The Haunted House by Charles Dickens

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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.

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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!

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Book Review:Six Stories And An Essay by Andrea Levy

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This not perhaps the most exciting title for a new book from the prize winning author of Small Island but it does do exactly what it says on the tin!

The book brings together six of her short stories , most of which have been previously published elsewhere, and all of varying lengths , as Levy points out ,

Because short stories are short it is often mistakenly thought that it does not take long to write them. I was once offered a week to write a story by an editor with the words, ‘It doesn’t have to be long.’ But as the famous quote ( Pascal? Twain? Goethe? Cicero?) says. ‘I’d write you a shorter letter, but I haven’t the time”. Short stories can be as consuming as any novel.

I find it difficult to review collections of short stories…….are you supposed to review each one individually, write an overview of the collection or just pick the couple you liked the best?

In this collection all the stories are written in the first person. Not all of them deal with the ‘immigrant’ experience directly but all of them have the sense of the protagonist being on the outside of what surrounds him/her.

The search for identity is important to all her characters but whilst the stories often have dark undercurrents they do not lack humour. Levy explains the importence of humour in her work which she discovered in the very first writing class she attended ;

But what I really enjoyed when I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that.

Each of the stories is preceded by a short introduction by Levy, setting it in a context or giving an indication of what inspired her to write it.

The collection opens with an essay entitled Back To My Own Country . In it Levy sets out her ‘ manifesto’ and details her personal journey as a working class black girl growing up in Britain to her realisation of the importance of the culture her parents had come from and her own need to embrace it.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another. It is a very rich seam for a writer and it is, quite simply, the reason that I write.

Through her writing Levy has researched Caribbean history and has come to realise its importance in explaining Britain today

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

I want to highlight the final story in the collection. This year marks the centenary of World War One and I have already reviewed a number of books dealing with this on the blog. In Uriah’s War, Levy gives us the story of two young recruits from Jamaica who find themselves on the battlefields of France. Walker explains,

You see, the Empire was our protector, that is how we thought. England was great, sort of thing.And she was under threat. You should have heard the stories of the barbarous Germans that swept the breeze. They were burning houses and churches and women and children. Some were eating babies. Well, that was one of the tales. Looking back now perhaps that was a little…..embellished. But everyone believed it at the time.

Of course Walker and Uriah discover that Mother Empire has other ideas about the nature of their contribution to the war effort ,

But our colonel made it quite clear that we West Indian troops would be labourers in France. Now, who wanted to come all tat way and be in a labour battalion? Running back and forth with shells and what-and-what for the front line. No rifle, no combat, but just as likely to die. That would have been a humiliation.

Walker and Uriah instead are sent to Palestine where they fight bravely in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, it is the end of the war and return to ‘normality’  that proves their undoing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection which gives much food for thought with the lightest of touches. The collection is published on 23rd October. My thanks to Tinder Press and to Georgina Moore for the review copy.