Dickens, Charles (1812–1870)
The great novelist Charles Dickens, born on February 7,
1812, had a keen interest in the supernatural, although he was
skeptical of Spiritualism, and wrote several thrilling ghost stories,
notably To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt and The Signalman.
His novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood was interrupted in its
monthly publication by the death of Dickens on July 8, 1870.
Shortly thereafter, T. P. James, an uneducated American mechanic
of Brattleboro, Vermont, obtained messages in automatic
writing that he claimed emanated from the author.
Between Christmas 1872 and July 1873, scripts came from
under his hand that continued Dickens’s unfinished novel. The
posthumous section was longer than the first and presented a
surprising continuity of the manner of thought, style, and peculiarities
of Dicken’s writing. The two sections were published
together in 1874 as The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with Charles
Dickens given as the author.
Spiritualists the world over hailed the book as a most convincing
proof of spirit return. However, psychologist Theodore
Flournoy, in Spiritism and Psychology (1911), undertook to demonstrate
that Dickens himself had nothing to do with the affair
and that everything was easily explained by processes of latent
incubation and subconscious imagination within the medium
himself. He quoted the conclusions of Mme. K. Fairbanks, a
distinguished member of the Geneva University, who observed
that ‘‘there are certainly very successful passages such as the
scenes between the two women, Billickin and Twinkleton. But
there are others which are just the contrary.’’
Furthermore, John Forster, author of The Life of Charles
Dickens (1911), discovered among the papers of the deceased
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author a whole scene in Edwin Drood, written in advance and
destined to figure later in the novel. Flournoy found it incredible
that the ‘‘spirit’’ of the author, who remembered so clearly
the part of the volume already published that no more than
three new persons are introduced in any part of the second section,
should have completely forgotten the chapter written and
left in manuscript.
Forster averred that as a striking proof of identity Dickens
would have made an allusion to it from the spirit world. In the
book itself and in the cover blurb, T. P. James does not pretend
that he has not read Dickens and his last novel. ‘‘Now it is evident,’’
stated Flournoy, ‘‘that if he had not read Dickens he
would most probably have boasted of his accomplishment, because
that would have rendered his performance much more
extraordinary. Let us not forget,’’ he finally remarked, ‘‘that
the medium had two and a half years to imbibe the original
work of the author, and in letting this ‘simmer’—without counting
the six months afterwards employed in automatic writing—
three years in all were completed. We must confess that this
greatly reduces its marvelous character.’’
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his book The Edge of the
Unknown (1930), concludes that ‘‘the actual inspiration of Dickens
is far from being absolutely established. . . . It reads like
Dickens gone flat.’’ In the same book he recorded some personally
obtained automatic contributions to the solution of the
mystery of Edwin Drood.
Dickens had a special interest in mesmerism or animal
magnetism, through his friendship with John Elliotson. In
1838 Dickens witnessed a demonstration by Elliotson of the
‘‘mighty curative powers of animal magnetism.’’ During his
tour in Italy in 1844, Dickens became acquainted with the family
of Emile de la Rue, a Swiss banker residing in Genoa. Dickens
actually practiced mesmerism on Madame de la Rue as a
treatment for her neurasthenic disorders, even experimenting
with treatment at a distance. On one such occasion, while he
was concentrating on sending this force over a distance, his
wife, Catherine, seated nearby, fell into a ‘‘mesmeric trance,’’
her senses numbed and her extremities cold. When Dickens
awakened her, she said she had been ‘‘magnetized.’’
Dickens’s interest of in such occult subjects was often
masked by his popular writings in a jocular vein. In 1848 he
practiced mesmerism on the artist John Leech, who had suffered
from a severe fall. Afterward, Dickens wrote to John Forster
with the jocular comment, ‘‘What do you think of my setting
up in the magnetic line with a large brass plate ‘Terms
twenty-five guineas per nap.’’’
Sources
Fairbanks, K. ‘‘Le Cas Spirite de Dickens.’’ Arch. de Psychol.
T.I. (June 1892).
Jacobson, Wendy S. The Companion to ‘‘The Mystery of Edwin
Drood.’’ London Allen & Unwin, 1986.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens and Mesmerism The Hidden Springs of
Fiction. Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press, 1975