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'Visions of an unseen world': the production and consumption of English ghost stories, c.1660-1800

By Sasha Handley


This thesis traces the cultural significance of ghost beliefs in English society from c.1660 to c.1800. It is an attempt to partially re-enchant these years and to nuance historical characterisation of eighteenth-century England as an enlightened, secularising and ‘anti-superstitious’ nation. Moreover, I aim to restore ghost beliefs to historical legitimacy and my central argument is that they played a crucial role in shaping the specific social, political, economic and religious contours of eighteenth-century life. Ghosts have been largely exorcised from existing accounts of this period and so this research represents a fresh contribution to historical understandings of the long eighteenth century and to historiographies of the supernatural more generally. \ud \ud The following chapters describe how ghost beliefs blended with the religious cultures of Anglicanism and Methodism by reinforcing orthodox theological teachings. The idea that dead souls could return to earth also complemented clerical initiatives to reform lay spirituality and to temper the extremes of rational religion. I chart how ghost beliefs fared in the face of new enlightenment philosophies, and how they informed discourse of politeness, individuality and interiority. This is accompanied by explorations of the relevance of ghost beliefs in everyday life. I describe the places and spaces in which ghost stories were told, the people who narrated them and those who listened. This ‘thick description’ emphasises how the spread of ghost stories was encouraged by contemporary labour relations, by the expansion of British imperial and trading interests overseas, and by patterns of sociability that were intrinsically linked to the realities of eighteenth-century life.\ud \ud I have harnessed insights from socio-linguistics and the sociology of literature to theorise the relationship between ghost stories and ghost beliefs. I have examined the production, circulation and consumption of ghost stories, as well as their form and content, to explain how these texts reflected and shaped the opinions of a variety of readers. In so doing, this thesis suggests an important relationship between literary forms and historical change

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