Ghost stories at Christmas became a tradition in The Victorian era. Dickens’ most famous ghost story is, of course, A Christmas Carol which I re read last Christmas and can thoroughly recommend. This year, however, my eye was drawn to The Haunted House on a visit to our local Waterstones.
First published in 1859, the billing on the front cover is a little misleading.
A Christmas Carol had met with enormous success when first published in 1846.A Christmas book from Dickens had become a national institution.. By the time The Haunted House appeared in his periodical, All The Year Round, Dickens was overwhelmed with work and therefore approached some of his writer friends for contributions. The Haunted House is therefore a ‘Jacob’s Join’ of a book with stories from Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell as well as others less well known today.
The premise of the book is that a gentleman looking for a home in the country is drawn to a house standing alone on the edge of a village.
It was easy to see that it was an avoided house – a house that was shunned by the village , to which my eye was guided by a church spire some half a mile off- a house that nobody would take. And the natural inference was , that it had the reputation of being a haunted house.
The narrator determines to take it anyway. He is of a sceptical mindset and wants to conduct an experiment .He and a group of friends will rent the house and live there alone, even without servants (!) , until Twelfth Night. They will then gather together to recount what they have seen in order to compare notes on the supernatural.
It is fair to say that the standard of the various contributions is variable. Unsurprisingly Dickens’ genius shines through. On making enquiries in the village pub, the landlord calls his stable boy , Ikey, to tell the gentleman what he knows:
“ This gentleman wants to know,” said the landlord,”if anything’s seen at The Poplars.”
“‘Ooded woman with a howl,” said Ikey, in a state of great freshness.
“Do you mean a cry?”
“I mean a bird ,sir.”
Dickens’ story The Ghost Of Master B’s Room ends on a very poignant note. If you know anything of Dickens’ childhood and personal life,it is impossible not to feel sad :
No other ghost has haunted this boy’s room, my friends, since I have occupied it , than the ghost of my own childhood, the ghost of my own innocence , the ghost of my own airy belief. Many a time have I pursued the phantom : never with this man’s stride of mine to come up with it, never with these man’s hands of mine to touch it, never more in this man’s heart of mine to hold it in its purity.
I had looked forward to Wilkie Collins’ story as I am a great admirer of The Woman In White and The Moonstone but I found it a little disappointing. Elizabeth Gaskell’s is stronger. Somehow it reminded me of Thomas Hardy, perhaps the rustic setting. One of the ‘stories’ is written entirely in rather overblown Victorian verse and I must confess I skipped that one!
The collection ends with a very short piece by Dickens The Ghost In The Garden Room, the final sentences of which do resonate today :
Finally, I derived this Christmas greeting from the Haunted House, which I affectionately address with all my heart to all my readers :- Let us use the great virtue, Faith, but not abuse it………
This is an interesting piece of Victoriana which does serve to show how central Dickens was to the literary scene of his day.
With that, I wish you all a very merry Christmas and in the words of one of Dickens most famous creations :
God bless us, every one!