This Week in the Dickens Club: The Haunted Man


Felix O.C. Darley. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham via Victorian Web.

by Rach

Friends, a very happy Spring, happy Day 456, and happy Week 66 of the Dickens Club from Boze and yours truly. We hope you’ve all been reveling in good books and good cheer during the break!

For those joining in with the extra/optional readings of the Christmas books, I am sorry that they are not all wrapped together in the appropriate season like a Christmas gift, but such is the downside to reading in chronological order! Thanks to all who have joined in with this journey.

Here is our running list of links for the discussions on the Christmas books:

    • Comment below to discuss The Haunted Man.

Please feel free to keep adding to all conversations, including that on Pictures from Italy!

Click here for Chris’s post on Peter Ackroyd’s Introduction to the Christmas books.

I will have a final wrap-up of the Christmas books posted next Monday, 10 April, followed the next day by Boze‘s introduction to David Copperfield!

Notes on The Haunted Man (4-10 April 2023)

by Clarkson Stanfield

Note: Thanks to Peter Ackroyd, as always, and to Philip V. Allingham’s insightful and researched essay, “The Last of Dickens’s Five Christmas Books: The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain (19 December 1848)” from the Victorian Web for historical background. Well worth a read!

Published just in time for the Christmas of 1848, The Haunted Man was to be the last of Dickens’s “Christmas books.” Here, we might say that Dickens once again brings things full circle: the haunting of the main character, Redlaw, echoes that of Ebenezer Scrooge or Trotty Veck in his first two Christmas books, A Christmas Carol and The Chimes. In this case, however, Redlaw, a chemistry teacher, makes a terrible bargain with a phantom that is like his own doppelgänger: the Ghost will aid him in forgetting all of the pain and wrongs he has suffered–e.g. the loss of a sister–so that he need brood over them no more. Redlaw is then enabled to bestow this “gift” on others–always at a cost: those who receive this forgetfulness begin to act unlike themselves, because they can’t help but forget the good as well. The good memories–not to mention, empathy for the sufferings of others–are so deeply connected with the painful ones.

I wrote, in the Spring of last year, on the theme of memory in Dickens’s early works, as memory will permeate much of his mature work as well. We see the real beginning of it here: The Haunted Man is a memory-haunted story, and this was a particularly memory-filled and autobiographical time in Dickens’s writing. Not only had he been revisiting the painful memories of the Marshalsea and his time at the blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs for his autobiographical fragment (My Early Years)–to be put to use in our next novel, David Copperfield, and later in John Forster’s biography–but his sister, Fanny, had just passed away of tuberculosis on September 2nd, 1848. Fanny, a beloved sister, whose talent and education during Dickens’s early years had caused him some distress and perhaps envy, seeing the difference in their relative situations. Just as Oliver Twist and later works would be haunted by the memory of the loss of Mary Hogarth, so too would The Haunted Man and David Copperfield–our next read together–echo with the loss of his sister, Fanny. The Haunted Man “is a story in which the central character’s mournfulness is linked closely with the death of a beloved sister” (Ackroyd 553).

Fanny (Dickens) Burnett, from The Charles Dickens Page

“The theme itself revolves around Dickens’s belief that memory is a softening and chastening power, that the recollection of old sufferings and old wrongs can be used to touch the heart and elicit sympathy with the sufferings of others. In his autobiographical fragment he had written of his parents’ apparent neglect only to add that ‘I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am…’ [….] For it was his suffering and the memory of his sufferings which had given him the powerful sympathy of the great writer, just as his recollection of those harder days inspired him with that pity of the poor and the dispossessed which was a mark of his social writings. It has been said that in this autobiographical fragment Dickens is only suppressing his feelings of hurt and jealous rage, but it seems more likely that he was actively involved, after Fanny’s death, in the process of transcending them.”

~ Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, pg. 553

The Haunted Man sold comparably well–18,000 copies on its first day. The ghost of the idea of it came to Dickens as early as two years before, though he still had Dombey and Son to wrap up first. Ackroyd writes of it as being “carefully planned; the manuscript shows evidence of forethought and afterthought, as Dickens crosses out, amends, and adds to such an extent that in its original form it is actually very hard to read” (Acrkoyd 553).

Like its predecessor, The Battle of Life, the wood engravings for the original printing of The Haunted Man were provided by four artists, though with a couple of new names: John Leech, Clarkson Stanfield, Frank Stone, and John Tenniel.

If you’d like to read The Haunted Man online, it is available to read at The Circumlocution Office, or to download at sites such as Gutenberg.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Allingham, Philip V. “The Last of Dickens’s Five Christmas Books: The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain (19 December 1848)”. Via the Victorian Web.


  1. Everyone in this group has probably forgotten about it after all the Dombey drama, but I wrote in a comment on the Cricket on the Hearth introduction that The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain is theoretically my second of favorite of Dickens’s “Christmas books” since it comes to closest to recreating A Christmas Carol’s balance between darkness and brightness, but that in practice, my second favorite is The Cricket on the Hearth. That’s probably because I find the characterizations in Cricket more fun than those in The Haunted Man, though the latter certainly aren’t bad.

    Another reason might be that I find the resolution of The Haunted Man rather disappointing. I don’t normally have a problem with how Dickens idealizes (cynical readers would say fetishizes) innocent and maternal young women but having Milly’s pure young woman-ness just make her innately immune to Redlaw’s curse and able to cure its victims with her mere presence strikes me as ridiculously lazy and anticlimactic. The fact that Milly is one of the least well written characters in the book doesn’t help, though I’ll admit that her final conversation with Redlaw and her final speech explaining her connection to children and summing up the book’s message are quite moving. If the book’s final section were as great as the rest of it, maybe it really would be my second favorite.

    The Haunted Man’s first scene is an interesting twist on the first scene of A Christmas Carol. Again, we’re given an encounter between a warm cheerful character and a cold cynical one. (Actually, most of Dickens’s Christmas books begin, more or less, with conversations between characters with contrasting temperaments and outlooks on life.) Technically, there are three cheerful characters in the Swidger family. But in A Christmas Carol, we’re clearly meant to prefer Fred to Scrooge. Redlaw’s grimness, on the other hand, makes him pitiable and, unlike Scrooge, he says more about himself by not speaking.

    Dickens also memorably glorified Christmas shopping in the third stave of A Christmas Carol. In The Haunted Man, he gives a view of its dark side from Mrs. Tetterby. “this being Christmas-time, when all people who can, make holiday, and when all people who have got money, like to spend some, I did, somehow, get a little out of sorts when I was in the streets just now. There were so many things to be sold—such delicious things to eat, such fine things to look at, such delightful things to have—and there was so much calculating and calculating necessary, before I durst lay out a sixpence for the commonest thing; and the basket was so large, and wanted so much in it; and my stock of money was so small, and would go such a little way…”

    An interesting thing about Mrs. Tetterby is that she’s a positive, even attractive character, but she’s also described as somewhat overweight. (You’ll also recall that Dot in The Cricket on the Hearth was described as having a “dumpling figure.”) In a later book, Little Dorrit, Dickens portrays the overweight Flora Finching as very unattractive. (Of course, the narrator claims that her problem is more that she refuses to age gracefully but insists on clinging to her youth. Still, it’s hard not to suspect her weight is a factor, especially when her appetite is also stressed.) So Dickens actually became less openminded about beauty standards as he got older. (I’m sorry if it bugs people that I keep referring to later Dickens books when the point of this group is to go through them chronologically. It’s hard to resist though when you’ve read a lot of them.)

    I don’t quite understand what Dickens was saying in third chapter of The Haunted Man with Redlaw’s mind being like that of the homeless boy. Even under the curse, Redlaw still empathizes with others hence his desperation to keep from infecting more people. He’s clearly not feral or only interested in survival.

    Given that The Haunted Man was written after Dombey and Son, it’s interesting to think about them in connection with each other. Dombey only comes to repentance after he has experienced great suffering just like the characters in this book. Apparently, that’s where Dickens’s mind was.

    Readers may be interested to hear that the modern movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inside Out, apparently have a thematic connection to The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. (That’s what I’ve gathered at any rate.) Since the book is so under the radar, we can’t say it influenced the filmmakers but it’s an interesting coincidence and perhaps means The Haunted Man was ahead of its time.

    I kind of regret that we never did a zoom meeting about the Christmas books. (BTW, why are they called that? Only A Christmas Carol and The Haunted Man have to do with Christmas. Were they all published in December?) Rob has stated that his favorite is The Battle of Life when most people’s favorite is A Christmas Carol and The Battle of Life doesn’t even seem like a popular choice for second favorite, so that would have been really interesting to discuss more.

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    1. I think what Dickens is trying to show with the Child is that without memory as a point of reference we are no better than that Child – that is, feral – whose only memories are related to how to get basic necessities (food, shelter) and how to survive (he crouches and lashes out). Our memories of experiences and their associated emotions give us a reference point for compassion and forgiveness. They make us human. (This is not to say that this sets us apart from animals, for I would argue that many animals use memory to form bonds and express compassion for each other.) Even in his altered state Redlaw knows there is something about the Child he needs to learn. In identifying with the Child, Redlaw realizes (or begins to realize) what he has lost and how its loss has made him less of human.

      Relating this to another Dickens novel, the Child is the precursor of Jo the crossing sweeper in “Bleak House”.

      And, yes, these books were all written specifically for publication at Christmas.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Stationmaster, that is a splendid commentary–truly! Thanks for the depth and breadth of your reading and your ability to comment so thoughtfully.

    Such an interesting “what if” premise for a story: What if we could forget all of the pain and suffering of our lives? At what cost? At what possible diminishment of our humanity?

    I love the Inimitable’s observation that all of his life’s darkness contributed to making him what he was. How could it be otherwise?

    Anyway, Fellow Travelers, I look forward to gaining more insight from your comments.

    Due to other obligations, I may concentrate on getting a “jump start” on Copperfield.



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  3. Redlaw’s history as told by the Phantom in Ch 1 seems to me to preview what is to come in “David Copperfield” – SPOILER ALERT – Redlaw’s lack of a father (or father figure) to guide him; his estrangement from his remarried mother; his finding and nurturing, in his “struggle upward”, a close friend by whom he, and a dearly loved sister figure, are betrayed. David, however, has learned the lesson Redlaw must be taught – that memory, while often of negative and hurtful, can be (should be) a positive and healing force. Redlaw’s curse comes from his thinking too much and from doing so while in a vacuum – “If living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not one others.” (Ch 1). In other words, dwelling on what is or has gone wrong, without input from other people to put things in perspective, invariably leads to self-pity and feelings of being misused or unappreciated. I think Dickens was correct to show that Redlaw’s curse could only be lifted with the aid of another person – Milly – who puts memories (his and those of others) in perspective for him and allows him to see their healing powers rather than just their sorrows or wrongs. David, we shall find, is surrounded by characters who keep him grounded.

    The message of “Keep my memory green” is twofold, meaning both “don’t let me be forgotten” and “don’t let me forget”. A prayer to inspire us to behave through life in such a way as to leave – hopefully – fond memories of ourselves in those who come after, and also to use our own memories to inspire us to be charitable as we move through life. In this story, the caveat Dickens applies is that we must be cognizant of how we allow our memories to affect us. We should not allow our bad or sorrowful memories make us bitter or resentful, rather they should move us to forgive any wrong (real or perceived) and make us charitable toward others; our good, happy memories should make us rejoice and inspire us to spread or sow such good feeling among whomever we encounter.

    For those of us who may be Star Trek fans, this message of the usefulness of memory was used in the movie, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The character Sybok, a Vulcan, uses his mind-melding ability to tap into a person’s pain and thus relieve them of it and thus acquire and secure their loyalty. Capt. Kirk refuses to undergo the mind-meld saying, “I don’t want my pain taken away. I need my pain”.

    And speaking of keeping grounded versus losing perspective, I think it interesting that in Ch 3 Dickens has Mr Tetterby say in remorseful consideration of his forgetfulness:

    “‘My little woman, I wondered how,’ gasped Mr. Tetterby, supporting himself by his chair, ‘I wondered how I had ever admired you – I forgot the precious children you have brought about me, and thought you didn’t look as slim as I could wish. I – I never gave a recollection,’ said Mr. Tetterby, with severe self-accusation, ‘to the cares you’ve had as my wife, and along of me and mine . . . and I quarreled with you for having aged a little in the rough years you’ve lightened for me.”

    In lamenting his resentment of his wife while under the influence of Redlaw’s curse, Mr Tetterby says the very thing Dickens himself should have recalled in relation to his own wife, Catherine. I wonder if Forster – or anyone – tried to remind Dickens of this.

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    1. The part of the book reminded me of David Copperfield too.

      Funny you should mention that about Star Trek. The Haunted Man reminded me of a scene from ABC’s Once Upon a Time, which is really not a show I recommend but…there’s this scene where a character is going to take a potion that will make them forget their painful memories. The character of Grumpy (as in Grumpy from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) objects to this and they remind him that he has painful memories too. Wouldn’t he like to get rid of his pain? “I need my pain,” he says, “it makes me who I am. It makes me Grumpy.” LOL.

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  4. I think it’s interesting to compare the Tetterbys to the Cratchits. We never see the latter arguing with or getting mad at each other-and I have no problem with that. Honestly, it wouldn’t have fit in with the story Dickens was telling in A Christmas Carol at all. The whole point of their most famous scene is that they don’t get to spend time with each other much because all have to work at different jobs all day; Christmas is the one day they can enjoy each other’s company and they don’t want to spoil it. I’m sure Dickens didn’t expect us to assume they never fight. It’s just that we don’t see them do it.

    On the other hand, we do see the Tetterbys argue amongst themselves, pretty sharply too. However, they always apologize and make up quickly. (It takes them a little longer than usual to reconcile because of Redlaw’s curse but not too long.) In his early books, Dickens tended to have the good guys be totally good and the bad guys be totally bad and clear moral lines would never cease to be drawn in his books. But we’ll see that in David Copperfield and some other later books, he would showcase the weaknesses and vices of sympathetic and/or positive characters more often. In this way, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain can be seen as marking an important transition in Dickens’s career. (I suppose you could argue Dombey and Son really marked this transition with the immoral but sympathetic and even admirable Edith Dombey. I feel like we kind of ended up rooting for her wholeheartedly despite Dickens’s intentions though.)

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  5. After A Christmas Carol–which is almost a Thing too perfectly written, too archetypal to have been written by a human being–The Haunted Man might be my favorite of the other Christmas books. (Even though I always love the foreshadowings of A Tale of Two Cities in The Battle of Life.) But as you know from my topical post last year, somewhere between Oliver & Nickleby, the theme of *memory* in Dickens just fascinates me.

    Here, it does seem as though Dickens, as Ackroyd writes of, is once again processing and transcending the grief over the loss of Fanny, just as he was, in Oliver (and perhaps forever after) processing the grief of losing Mary Hogarth. The bitterness of it all must have made Redlaw’s temptation his own, almost wishing to blot the pain out of existence–except that the repercussive effects would be so devastating, as we can’t disconnect our growth and our love from our pain–and the greatest pains are painful because of our love. (e.g. The greater our love, for someone, the more painful it is to lose them. Or, the more reliance on someone we have–e.g. Dickens with his own parents as a boy–the more we are pained when they disappoint us…send us to the blacking factory, or wish us to return there.)

    Dickens, who is so strong in *association*, of course, prizes memory–even if the downside of having a too-keen-awareness of the past can manifest as brooding, despair, or morbid regret–partly because what we lose, in losing a part of our memory, would be “the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections.” I love the passage that follows this: such associations “have been wont to show themselves in the fire [fire-gazing: a recurring action–always, I think, in characters we are in sympathy with!], in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years.”

    I like the image of the Child as counterpart and mirror to Redlaw. As Chris says above, he is a prototype of Jo the crossing sweeper. I think he also might be an incarnation of Ignorance and Want; clearly, his destitution of both education and care have given him so little to cling to, to grapple with, that he is, as Chris said, almost “feral.” This is what we are without the internal processing of the pain in our lives, if we cut ourselves off from growing from them, and loving through them. A kind of “education of the heart,” perhaps, just as the uneducated Milly is the one “teaching” the Chemist, Redlaw.

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  6. Such wonderful discussion points once more 😀

    I had wanted to comment myself, but I finished the last chapter yesterday and my thoughts are not amenable in summary form yet! I did manage to post a comment on that wonderful earlier post about the theme of memory so I don’t feel so bad!

    I think the idea of a study of a ‘Haunted Man’ was becoming inevitable when Dickens had got this far. And this is a great little tale in keeping with the rest of the Christmas Books.

    A few random thoughts from me instead of a long comment:

    I think that Milly is yet another iteration of the ‘young, beautiful and good’ Mary Hogarth. A version of whom probably appears in all five books if we fancy it?! Hmm!
    Belle in Carol?
    Meg/ Lillian in The Chimes
    Dot in Cricket – perhaps Bertha too
    Marion in Battle of Life

    I would imagine that Dickens would perhaps have thought of Mary more ( if that were possible) at Christmas time.

    In the 1851, “What Christmas is as We Grow Older” he wrote:
    There was a dear girl—almost a woman—never to be one—who made a mourning Christmas in a house of joy, and went her trackless way to the silent City. Do we recollect her, worn out, faintly whispering what could not be heard, and falling into that last sleep for weariness? O look upon her now! O look upon her beauty, her serenity, her changeless youth, her happiness!

    Both the Toodles in Dombey and the Tetterbys in Haunted Man have an abundance of children and I wonder whether this was because Dickens was rather sensible at this time of his own brood having reached 6 or 7, when (as I recall reading somewhere) he would have been content to stop at 2 or 3

    “Polly, my gal,” said Mr Toodle, with a young Toodle on each knee, and two more making tea for him, and plenty more scattered about—<strong.Mr Toodle was never out of children, but always kept a good supply on hand—“you ain’t seen our Biler lately, have you?”

    and of the Tetterbys:
    In company with the small man, was almost any amount of small children you may please to name—at least it seemed so; they made, in that very limited sphere of action, such an imposing effect, in point of numbers.

    Now… about that David Copperfield… 🙂


    1. Now that you mention it, each of the “Christmas books” could reasonably have been titled The Haunted Man. Mind you, it would be more reasonable for some than for others, but every one of them features a man who is haunted by someone or something.


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