A tale of two writers

When Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens met, they delighted in each other's company. So what soured their friendship? Simon Tait investigates
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

They were the lions of mid-Victorian popular literature, each an admirer of the other's work, and, when they first met in 1847, they hit it off straight away. When Hans Christian Andersen's English tour ended, four weeks later, it was with his new friend, Charles Dickens, that he spent his last evening. Later, Andersen was Dickens's house guest for a two-week stay that stretched to five weeks, but after it they never met again, and Dickens maintained a frosty politeness in his rare responses to Andersen's letters. It was a private visit, unchronicled, and a veil has been drawn over it ever since.

They were the lions of mid-Victorian popular literature, each an admirer of the other's work, and, when they first met in 1847, they hit it off straight away. When Hans Christian Andersen's English tour ended, four weeks later, it was with his new friend, Charles Dickens, that he spent his last evening. Later, Andersen was Dickens's house guest for a two-week stay that stretched to five weeks, but after it they never met again, and Dickens maintained a frosty politeness in his rare responses to Andersen's letters. It was a private visit, unchronicled, and a veil has been drawn over it ever since.

"No one knows what happened," says Elizabeth James, the curator of the 19th-century section at the British Library, where there is an exhibition marking the bicentenary of the Danish writer's birth. "There are several theories, but nothing has ever been proved."

Was there an artistic falling-out? Both men were intrigued by the possibilities of the "poor boy makes good" narrative, but Dickens was not interested in the magical influences or the sexual undertones that Andersen seemed to find so enthralling.

"Dickens was busy producing a play, Wilkie Collins's The Frozen Deep," says James, "while Andersen was a playwright and actor, so the reason for the prolonged visit may have been because Dickens wanted him to stay for the opening." Was Andersen, always ready to speak his mind, super-critical?

And what is to be made of Andersen's request - subsequently denied - that he should be shaved by one of the older Dickens boys each morning? He had tortuous unrequited sexual yearnings for both boys and women, including the singer Jenny Lind and the son of a Danish patron, but he never married and, later, resorted to brothels.

More likely, believes Kristian Jensen, who has curated the exhibition, is that the gauche Andersen, untutored in the refined mores of middle-class Victorian English family life, committed some terrible gaffe among Dickens's large household or resplendent literary coterie of friends.

Andersen's first book of 1835, an autobiographical novel about a poor boy's integration into society - a transition Andersen probably never himself quite made, according to Jensen - called The Improvisatore, brought him instant acclaim in the UK when it was translated. Soon, his children's stories caught on, and between 1845 and 1847 no fewer than five different anthologies of them were translated into English. His London publisher, Richard Bentley, brought him on a publicity tour.

Andersen had been a devoted fan of Dickens since reading Oliver Twist. Seven years younger than Andersen, Dickens was also well aware of the Dane's growing reputation, James says, and certainly had read and been impressed by the novel and the children's stories "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes", admiring their sensitivity and originality. Some see Andersen's influences in Dickens's Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol, "The Cricket on the Hearth", "The Haunted Man" and "The Ghost's Bargain".

But in 1847 Charles Dickens was a literary superstar and Andersen the new boy on the scene, so, during his tour, Bentley contrived their meeting at a literary soirée at the home of the society hostess the Countess of Blessington. Lady Blessington, a close friend of Lord Byron, was a lavish patron of the arts, and at Gore House - which stood where the Royal Albert Hall is now - hosted Disraeli, Wellington and Prince Louis Napoleon.

But she had been dogged by scandal, accused by social gossip of living openly with her stepdaughter's husband, the exotic soldier, painter and fashion icon the Count d'Orsay. There were even darker rumours about some of Lady Blessington's more unconventional all-night parties.

In these lavish surroundings Andersen and Dickens clicked - among other commonalities, the Dane had been born the son of a cobbler and Dickens, at the age of 12, had been forced to work in a blacking warehouse.

They vowed to meet again, but their itineraries kept them apart until Andersen was about to leave, and Dickens suggested he spend the last evening at his home. "It seems to have been a happy occasion, and Dickens was probably the last person Andersen saw before leaving England," says James.

Andersen had always relied on the generosity of patrons across Europe, notably the Archduke of Weimar, and lived the life of a permanent house-guest. He never owned a house of his own. Dickens and Andersen corresponded sporadically over the next decade, with Dickens from time to time suggesting a private visit, and Andersen finally turned up in the summer of 1857.

"Dickens had just bought Gad's Hill Place near Rochester and it was probably there that Andersen stayed," says James. "But Gad's Hill was fairly isolated, Andersen could speak hardly any English, and Dickens wasn't there very much, being preoccupied with other things."

Andersen was tall with a slightly effeminate appearance, a long nose and close-set eyes, which might have alarmed Dickens's many children at first - he had 10, with eight or nine of them at home in 1857.

Dickens, in constant demand by an adoring public, was exhausted, having just finished writing Little Dorrit, and was producing the Collins play to benefit the family of his friend, Douglas Jerrold, who had recently died. In the play was a young actress, Ellen Ternan, with whom Dickens was embarking on an affair.

Unsurprisingly, Dickens's marriage was in serious trouble as the writer was trying to finalise his household's move from London to Rochester, and into this emotional maelstrom stepped the unsuspecting Andersen. "He was used to staying in the grand houses of wealthy people, with 50 bedrooms or more, and living the life of an honoured guest," Jensen says. "Although Dickens was by then wealthy by any standards, domestic life in the English middle classes in the mid-19th century, with its social codes and rules, was quite alien to Andersen, and there would have been some very awkward moments." One can only imagine the irritation of the long-suffering Mrs Dickens as the two-week stay stretched on.

"I don't think there was a row: they were all far too polite," James says, "but the Dickenses must have been relieved to say goodbye, and Andersen must have been just as relieved to go."

Andersen wrote once or twice to Dickens, whom he continued to revere, but, although his popularity with English readers grew as he travelled Europe, Andersen never visited England again.

"For Dickens, the last straw may have been that Andersen published an account of his stay with the Dickenses in Germany, without permission, which was reviewed in the English press. Andersen was particularly glowing about Mrs Dickens," Jensen says. "This might have been a terrible social blunder, because by the time the reviews came out in England in 1858, Dickens and his wife had separated."

'Hans Christian Andersen' is at the British Library until 2 October

Comments