Best in show | Reading copy of The Haunted Man, 1848, by Charles Dickens
“For many people over many years, Christmas would not have been Christmas without a ghost story by Charles Dickens. After the success of A Christmas Carol in 1843, he wrote four more festive books with supernatural elements, the last of which – The Haunted Man – shared a similar theme of redemption first seen in the original tale of Ebenezer Scrooge.
In the 1848 novella, the unhappy professor Redlaw is haunted by a ghost – a spooky mirror image of himself – who promises to take all his painful memories away.
Redlaw agrees and the story then follows the repercussions of what could happen to someone if they choose not to experience any feelings of sorrow.
Dickens loved telling these eerie and moralistic tales to friends around the fire at a time when the Victorians were keen to use advances in science to try to prove the existence of spirits and to contact their dead loved ones.
He also loved reading them out at public performances; he gave some 127 renditions of A Christmas Carol, which he delivered from specially made desks, one of which we have in the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury, London.
Dickens used drama to heighten the tension during his readings. While depicting Sykes and Nancy in Oliver Twist, for example, he used different voices and mannerisms, sometimes being so convincing that audience members would faint.
To help him act out these popular works, Dickens used to cut out pages from his novels and stick them into much bigger volumes, leaving room for annotations in the widened margins.
He would then cross out the pieces he felt wouldn’t work in performance, insert his own stage directions and emphasise important words.
His reading copy of The Haunted Man is visually engaging in its own right, because Dickens made copious notes and crossed out entire passages by covering them in red ink or paint. He obviously planned to concentrate on the redemptive side of the narrative, as many of the book’s peripheral storylines have been cut.
Dickens, however, did not read The Haunted Man in public – and we’re not sure why he never got around to it. As a result, he abandons all his cutting, pasting and editing before he reaches the end.
However, I think all the preparatory work he did provides a great insight into Dickens as a person, which you don’t get from other items of his that we have in the museum.
You can see how’s he pondering what will work and what won’t during a reading, and watching him go through the text with a paintbrush is like watching his thought process in action. You’re observing him edit his own words – and it’s powerful as a result.
Dickens continues to be complex and I’m still learning new things about him all the time. Just the other day, we found out that he learnt to play the harmonica during a reading tour of the US. Who would have thought that?”
Interview by John Holt. To Be Read At Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts & the Supernatural is at the Charles Dickens Museum, London, until 19 February