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How a French ghost story influenced Dickens

Dickens Christmas
A Christmas Carol isn’t the only spine-chilling Christmas ghost story from the pen of Charles Dickens.
In 1850 he wrote A Christmas Tree, a nostalgic collection of anecdotes inspired by the sight of “a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree.” In the course of the short story, Charles Dickens recalls evenings “telling Winter Stories— Ghost Stories, or more shame for us—round the Christmas fire” and shares a selection of his favourite terrifying tales. But did they come from his own imagination, or were they collected from life?
Dr Fabio Camilletti from Warwick’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures follows the chains from Marley’s ghost through the Christmas Tree to the Place du Lion d’Or in Lille, site of a celebrated haunting in pre-Revolutionary France.

The ferry for Calais was a couple of hours away, but I had an open ticket and when the clerk proposed me to take the Dunkirk route I accepted. I had no hurry, so it was not a matter of schedule. It just came to my mind that Dunkirk was just a good fifty miles from Lille. I could spend the night there, and see the square. I could take some photos, perhaps, although I was unlikely to identify the building. Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould had tried, exactly 110 years before me, but could not find anything either.

Nowadays, not so many remember, but there was a time when the haunting of Place du Lion d’Or was one of the most famous cases in the annals of ghostly apparitions. It all started with an anonymous account published by London magazine The Album in 1822. The story was very simple: Just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, a British family, the Pennymans, rented a house in Lille for a trifling price. A few days later, they accidentally discovered that the house was said to be haunted; servants reported scary noises from an empty room on the top floor, and wished to resign. On inspecting the room, Lady Pennyman discovered an iron cage, too big for an animal: popular rumours said it was the instrument by which an evil-doing tutor had tortured his pupil boy to death. Lady Pennyman’s sons and daughters experienced different phenomena, but climax was reached when a woman on visit decided to defy the ghost and sleep in the haunted room. What happened next is predictable: in the end, the family decided to leave the house, without being tormented by the ghost any longer.

A first hand account

The story became immensely popular. After The Album, it was included in cheap anthologies such as T.M. Jervis’s Accredited Ghost Stories (1823), Horace Welby’s Signs before Death, and Authenticated Apparitions (1825), and a 1843 re-edition of John Tregortha’s News from the Invisible World. It also circulated by word of mouth: Walter Scott commented upon it in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), and Victorian storyteller Augustus Hare would hear an abridged version of it, as late as 1862, in a Yorkshire castle.

In 1848, writer and Spiritualist Catherine Crowe managed to obtain a first-hand account from one of the daughters of Lady Pennyman, and published it in her treatise The Night Side of Nature. Elizabeth Pennyman, who would precisely die in 1848 at the age of eighty-three, could not explain how the story had come out of the family circle, and suspected that some servant might tip it off the press. Though, romanticized as it might be, the account was true, although none of the family had ever been to Lille since then. The story would later appear in other compilations of the supernatural, including Gwladys Townshend’s and Maude ffoulkes’s True Ghost Stories and Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book, both of 1936. Lord Halifax particularly loved this story, and his friend J.G. Lockhart recalls how, in the last weeks of his life, “he insisted upon [his] reading” it.

It is not difficult to explain the reasons of such success. Printed accounts of ‘true’ apparitions, more or less fictionalized, had become common since the eighteenth century: in fact, the first recognized example in the genre was A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, a pamphlet of 1706 by no less than Daniel Defoe. Other widespread anecdotes concerned Lord Lyttelton, a libertine who had his death foretold by an apparition, or Lord Castlereagh, who overtly spoke of supernatural experiences before committing suicide in 1822. There was a difference, however. All these apparitions had been seen by individuals: they could be figments of imagination, or have been induced by alcohol, mental disease, or nervous tension. The ghost of Lille, instead, had been seen by a Lady and by her children, as well as by their English and French servants and by another woman, who was unrelated with the family. It could be the final evidence in favour of the supernatural, which was probably one of the reasons of Lord Halifax’s attachment to it: perhaps, he saw it as a “most compelling piece of evidence of the existence of ghosts […] and, as he reached the end of his life, a reassuring hint at the possibility of continued existence on some other plane”.

Rumours in England

Unfortunately, such evidence would always be missing. The French Revolution and the war between France and England broke all relationships between the two countries; in 1815, when it all ended, France had changed forever, and so had Lille. By going back to England, the Pennymans had kept the memory of the haunting of Place du Lion d’Or, but in France it was completely forgotten. When visiting Lille in 1907, in search for the origins of the story, Sabine Baring-Gould would only find “a game and poulterer’s shop […]. The poulterer professes never to have heard of ghosts, and what has become of the iron cage is now unknown”. More than a hundred years later, when a user nicknamed Compteuse posted the rumour about a haunted building in Place du Lion d’Or in a French forum on paranormal matters, she received several replies from people of Lille who answered that no such place existed and that in any case they had never heard of it. And, of course, I could not find anything either, except for some buildings that might be the one without, however, anyone being able to help me.

Even in England, after Lord Halifax’s and Townshend/ffoulkes’s books of 1936, interest in the case would fade. Not incidentally, these are also the years of the Foysters’ tenancy of Borley Rectory and of Harry Price’s investigations in “the most haunted house in England”. More documented and better suited to the taste of the contemporary age, the Borley haunting would take the place of the elusive ghost of Lille, of which so much had been said but so little could be proven.

The story found its way into Literature

While other, more provable hauntings consigned the Lille one to oblivion, the story had somewhat found its way into a different discourse – that of literature.

Charles Dickens had reviewed Crowe’s book in 1848. Two years later, in A Christmas Tree (1850), he collected a number of typical ghost stories for Christmas, one of which runs as follows:

Or, it was a certain sensible old maiden lady […] who really did see the Orphan Boy […]. […] she went to stay at a place in Kent, which her brother […] had newly bought. There was a story that this place had once been held in trust, by the guardian of a young boy: who was himself the next heir, and who killed the young boy by harsh and cruel treatment. She knew nothing of that. It has been said that there was a Cage in her bed-room in which the guardian used to put the boy. There was no such thing. There was only a closet. She went to bed, made no alarm whatever in the night, and in the morning said composedly to her maid when she came in, “Who is the pretty forlorn-looking child who has been peeping out of that closet all night?” The maid replied by giving a loud scream, and instantly decamping. She was surprised; but, she was a woman of remarkable strength of mind, and she dressed herself and went down stairs, and closeted herself with her brother. “Now, Walter”, she said, “I have been disturbed all night by a pretty forlorn-looking boy, who has been constantly peeping out of that closet in my room, which I can’t open. This is some trick”. “I am afraid not, Charlotte”, said he, “for it is the legend of the house. It is the Orphan Boy. What did he do?” “He opened the door softly”, said she, “and peeped out. Sometimes, he came a step or two into the room. Then, I called to him, to encourage him, and he shrunk, and shuddered, and crept in again, and shut the door”. “The closet has no communication, Charlotte”, said her brother, “with any other part of the house, and it’s nailed up”. This was undeniably true, and it took two carpenters a whole forenoon to get it open, for examination. Then, she was satisfied that she had seen the Orphan Boy. But, the wild and terrible part of the story is, that he was also seen by three of her brother’s sons, in succession, who all died young. On the occasion of each chid being taken ill, he came home in a heat, twelve hours before, and said, Oh, Mamma, he had been playing under a particular oak-tree, in a certain meadow, with a strange boy – a pretty, forlorn-looking boy, who was very timid, and made signs! From fatal experience, the parents came to know that this was the Orphan Boy, and that the course of that child whom he chose for his little playmate was surely run.

None of the Pennymans, certainly, had died because of the Orphan Boy of Place du Lion d’Or – and yet it seems as if Dickens wished to pay homage to one of the most famous ghost stories of his time.

The old maiden Lady may be a figure of Miss Elizabeth Pennyman, who had died just two years before Dickens’s tale; the behaviour of servants, counter-balancing the composure of their masters, may remind similar episodes in the Lille story; and the indistinct memory of a legend connected to the property evokes the vagueness surrounding the haunting of Place du Lion d’Or. At the same time, Dickens skilfully drops all exotic, sensationalist, or implausible elements, thereby making the story more forcible and uncanny. The anecdote is not set in an old house in the French Flanders, but in an apparently normal property in Kent; there is no cage, but only a closet – apparently a rationalizing choice, when we do not consider how locking children in closets was a common Victorian practice. By so doing, Dickens imparts new life to a story whose narrative potential seemed to be already exploited.

Once transposed in the here and now of Victorian England, the story of the Orphan Boy ceases to be a piece of evidence for psychical researchers, rather becoming a spine-chilling tale for Christmas Eve.

19 December 2018


Fabio Camilletti

Fabio Camilletti is Reader at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Warwick.

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