[Essay] Dickens’s Spirits — James Riding

If you have a passing knowledge of Charles Dickens, you’ll know he loved raising spirits, especially around Christmas time. His Christmas novellas abound with ghosts and apparitions, and the haunted men they disturb and transform. Evidently, they make for uniquely versatile storytelling tools. ‘What troubles me so dreadfully,’ the title character of The Signal-Man says to the narrator, ‘is the question, What does the spectre mean?’ ‘What is its warning against?’…‘What is the danger? Where is the danger?’ Ghosts can bring a character face to face with a distorted mirror image of themselves; they can warn against the dangers of the future, whether these warnings are acted on or not; they can induce drama, horror, excitement, fear, gravitas. Or, as in The Pickwick Papers (where a ghost haunting an old empty house suddenly realises he ‘might be much more comfortable elsewhere’), they can provide a good laugh. 

And like how Mr Redlaw in The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain is pursued by his phantom twin, ‘an awful likeness of himself,’ Dickens’s interest in spirits, and his ambivalent attitude to them, often act as a ghostly mirror image to ideas of spirituality, and faith, in his writing. Angels spring up alongside ghosts, just as ghosts often appear at Christmas. Dickens would himself have argued that Christianity was central to his world-view, and indeed his faith underpinned much of his passion for charity and against injustice. Yet just as he could laugh at a ghost in The Pickwick Papers and recoil from one in The Signal-Man, Dickens was capable of enormous scepticism and ambivalence towards religion, and certainly never conformed blindly to the Church. Some of these contradictions may therefore help to explain why the ghosts of spirituality keep recurring in his life and work.

As lights and tinsel currently festoon city centres and BBC 1 has revealed its Christmas Day schedule, it seems apt to begin with A Christmas Carol. Yet it is more than festive timing that makes it worth considering, because A Christmas Carol really is the crucible of both Dickens’s concept of Christianity and his use of spirits and ghosts in storytelling. ‘I have endeavoured…to raise a Ghost of an Idea’, Dickens wrote in the book’s preface: but he raised many more ghosts than that. From the beginning it is clear that, for Dickens, spirits are bound up not just with spirituality, but with the very act of writing. The story’s first ghost is Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s old business partner. Dickens resurrects Marley but, alongside him, he also resurrects the spirit of Shakespeare in a literary seance:

There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind. [A Christmas Carol, Stave 1]

The irony of bringing up this ghost of Hamlet is that it is potentially distracting from what Dickens is attempting: to achieve the same level of dramatic intensity as the first scene of Hamlet, which launches directly into the haunting of Horatio and the watchmen. It is as if Dickens is aware of this, and yet he can’t help but linger on this ghost of writing past. He had to. Every literature student will be familiar with the late Harold Bloom’s concept of the ‘anxiety of influence’, where a writer is permanently engaged in violent conflict with their forebears in order to carve out their own authorial voice, so I won’t push this reading too far. However, when Scrooge physically wrestles the Ghost of Christmas Past, the dissertation almost writes itself:

He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it. 

“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!” 

In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Scrooge observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head. [A Christmas Carol, Stave 2]

We might conclude, therefore, that these ghosts keep returning in Dickens’s writing not just because of their practical uses, but also out of necessity: they are an intrinsic component of his craft. Dickens knew all too well that a writer must be a bodysnatcher. When he was once asked to leave his name with the proprietors of a restaurant, he jokingly left a makeshift calling card that read ‘Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist’.

On its publication in 1843, A Christmas Carol was a huge success, which helped to fuel the burgeoning Victorian cult of Christmas (this was the era in which Henry Cole invented Christmas cards, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert helped to popularise the German tradition of Christmas trees). A Christmas Carol may also be read as Dickens’s manifesto for his own concept of Christmas, and his interpretation of Christian values. These values are explained by Scrooge’s nephew, who says:

“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas Time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts, freely, and to think of fellow people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say God bless it!” [A Christmas Carol, Stave 1]

Ironically, Dickens was of course hoping that his Christmas book would put more than a little gold in his pocket. But, otherwise, the nephew’s emphasis on the Christian teachings of kindness, forgiveness and understanding could be Dickens’s own list of Christian virtues. Yet how interesting that Scrooge’s nephew separates ‘apart’ the ‘good time’ of Christmas from its ‘sacred name and origin’. Dickens takes pains to draw a clear distinction between the divine, untouchable significance of Christmas and the earthly values it inspires. Compare the distinction in this speech to another, more subtle, one, made at the end of a book about Jesus Dickens wrote for his children, called The Life of Our Lord:

Remember! – It is christianity TO DO GOOD always – even to those who do evil to us. It is christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. [The Life of Our Lord, Chapter 11]

Figure 1: William Ellery Channing

At this time, there were certainly plenty of opportunities for high-minded debate. Since the 1830s, the Church of England had been split, particularly in Oxford, by arcane rows about the rival claims of the Church of Rome and Anglicanism, resting on the importance of 1,500-years old early councils and doctrinal disputes of the Mediterranean Church. Dickens would likely have had no patience for such self-indulgence: he looked about him and saw a world of impoverished rural communities and overworked, neglected urban poor that needed action now. After all, he concludes The Life of Our Lord with ‘it is christianity TO DO GOOD’, not ‘to be a do-gooder’.

Dickens’s foray into Unitarianism was consistent with his wider scepticism of institutions in general. Spirituality and faith were primarily individual enterprises to him. Just as he felt social change would be unlikely to come from what he called the ‘national dust-yard’ of Parliament, he was always ready to attack the Church. He mocked Catholics and priests, but he saved his most sustained invective for moralising Evangelicals. Some of his cruellest characters, such as the Murdstones in David Copperfield, are evangelicals. As is Mrs Clennam in Little Dorrit, who ‘sit[s] all day behind a Bible’ reading aloud the more bloodcurdling passages of scripture to her son Arthur, who endures ‘Sundays […] of unserviceable bitterness and mortification’ but gains ‘no more real knowledge of the beneficent history of the New Testament than if he had been bred among idolaters’.

Arthur’s resentment is for Sundays in particular, ‘days of unserviceable bitterness and mortification’. Evangelicals often reserved much of their fervour for the Lord’s Day, the day they felt most morally and spiritually impelled to intervene in people’s lives. In 1832, a parliamentary Committee investigating ‘Laws and Practices relating to the Observance of the Lord’s Day’ discovered what they described as ‘a systematic and widely-spread violation of the Lord’s Day’. Nineteen out of the thirty members of the Committee were evangelicals, furious at what they saw as the growing amount of Sunday trading, travelling and recreation in Britain, including the opening of pubs and tea gardens. The evangelical lobby was fearsome — even Queen Victoria took special precautions to avoid being seen arriving at Euston Station on a Sunday train from Scotland, knowing it would be viewed by some as desecrating the Lord’s Day. 

Dickens, however, was not cowed. He never missed an opportunity to attack those such as the Lord’s Day Observance Society who saw it as their duty to prevent other people enjoying themselves. He supported the working-class National Sunday League movement to permit, for example, the opening of the British Museum on a Sunday, or the performance of Sunday open-air concerts. In his latest book The Mystery of Charles Dickens, A. N. Wilson draws attention to a particularly ferocious article Dickens wrote in 1855 for his journal Household Words, as a ‘satirical rallying cry against the interferences of the ‘Monomaniacs’’. Dickens accuses these moralisers of treating ‘the People’ like ‘a Great Baby […] now to be flattered and now to be scolded, now to be sung to and now to be denounced to old Boguey, now to be kissed and now to be whipped, but always to be kept in long clothes, and never under any circumstances to feel its legs and go about of itself’. 

Dickens puts the Great Baby ‘on trial’ and, like Shakespeare transfiguring the joylessness of the Puritans into the laughable killjoy Malvolio, transforms its assailants into his own over-the-top characters. ‘Mr. Gamp’ the police magistrate, ‘Reverend Single Swallow’, and ‘the Reverend Temple Pharisee…the incumbent of the extensive rectory of Camel-cum-needle’s-eye’ take turns to explain why they feel the working classes should have no Sunday freedom. Tellingly, they cite ‘frightful scenes’ in ‘common public house[s]’, where ‘every species of low abomination’ gather to eat, drink, and—worst of all—engage in the ‘most distressing’ ‘sounds of merry conversation’.

This, Dickens seems to suggest, is Christianity being used by the middle and upper classes as a cattle prod to constrain and control the lives of the poor. In his view, extreme, evangelical religion could all too easily be hijacked by busy-bodies and directed to nefarious ends.

Yet we may now be starting to smell a whiff of contradiction in Dickens’s attitude, since he was more than a little of a busy-body himself, especially in his philanthropic work. He mercilessly parodied philanthropists in his writing with characters such as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, who neglects her own children in favour of supposedly beneficial schemes in Africa. We are told, in fact, that she ‘had very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.’ Yet Dickens was a prolific philanthropist, with much of his work informed by his Christianity. He put on theatrical performances for charity, gave speeches for hospitals and impoverished actors, visited prisons, campaigned for the establishment of schools for the poor, and gave countless private acts of kindness and generosity. His doctrine of Kindliness — what Scrooge’s nephew describes as the spirit of Christmas — was central to his life. He was impatient of doctrinal pedantry, but he was also committed to the belief that acts of charity done to the sick, imprisoned, poor and vulnerable are done to Christ. A powerful speech Dickens delivered to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association in 1851 after one of the worst outbreaks of cholera in London encapsulates all of this:

Sanitary Reform must precede all other social remedies [cheers], and that even Education and Religion can do nothing where they are most needed, until the way is paved for their ministrations by Cleanliness and Decency. [Hear]… What avails it to send a Missionary to me, a miserable man or woman living in a foetid Court where every sense bestowed upon me for my delight becomes a torment, and every minute of my life is new mire added to the heap under which I lie degraded… I am so surrounded by material filth that my Soul cannot rise to the contemplation of an immaterial existence! 

So reform and take action he did. As writers like Jenny Hartley have explored, one of Dickens’s most sustained philanthropic efforts was Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, an establishment for the rescuing of ‘fallen women’ he set up in 1846 alongside the millionairess Duchess of St Albans, Angela Burdett-Coutts. Unlike Dickens, Miss Burdett-Coutts was a devout churchwoman, and the idea of Christian redemption was built into the establishment from its inception. For a dozen or so women at a time it was to be a refuge, with a view to their eventually being sent to Australia ‘for marriage’. Prison governors could recommend young women who showed signs of repentance and a desire for new life. ‘Dealing gently’ was the rule: ‘These unfortunate creatures are to be tempted to virtue.’

Figure 2: Urania Cottage, Sherpherd’s Bush

So what was the difference between Dickens and the pitiful, professional do-gooders of his fiction? How did he reconcile his distrust for charitable institutions with his fervent compulsion to engage in charity? One way was not to shout about it. Dickens kept his connection with Urania Cottage a secret throughout his life. His article about it in Household Words was anonymous; its location and Miss Burdett-Coutts’ name were concealed. It was also a two-way arrangement, to an extent, as Dickens freely plundered the experiences of the young women for his fiction.

Dickens’s spirits have their own dualities, too. He loves writing an angel just as much as he loves writing a ghost. Imagery of angels appears constantly in his work, often associated with his woman and child characters — which is perhaps unsurprising if we consider that one of the country’s most popular poems from 1854 onwards was titled ‘The Angel in the House’. As well as guardian angels, then, like David Copperfield’s Agnes with her ‘angel-face’, forever ‘pointing upward!’, there are cherubic children such as Little Dick in Oliver Twist, who feels he is bound for a better place: he dreams so much, he says, ‘of Heaven, and Angels’. In his classic study of Dickens, The Violent Effigy, John Carey argues that these angelic characters ‘offer a debased religion to their customers.’ He coins the phrase ‘dwarf-children’ to describe them, suggesting that they offer a projection in miniature of adult longing for innocent, uncomplicated religion, rather than a realistic depiction of a child. He calls Dickens’s more convincing young characters ‘natural children’, most of whom are unstirred by religion — say David Copperfield, who as a boy goes to sleep in church and falls off his pew with a crash. Meanwhile, ‘dwarf’ characters like Little Nell are ‘all convinced Christians’, associated with uncorrupted, uncomplicated religion, who can provide adult readers with ‘glimpses of eternity’. ‘They say that you will be an Angel, before the birds sing again,’ a child informs Nell; and Lucie Manette’s little boy in A Tale of Two Cities departs from life with a rustle of angel’s wings. Before she dies, Little Nell hears beautiful music in the air, and Dickens says over her corpse, ‘So shall we know the angels in their majesty, after death.’ It seemed to have worked: many of his readers broke down when they came to the passage. Lord Jeffrey was found with his head on his library table, weeping, while Daniel O’Connell, the Irish M.P., threw the volume in anguish out of the window of the train in which he was travelling.

Carey makes a convincing point that Dickens was able to weaponise religious imagery through his angelic child characters to create an emotional gut-punch. However, not every one of Dickens’s children fits neatly into Carey’s categories of ‘dwarf’ or ‘natural’. Due to his ‘native ignorance’, growing up alone in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Tom-All-Alone’s, Jo the crossing-sweeper from Bleak House knows nothing, not even religion:

It must be very puzzling to see the good company going to the churches on Sundays, with their books in their hands, and to think (for perhaps Jo DOES think at odd times) what does it all mean, and if it means anything to anybody, how comes it that it means nothing to me? [Bleak House, Chapter 16]

Since no-one ever educated him in the central moral framework of Victorian society, his condition is even more tragic: he is a liminal figure, pure and uncorrupted but also, in his current state of ignorance, incapable of going to heaven. Jo is crucial to the plot of Bleak House, and shows great resolve: he battles smallpox, and even at one point walks from London to Hertfordshire. However, he cannot be saved, and falls ill again, presumably of pneumonia. At this point, there is nothing to do but pray:

After watching him closely a little while, Allan puts his mouth very near his ear and says to him in a low, distinct voice, “Jo! Did you ever know a prayer?”

“Never knowd nothink, sir.”

“Not so much as one short prayer?”

“No, sir. Nothink at all…I never knowd what it wos all about.” [Bleak House, Chapter 47]

In Jo’s final minutes, Allan attempts a last-minute conversion:

“It’s turned wery dark, sir. Is there any light a-comin?”

“It is coming fast, Jo.”

Fast. The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end.

“Jo, my poor fellow!”

“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m a-gropin—a-gropin—let me catch hold of your hand.”

“Jo, can you say what I say?”

“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”

“Our Father.”

“Our Father! Yes, that’s wery good, sir.”

“Which art in heaven.”

“Art in heaven—is the light a-comin, sir?”

“It is close at hand. Hallowed be thy name!”

“Hallowed be—thy—”

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day. [Bleak House, Chapter 47]

Was Jo’s unfinished prayer enough for him to be saved? Or is it ambiguous enough for a more pessimistic reader to view him as dying in limbo, unable to complete his angelic metamorphosis: a ‘natural child’, who dies like a ‘dwarf’? Jo’s death fuses together the holy and the earthly imagery Dickens often separates: it combines the solemn religious symbolism he used to such dramatic effect in Little Nell’s departure with his burning conviction to expose and address real-world poverty and neglect. In doing so, Dickens is able to articulate the full range of his religious outlook: the importance and centrality of faith, and even the way it can be so easily abused or corrupted: signified by his wry use of ‘right reverends and wrong reverends’. We are left with the suggestion that, like Jo, we are all ‘a-gropin’ our way towards understanding, but we may not all manage to cross over the threshold.

If you are interested in understanding Dickens, you could do a lot worse than examine one of his novels’ many woodcut illustrations. In ‘Phantoms’, one of the images made for A Christmas Carol, John Leech attempts to draw what Dickens refers to in the story as ‘the Invisible World’. The Ghost of Christmas Past has allowed Scrooge to see the air ‘filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went’:

Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever. [A Christmas Carol, Stave 1]

Figure 3: ‘Phantoms’ by John Leech, A Christmas Carol, 1843

The importance of taking action in the present day to address social ills; power, control, and fear of losing it; the themes we have found running through Dickens’s many explorations of spirits and spirituality are all crammed into this black and white bubble. The spirits’ tragic situation here threatens almost to tip over into the comic, with the rotund central ghost looking as if he is about to float away like a hot air balloon. Indeed, the Pickwickian portliness of the waistcoated ghost could even be said to produce its own little literary resurrection, this time of one of Dickens’s own earlier characters. And yet here, too, is real anger and pity for the state of the poor and downtrodden, the ‘wretched woman’ rendered with pitch-black clarity, hiding her face with a skeletal hand. An invisible world and a visible one set against each other, overlapping slightly, but nearly bisected by the vertical slice of the lamppost in the right third, and the ghosts pressed up into the top of the oval, deforming it slightly as if they could burst out uncontrollably at any minute.

Just as A Christmas Carol has its own moral of kindness, this Christmas we might consider Dickens’s favourite saying, which he had printed on the wall of Urania Cottage: ‘Don’t talk about it — do it!’ Ironic, perhaps, for someone who spent most of his life writing: yet evidently for Dickens, writing was a form of doing rather than a form of talking — or at least a happy compromise between the two. In ‘talking’ to his readers, Dickens really could change hearts and minds and generate change: at least if the stories of the time of readers of A Christmas Carol rushing out to buy geese for the poor are to be believed. And since A Christmas Carol ends with a pun (we are told that Scrooge ‘had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards’), perhaps it may be permitted to finish by saying that nothing lifts your spirits quite like reading Dickens.


James Riding is a journalist based in London, currently studying for an MA in Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London. His work is published by Literary Review, The London Magazine, Review 31 and others.