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Five years ago

Charles Dickens and H. C. Andersen

I still remember the moment when I discovered that George Sand and Frederic Chopin were lovers. There is something about the unexpected link between two people who are each already established in my brain with their own specific contexts and labels, neither of which contains the other.

That is how I felt when I discovered Charles Dickens and H.C. Andersen had met. The one belongs to British Victoriana, and is of course surrounded by all sorts of PhD-related associations for me; the other belongs to the Scandinavian, fairy tales and my childhood. I knew they lived more or less at the same time, at least I would have if someone asked; but they would never be linked in my mind.

The most delicious part of the story, however, is not that they met; but how soon Dickens got tired of Andersen once he came to visit and wouldn't leave.

I believe it is conventional to start at the beginning. The two first met in 1847, from what I can tell, during Andersen's trip to England. That year, Andersen dedicated his A Christmas Greeting to Dickens (incidentally, I believe this is where the Tin Soldier first makes an appearance; Dickens declared it one of his favourites in a letter to Andersen the following January). Afterwards, they exchanged letters. It was all very amicable.

But then, almost ten years later, in the summer of 1857, Andersen made the mistake of taking Dickens up on his invitation to come stay for two weeks (in his newly acquired Gads Hill in Kent: Anderson was Dickens' first guest in this house), and ended up staying for five. It is not entirely clear what happened during the stay, and there has been a lot of speculation (some of it rather disturbing), but nobody knows for sure what caused the rift between them.

To Angela Burdett-Coutts, Dickens wrote that

We are suffering a good deal from Andersen. The other day we lost him when we came up to the London bridge Terminus, and he took a Cab by himself. The Cabman driving him through the new unfinished street at Clerkenwell, he thought he was driving him into remote fastnesses, to rob and murder him. He consequently arrived here with all his money, his watch, his pocketbook and documents, in his boots - and it was a tremendous business to unpack him and get them off. I have of arrived at the conviction that he cannot speak Danish; and the best of it is that his Translatress declares he can't - is ready to make oath of it before any magistrate.

And to William Jerdan (on 21 July 1857) he wrote of Andersen's linguistic prowess (or lack thereof) that

His unintelligible vocabulary was marvellous. In French or Italian, he was Peter the Wild Boy -- in English, the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. My eldest boy swears that the ear of a man cannot recognize his German; and his translatress declares to Bentley that he can't speak Danish!

And then he repeats the same anecdote about Andersen and his cab driver, and in general gives the impression that the man was a scatterbrain of impressive proportions. I suppose one might imagine that a general annoyance might spring up if he overstayed his welcome by three weeks.

This article in the Independent offers some alternative theories on the reasons for the rift: dithering between Anderson's possibly inappropriate fondness for Dickens' son, or his stated enthusiasm for Dickens' wife (in published form) at a time when Dickens had taken the rather unusual and publicly problematic step of separating from her (and attempting to vilify her in the process). Then again, it might be something as simple as Anderson lacking an appreciation for cricket. You never know.

At any rate: I wish I could have observed this particular social awkwardness.

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2011.
Jenny Hartley. The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
The Hans Christian Andersen Center
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Last edited by
Camilla, 15.04.13 10:04