Was Dickens a Thief?

The British Library is celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Dickens with an exhibition, that reveals a rather surprising theory behind the author of some of the scariest ghosts in literature.

Dickens was well-known for a fascination with the occult and other-worldly, and though he was always careful to leave a rational explanation with every apparition, he succeeded in spooking some of his readers into faints with his descriptions of these apparitions.

But, it transpires, author and artist Thomas Heaphy (who has since been half-forgotten) once accused Dickens of ripping off a manuscript he had already sent to the printers.

In 1861, Dickens wrote a piece for his All The Year Round magazine called Four Ghost Stories. One story included the tale of a woman who asks for a portrait to be painted of her, months after she is seen. The artist, who explains it would be far easier to simply sit for the portrait, soon discovers that the woman is already dead.

The story infuriated Heaphy, who wrote to Dickens crying plagiarism; he had, he insisted, sent this exact story to a rival magazine for their Christmas edition. And, not only that, but he claimed that this had actually happened to him – on 13th September, the date on which Dickens sets his story.

Dickens, of course, dismissed it; but the author was plagued by indignant stories and protests all his life. Ridiculed by some in the spiritualist circles, Dickens believed in “mesmerism”, a form of hypnotism to cure ills. It was also claimed that after his death, he narrated the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood by a series of knocks and raps, translated by those psychics he had once tried to expose as fakes in his magazine.

So, was Dickens a thief? Biographer and friend John Forster claims not, but the booklet A Wonderful Ghost Story Being Mr H’s Own Narrative, published years later by the furious Heaphy (and on display at the exhibition) claims he was so, though the booklet itself had very little success.

The exhibition, “A Hankering after Ghosts, Charles Dickens and the Supernatural” is on at the British Library between the 29th November and 4th March.

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