrance, and that you could not choose the enjoyment of only recollecting the good. To have the best of it you must remember the worst also.’
When Dickens had first conceived the story, in Lausanne in the summer of 1846, whilst still writing Dombey and Son (1846), he descried it as a ‘very ghostly and wild idea’. But by the time he returned to it in the early winter of 1848, the ghostly element was more allegorical than supernatural. This is consistent with much of Dickens’s other work. Despite what Forster called his ‘hankering’ after ghost stories, and Dickens’s delight in reading them, he never seemed entirely comfortable with his own ghostly creations. At the end of A Christmas Carol Dickens teased his readers that it might not have been ghosts haunting Scrooge after all: ‘He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards’. And he did something similar at the end of The Haunted Man, commenting that some thought Redlaw’s ‘Ghost was but the representation of his own gloomy thoughts’.
His readers, however, and more particularly the audiences who came to see the theatrical renderings of his Christmas novellas, had fewer qualms: they wanted ‘real’ ghosts! They got one in the first production of The Haunted Man, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 20 December, 1848, two days after the book’s publication. (Dickens had provided advance proofs and advised on the final stages of rehearsal.) But it was another production of The Haunted Man, fourteen years later in an 1862, that proved more significant in the history of theatre.
This featured the first performance of the technique known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, in which a brightly lit figure below the stage was reflected in a pane of glass placed between the actor playing Redlaw and the audience, to make it appear as if he were interacting with the ghost. This technique, which took its name from its inventor, science populariser John Henry Pepper, has been credited with launching the fashion for later-nineteenth century ghost-themed plays. It also, perhaps improbably, laid the basis for the technology which, in recent years, has been used to bring a number of deceased rappers, such as Tupac Shakur, Easy-E, and Ol’Dirty Bastard back to the stage.
The Haunted Man itself had no comparable literary legacy. Although some scholars have identified it as a staging post in Dickens’s development towards his mature masterpiece, Bleak House (1853), it is better read simply as another example of his insatiable fascination with Christmas. From his early essay, ‘A Christmas Dinner’ in Sketches by Boz (1836), through Magwitch’s Christmas Eve appearance in the graveyard in Great Expectations (1861), and the Christmas Day murder in his final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Christmas was a constant in Dickens’s writing. Ghosts gave him a tool with which to explore this theme, but as with so many of us, it was memories of his youth, good and bad, that made the season for Dickens.
David Stack is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in the inter-relationship of ideas and politics in the history of Britain and beyond.