This summer is the 160th anniversary of a famous vacation: from June 11th to July 13th, 1857, Hans Christian Andersen sojourned with Charles Dickens and his family, at their home in Gad’s Hill.
Dickens’s biographers tend to treat Andersen’s visit as something of a farce. Andersen was initially supposed to stay about a week, but he stayed five. Dickens’s daughter Kate thought him a “bony bore,” and reports that after Andersen left, Dickens pinned a note above a mirror that read, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” From the Dickensian perspective, a patient but exasperated family put up with their Danish visitor’s eccentricities and poor English.
I’m working on a book chapter about Andersen, and find myself returning to this anecdote from another perspective. In a short volume published a half-century ago and subtitled “a friendship and its dissolution,” Elias Bredsdorff reprints a portion of Andersen’s diary, as well as his and Dickens’s correspondence (both to each other and with others). Andersen in these documents comes across as enamored with Dickens, desirous to stay in his company, where he was initially welcomed. He gradually became aware of the family’s annoyance, but only later; the first part of his visit went smoothly. Moreover, it was Dickens who, about ten days into Andersen’s visit, encouraged him to stay longer to see him perform in The Frozen Deep, a stage production to benefit the family of his friend Douglass Jerrold.
Dickens and Andersen got along well the first time they met, in June 1847. Dickens had rented out his London house and was staying the summer in Kent, but traveled to London to attend a party at Lady Blessington’s, with the express purpose of meeting Andersen (20-21). A few weeks later Dickens invited Andersen to dine with the family, and when Andersen left England the next day, Dickens met him at the docks; he was the last person Andersen saw before he departed (26-7). By all accounts this first visit was a friendly one, and the two continued to correspond over the next few years. It was Dickens who, in 1856, first encouraged Andersen to return to England and to stay at his house (40). Andersen was moved by Dickens’s kindness, writing to his benefactor Jonas Collin, “as a boy I was always called Hans-Christian, but never Hans alone, and he writes, ‘Dear and worthy Hans!’ How such a beginning struck me!” (41). Based on their first meeting, their letters, and the warmth of Dickens’s introduction, Andersen surely expected to be welcomed into Dickens’s home.
Andersen mentions his struggle with English in both his letters and his diary. After his first day at Dickens’s house he wrote to Mrs. Ingeborg Drewsen, “it goes quite well with the language; I have of course to make some jumps, but we meet each other” (92). Two days later he recorded in his diary, “I talked a great deal this evening, and they understood me well” (52). After he had been in England a week, he wrote to his friend Henriette Wulff, “Him [Dickens] I understand the best as far as speaking goes, and now — exactly eight days since I came — he says that I am making surprising progress in speaking English” (94). Dickens praised Andersen’s English to his face, but his letters show something different. In early July, about two weeks after Andersen recorded Dickens’s praise, Dickens wrote that Andersen “speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that” (112).
In the final weeks of his stay Andersen must have picked up on Dickens’s frustration, and his family’s growing irritation. After leaving England, he wrote to Dickens from Germany: “I realize that it cannot have been at all easy for the whole circle to have in its midst for weeks such a one as spoke English as badly as I,” he told him, “Yet how little I was allowed to feel it” (118). His diary and letters, however, make clear that he had felt it. From Paris, where he traveled directly after leaving Dickens, he wrote to Wulff, “In Dickens’s house Dickens was unquestionably the pearl; Mrs. Dickens tender-hearted, Mary, I think, was the one who came closest to her in kindness to me, and thus downwards” (106). Only days after leaving England he was sharing his awareness of the Dickens family’s annoyance, and his private diary shows that awareness had been developing for weeks. After the first performance of The Frozen Deep he attended a party at the Household Words office, and closed his diary entry for the day with a parenthetical, “Not at all in good humour really the whole evening” (80). Earlier that week he had dined with Dickens’s daughter and wife, along with her sister and mother: “little Kate sarcastic, and the aunt is certainly weary of me” (78), he wrote.
Andersen stayed well beyond the two weeks he had initially intended and by July it seems he had worn out his welcome. But it was Dickens who had encouraged him to extend the visit. On June 21st, when he had been staying with the Dickens family for about ten days, Andersen wrote in his diary, “Dickens begged me most charmingly not to go before I had seen the performance they were giving for Jerrold’s widow, said that he, his wife and daughters were so glad to have me with them; I was much moved” (60). This was just the sort of kindness that appealed to Andersen, always seeking the approval of those around him. And he must have recognized the burden on the family, for a week later, June 28th, he wrote in his diary that when he was asked how long he would stay, he replied, “Long for Mr. Dickens, short for me!” (70).
One can’t help but feel for Andersen, staying with a man he clearly admired, and who had encouraged him to extend his visit. Surely he can’t be blamed for the timing of his visit: not only was Dickens mourning his friend and busy with rehearsals for The Frozen Deep, but Little Dorritt was being panned by reviewers and he was about to bid adieu to his son Walter, who shortly thereafter left for India (where he would die a few years later). Also his marriage was unraveling — he would meet Ellen Ternan a few months later, and separate from his wife within a year. Despite all this Dickens himself maintained a friendly facade, but one might forgive his family for becoming irritated with their guest.
Perhaps had Andersen declined Dickens’s invitation to stay longer, and skipped The Frozen Deep, he wouldn’t be remembered as such a “bony bore.”
Bredsdorff, Elias. Hans Andersen and Charles Dickens: A Friendship and Its Dissolution. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1956.