ABSTRACT

Speaking in 1778, the famous man of letters and social commentator Samuel Johnson usefully summed up the uncertainty surrounding visions of ghosts in eighteenth-century England: ‘It is wonderful that ve thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing a er death. All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.’1 Johnson was unwilling to credit every reported appearance of ghosts, yet he remained rmly convinced that the souls of the dead could and did revisit their former habitations. Johnson’s faithful friend James Boswell endorsed his opinion, and members of Johnson’s learned acquaintance also claimed personal experience of such otherworldly encounters.2 Far from being idle tittle-tattle, Johnson considered the subject of ghosts to be ‘one of the most important that can come before the human understanding’.3 is book seeks to place Johnson’s thoughts on this subject in a wider historical context. It will explore the ways in which ghost beliefs both tted and clashed with the changing cultural landscapes of English society in the long eighteenth century, and with the daily lives of the men and women who lived in it. rough an analysis of ghost stories, which are understood here as complex expressions of ghost beliefs, this is a study in the imaginative force and exibility of an idea, or rather a set of ideas, surrounding the nature, status and location of the dead, and the changing meanings attached to their appearances.