Dickens, Grief and Christmas
Was Charles Dickens the 'haunted man?'
Christmas remains one of the most cherished times of the year. We all eagerly await a season of twinkling lights, colourful presents and mouth-watering roast turkey. It is a time of goodwill, when we make a conscious effort to be that little bit nicer, kinder or caring to those around us.
But there is another side of Christmas that isn’t always acknowledged. Amidst all the cheer and the parties and the merriment, Christmas can be a poignant time. For those who have lost loved ones, it can be a time in which we are reminded that there is one less space at the dinner table.
Charles Dickens is famous for popularising many of our modern Christmas traditions. But he was also only too aware that it can be a time of suffering, especially after he lost his own sister in 1848. That same year, he penned his fifth and final Christmas book, The Haunted Man.
In many ways, The Haunted Man is made up of all the key ingredients for a wonderful Dickensian Christmas. It has a grizzled older man as the main character, who is visited by a supernatural being in an effort to make him a better person. But whereas A Christmas Carol is magical and fantastical, The Haunted Man is much more human, deeply personal and powerful.
The main character is Stephen Redlaw. He is a successful and famous scientist but he is suffering from grief, caused by the death of his sister (the parallels with Dickens himself are immediately apparent). It has left him disillusioned but importantly and unlike Scrooge, Redlaw is still a kind man. He encounters a ghost which is an eerie likeness of himself:
“Ghastly and cold, colourless in its leaden face and hands, but with his [Redlaw’s] features, and his bright eyes, and his grizzled hair, and dressed in the gloomy shadow of his dress, it came into his terrible appearance of existence, motionless, without a sound.”
The phantom and Redlaw agree to a bargain that bestows upon Redlaw a gift; he will lose any painful or sorrowful memory and he will have the ability to pass the gift on to anyone he touches. Almost immediately, however, Redlaw realises that when we lose our ability to feel pain or sorrow, we also lose our ability to feel love and compassion. Where he anticipates feeling happiness and joy, instead he feels increasingly numb and uncaring. In many ways, the phantom from The Haunted Man does the exact opposite to the ghosts from A Christmas Carol: he takes a kind man and makes him miserable.
It is this gift, far more than the phantom, which comes to haunt Redlaw. After transmitting his gift to other characters and seeing the damage he is inflicting upon them, he exclaims, “I am infected! I am infectious! I am charged with poison for my own mind, and the minds of all mankind. Where I felt interest, compassion, sympathy, I am turning into stone.”
Eventually the curse is lifted after Redlaw encounters his cook, Milly. She is a kindly woman with great care and compassion within her. She reveals to Redlaw that she has also known deep grief and sorrow, but that she has made peace with her pain. She tells Redlaw that it is through her suffering that she is able to have a deeper care for other people, “When I see a beautiful child in its fond mother’s arms, I love it all the better, thinking that my child might have been like that, and might have made my heart as proud and happy.”
The book ends with a great feast, full of the classic Dickensian festive cheer. Redlaw is not transformed in the way of Scrooge – he was already a kind man – but he has learnt to cherish the memory of the people he has loved and lost. He no longer fears his grief, but instead knows that his bittersweet memories will sustain him and make him kinder and ultimately happier.
The Haunted Man is a beautiful story. It is a powerful insight into Dickens’s own state of mind, following the loss of his sister and his struggles with grief and depression. The vivid descriptions of Redlaw’s numbness, lack of compassion and ‘turning into stone’ are instantly recognisable to anyone who has suffered from grief. It is also important to remember that Redlaw was kind at the beginning of the book, and his ‘gift’ did not stop him from being generous. He still gives money to those who need it, for example. But he cannot bring himself to feel genuine compassion for those he helps, and for Dickens this is a real problem. Doing good is not enough, it’s important to be a good person in your heart. Through Redlaw’s gift (and allegorically through Dickens’s grief) there is a sense that this internal goodness has vanished, even though the good actions are still there.
If we think about the process of Redlaw’s ‘gift,’ it is granted to him supernaturally, by the ghost. But it is not lifted by an encounter with a phantom, but rather by the company of Milly. From Dickens’s description, the ‘gift’ granted to Redlaw causes feelings of depression. The fact that this gift is granted supernaturally is quite reflective of real mental health problems, which can often develop in the sufferer unexpectedly and without obvious cause. Similarly the fact that the gift is lifted by the kind cheer of Milly is also reflective of the fact that poor mental health can be alleviated, if not cured, but the kindness of others.
Although we often tend to think about poor mental health as a modern subject, Dickens was acutely aware of how devastating it can be. In his essay, ‘Night Walks,’ he described a real man called Horace Kinch, who appeared to the world to have it all; he was financially secure, had a wife and family and was in the prime of his life. But Dickens describes him as suffering from Dry Rot in a man and relays how Kinch’s life fell apart. In the same way that a plank of wood suffering from dry rot will look fine, until it crumbles into dust, so Dickens writes how no one knew there was anything wrong with Horace Kinch, until it was too late. Dickens uses this same vivid, descriptive, powerfully emotive understanding of mental health to create the powerful festive tale which is The Haunted Man. Suffering himself after the death of his sister, he poured his own mental anguish, pain and reflections into the story. It is almost as though Dickens himself is undergoing the journey alongside Redlaw, rediscovering the meaning of happiness and learning to cherish the memory of his loved ones. Perhaps it was Dickens himself who was the real haunted man.
That’s not to say that The Haunted Man is a depressing read. It is coloured with all the same vibrant comedy as Dickens's other works. His characters are caricatures, glorious pantomimes and incredibly memorable. His vivid descriptions transport you to another world and immerse you into 1840s London. But the emotional connection is powerful and timeless. Anyone who has suffered from grief or from poor mental health will recognise it, and will be warmed by the powerful and moving ending.
To Dickens, Christmas was always a time for joy, but also for remembrance. It is a time when lost loved ones should not be absent, but should be with us all in spirit. Redlaw learns to reflect and change, as he realises that grief is a reflection of our love, and that only by making peace with our pain can we really start to love again. The Haunted Man was written nearly 175 years ago. Yet the deeply human, sympathetic and moving message is just as relevant today as it has ever been.
If you are interested in seeing a performance of The Haunted Man, we are hosting a virtual production over zoom on Sunday 4th December 2022.
Click here to find out more.