1846 August Grahl

SATURDAY HISTORY LESSON: Hans Christian Anderson as Charles Dickens’ Houseguest


Though ideally it’s always mutual, as in any romance, a friendship can suffer from an imbalance of commitment. That is what happened, to a degree, to Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen.

They met for the first time in London in July 1847. It’s fair to say they had more than a little in common. Both were already not just consummate storytellers, not just in their stories but on the stage, too. They’d both written books that were destined to haunt the imaginations of children down to the present day: Dickens had already published A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, and Andersen’s fairy tales were just beginning to be translated into English. Andersen had been travelling around London meeting various eager patrons and potential translators, trying to stop the unauthorized publication of his work. He was only starting to be known outside of Denmark.

Another kind of writer might have been jealous of a slightly more successful colleague. But that was not Andersen’s way. When finally he found himself, one evening, in a salon with the great English writer he’d long idolized, he was impressed. “He quite answers to the best ideas I had formed of him,” Andersen wrote.

Andersen was, all his life, the kind of man whom others called childlike. It was not a matter of personal appearance, per se. Andersen was tall, but his limbs were out of proportion with his body, and he felt himself ugly, in part because he had a rather large nose. But he had a way of wanting to own people — romantically, or not, though the line between the two was often unclear in his case — that was distinctly childish. One of his recent biographers recorded him retaining that emotional makeup through his sixties: “keenly sensitive, entirely egotistical, innocently vain, the centre of life, interest, concern and meaning to himself, perfectly unconscious that there existed another standard, an outer circle, taking it for granted that everywhere he was to be first and all.”

Dickens, by contrast, cut a more dashing figure. He was in his mid-thirties then, his hair still a longish and curly brown, and he had a penchant for brightly-coloured waistcoats that had gotten him a bit of criticism in America.

There is no evidence that Andersen was in love with Dickens, per se, though we know he was bisexual. But Andersen’s entreaties to him, which would last another decade, certainly had the character of infatuation. “Dear delightful Charles Dickens,” one began. He’d send Dickens his novels for review, and chatter in public and to firends about what a wonderful writer Dickens was. For his part, Dickens would often take months to write back to Andersen, if at all.

Nine years passed. Perhaps embarrassed by the persistence of such overtures, Dickens embraced the British tradition of passive aggression, and sent what appears to have been a disingenuous invitation to Andersen to come and stay with him. Others view the suggestion as affectionately put, but the letter, sent in July 1856, was written with the kind of flourish that signals insincerity: “In these nine years you have not faded out of the hearts of the English people, but have become even better known and more beloved.”

Andersen, naturally, took it seriously. His social graces had always lacked something and so, for months, he didn’t write Dickens back to accept. Instead Andersen, broadcast, through the press, that he was going to London. The acceptance only finally reached Dickens personally in March 1857. Andersen averred he’d only come if Dickens truly wanted him. “[M]y visit is intended for you alone,” he said, sounding not unlike a prospective lover, “Above all, always leave me a small corner in your heart.”

Constrained by propriety, Dickens of course told Andersen to come, though he betrayed his less welcoming inner monologue to a friend, “Hans Christian Andersen may perhaps be with us, but you won’t mind him– especially as he speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”

To be fair, this could have been affectionately meant. And it was not the best of times for Dickens. He was starting to consider leaving his then-wife, Catherine, he’d just finished serializing Little Dorrit, and it ended up with terrible notices, a friend had died, and he was in production for a Wilkie Collins play, called The Frozen Deep, in which he was so involved he was practically a co-author. And here, on his doorstep, arrived this strange, childlike man whose initial promise to stay two weeks would extend into five.

From the beginning, the visit was rather doomed. Though Andersen wrote of loving the scenery (to the Dowager Queen of Denmark, he wrote, “There is a scent of wild roses and ivy here”) he found the Dickens’ house in Kent too cold from the first night there, according to a biographer. Then he was offended to find no servant to shave him in the morning, so he sent for Dickens’ eldest son, who complained bitterly of having to do it. (Thereafter a horse and carriage was procured to take Andersen to town to shave in the mornings.) At an initial dinner with friends, when Dickens held out his arm to a visiting lady, Andersen swooped in and took it for himself, “leading [Dickens triumphantly into the dining room,” as Dickens’ son Henry put it.

Dickens took the excuse of rehearsals to be in London as much as possible but Gad’s Hill was the family’s main house. The guest was unavoidable. Andersen continued to feel a chill, only now, it was social. To a correspondent he likened the atmosphere to one that lacked sufficient sugar in the tea. He tried to amuse the children, and even once succeeded, when he decorated a visiting Wilkie Collins’ hat with a daisy chain. Without noticing the new trimmings on his hat, Collins accepted an invitation to walk through a nearby village, and was mystified by the snickers. But overall, the reviews were cool: “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on,” was the verdict from Dickens’ daughter Kate.

Dickens, for his part was stymied by the strange figure, though he gave him material for letters. To a mutual friend, he noted that Andersen had a way of getting into “wild entanglements of cabs and Sherry,” and had odd, if inventive, ways of coping with the pickpockets of London:

One day he came home to Tavistock Square apparently suffering from corns that had ripened in two hours. It turned out that a cab driver had brought him from the City, by way of the new unfinished thoroughfare through Clerkenwell. Satisfied that the cabman was bent on robbery and murder, he had put his watch and money into his boots — together with a Bradshaw, a pocket-book, a pair of scissors, a penknife, a book or two, a few letters of introduction and some other miscellaneous property.

Throughout Andersen’s adulation of Dickens remained nonetheless unshakable. When he was taken into London to see the play, with Dickens playing the lead himself, Andersen burst into tears at the death scene. And the tears came out again when at last he left the family, on the 15th of July. To commemorate his leaving, apparently Dickens pinned a note to the door of the room Andersen had slept in: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!”

Andersen was at least sensitive enough to know he’d left a trail of unhappy hosts in his wake. He wrote to Dickens and begged him for forgiveness. “Kindly forget,” he pleaded, “the unfavourable aspect which our life together may have shown you of me.”

Dickens composed a vague reply, choosing to avoid direct response with a nice bit of scenery. “The corn-fields that were golden, when you were here, are ploughed up brown; the hops are being picked; the leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn; and the rain is falling, as I write, very sadly — very steadily.” It was something which suggested an ending of something, and indeed, among other things, it turned out to be the end of their correspondence.

Andersen never heard from his great friend again.

The information in this piece was drawn from Jackie Wullschlager’s excellent biography of Andersen, as well as Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →