Last year I randomly downloaded an American podcast doing a Halloween special about the history of ghosts and supernatural writings in the nineteenth century. The hosts came across a ghost story which was published in a journal edited by Dickens, All the Year Round, in September 1861, entitled A Portrait-Painter’s Story. I was intrigued by that time while I listened to the podcast and today I dug out some information regarding the curious anecdote of Dickens.
The story set against the backdrop during autumnal time in 1858. A portrait painter occasioned to get acquainted with a beautiful young lady who got in the carriage at the Doncaster stop and sat down opposite to him while he was travelling on a morning train from York to London.
The next few minutes were occupied in locating herself. There was the cloak to be spread under her, the skirts of the dress to be arranged, the gloves to be tightened, and such other trifling arrangements of plumage as ladies are wont to make before sitting themselves comfortably at church or elsewhere, the last and most important being the placing back over her hat the veil that concealed her features. I could then see that the lady was young, certainly pot more than two or three and twenty; but being moderately tall, rather robust in make and decided in expression, she might have been two or three years younger.
The protagonist was supposed to leave the lady to get on with his journey and interchanged at Retford Junction so as to meet up a Kirkbeck family in Lincolnshire. However, as soon as he arrived at the host’s house he against bumped into the mysterious young lady who stood near the chimney-place and warmed her feet. Since then several times did the mysterious young woman appear to him inadvertently and besought him to make some sketches of her with his own recollection. To ease the painter’s burden to his work, she also produced from her belongings an engraving of a woman whom her family considered to be very much like her.
“Do you think you could paint my portrait?” the lady inquired.
“Yes, 1 think I could, if I had the opportunity.”
“Now, look at my face well; do you think you should recollect my features?”
“Yes, I am sure I should never forget your features.”
“Of course I might have expected you to say that; but do you think you could do me from recollection?”
“Well, if it be necessary, I will try; but can’t you give me any sittings?”
“No, quite impossible; it could not be. It is said that the print I showed you before dinner is like me; do you think so?”
“Not much.” I replied; “it has not your expression. If you can give me one sitting, it would be better than none.”
“No; I don’t see how it could be.”
Weeks later the portrait painter unexpectedly stayed with a family called Lute, which the story is brought to the climax in that the young lady, who actually named Caroline, “died near four months previously; that her father had never yet recovered from the shock of her death”. Through violent paroxysms, the father saw images of the deceased daughter engaging with the protagonist; and being taken care by the circumstance of fate and the portrait painter’s sketches, the once indisposed yet convalescing father could finally reunite with his beloved Caroline through the memories they shared with each other. “The portrait now hangs in his bedroom, with the print and the two sketches by the side, and written beneath is: “C. L., 13th September, 1858, aged twenty-two.”
Victorians those days were all obsessed with spiritual encounters, mesmerism, prophecies, premonitions, inexplicable fate and coincidences that befell upon them in life, just the same as we are today, which made supernatural and Gothic tales irresistible to the reading public (One example was that a young girl aged fifteen was suffered from fits and died horribly as she was much worried by Mother Shipton’s prophecy that the world would end in 1881). The publication of A Portrait-Painter’s Story soon aroused an incredulous response, especially from a miniature painter, Thomas Frank Heaphy (1813 – 1873). Heaphy wrote in a letter to Dickens attached with his own copy of the story claiming that the incident, who Heaphy thought “originated” by Dickens, was more or less true – but he himself was the actually none other than the real “protagonist” who encountered this seemingly young and beautiful apparition. Dickens was much amazed and shocked by the coincidence displayed through the series of correspondence he had with Heaphy, especially as to the date that he himself inserted while revising the proof for the publication – “Why that date should have come into my head rather than any other I am profoundly unable to say.” The Story, according to Dickens’s account, was second handed to Sir Edward Lytton from a young writer named Edward Ward, and timely Mr Layard, a friend of his, also heard Sir Edward Lytton retold it in a gathering party.
Dickens thought the version of Heaphy’s was far more striking as well as superior and requested to procure Heaphy’s manuscript upon his approval to be published in the October issue of All the Year Round. After Heaphy’s death several years later, his wife republished the later husband’s supernatural account enriched by the long-kept correspondences between Heaphy and Dickens.
As a side-note, we might not know what Dickens first reaction was while reading Heaphy’s letter. Enraged? Annoyed? Surprised? Shocked? He might be irritated that his dear fellows implicated him to his being accused of “stealing people’s ideas” again as he was not only once beset by these similar cases before. And never did he know that around four years later, he would incur a railway incident yet again, this time, which was actually a matter of life and death.