Review

2nd December 2011 at 00:00

A Hankering After Ghosts: Charles Dickens and the Supernatural runs until 4 March 2012 at the British Library, London

Waking the dead

Bring out your Dickens. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the author's birth and, correspondingly, museums around the world are rediscovering any connections to his life.

The British Library's offering, which opened this week, chooses to focus on Dickens' interest in the supernatural. There is a clear Dickensian link: A Christmas Carol is probably the best known of his stories to feature supernatural phenomena and the spontaneous-combustion scene in Bleak House is justly infamous.

However, the exhibition provides a broader introduction to the Victorian obsession with spiritualism. So we learn about the 19th-century fashion for "table-turning", in which spirits communicated with the living by tipping and tilting a table. Dickens, though a cynic, experimented with this, and his conclusions are summarised in a wonderfully acerbic caption in which the curator notes that he questioned the motivation of spirits "who would return to make general idiots of themselves by conveying inane messages, full of spelling mistakes".

Indeed, it is a charmingly curated exhibition, drawing out amusing anecdotes from the author's life. Dickens, for example, became fascinated by mesmerism, an early form of hypnosis that claimed to use "animal magnetism" to establish a link between mesmeriser and mesmeree. And there are some delightful "spirit photographs" in which ghosts manifested themselves photographically.

It is a shame that there are only two such pictures on show. Because, ultimately, the exhibition's downfall is, well, its exhibits. This being the British Library, the displays are almost exclusively books. I love books. Really. More than almost anything. But books are meant to be read, not gazed at through glass cases.

Frankly, if you want to know what happens in The Lawyer and The Ghost or The Haunted Man you probably will have more fun just going away and reading them for yourself.

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