Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When Charles Dickens Met Hans Christian Andersen: The Nightmare Visit

by Stephen J. Gertz

In June 1847, Hans Christian Andersen, who had won acclaim throughout Europe and America for his childrens stories, visited England for the first time. The great Dane earned triumphal social success during his summer in  London as the guest of  Countess Blessington, who attracted the cream of Europe's intelligentsia to her soirees. It was at one such gathering that Andersen was introduced to Charles Dickens, whom he greatly admired.

On July 30, 1847 Dickens, who reciprocated Andersen's admiration, paid a call on him at his lodgings. Andersen, however, was not present and so Dickens left the small parcel containing twelve presentation copies of his books as gifts accompanied with a note.

Of those twelve presentation copies, four were bequeathed to the Royal Library, Copenhagen, and seven were later sent to auction. Of those seven auctioned copies, only five have been accounted for: at Dickens' House, London; the Free Library in Philadelphia; a copy ultimately presented in 1956 to the Andersen Museum, Odense; the Webster Currie copy; and that at Sotheby's sale LN8412, lot 111. Only nine of the twelve copies are thus recorded. A few years ago I handled one of those three "lost" copies, a second edition of Pictures From Italy (1846).

"On his first visit to England in 1847, Hans Christian Andersen was overjoyed to make the acquaintance of 'the greatest writer of our time,' Charles Dickens. During the ten years following his return to Denmark, a friendly correspondence developed and culminated in his returning to England to spend five weeks as Dickens' guest at Gadshill. The visit was a failure and Dickens soon afterward broke off the correspondence" (Ford. George H. (Review of) Hans Andersen and Charles Dickens by Elias Bredsdorff. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol 12, No. 2 [Sept. 1957], p. 166).

Of Anderson's visit Dickens wrote, "…whenever he got to London, he got into wild entanglements of Cabs and Sherry, and never seemed to get out of them again until he came back here, and cut out paper into all sorts of patterns, and gathered the strangest little nosegays in the woods. His unintelligible vocabulary was marvelous" (Dickens, letter to William Jerdan, July 21, 1857).

The Danish Man Who Came To Dinner was supposed to stay with Dickens and his family for only two weeks. Though a genial host, Dickens dropped hints for Andersen to end his stay; they were, apparently, too subtle. The patience of the Dickens children was strained to the limit and daughter Kate would later recall that Andersen "was a bony bore, and stayed on and on" (Storey, Gladys. Dickens and Daughter. London, 1939). Andersen thoroughly enjoyed his visit, oblivious to the effect his extended holiday was having on his hosts. After he finally left, Dickens wrote on the mirror in the guestroom: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” Clueless, Andersen never quite understood why Dickens afterward ceased to answer his letters.

Though the story may be apocryphal, it is said that "the bony bore" provided Dickens with the physical model for the obsequious Uriah Heep, the sharply limned character in David Copperfield, with, perhaps, a few of Andersen's personality traits added to the "very 'umble man."

The comic quality of Andersen's social awkwardness and  ineptitude provide the underlying significance of his work and the reason why his stories have endured and will remain classics. His earliest examples (Thumbelina, The Emperor's New Clothes, etc.), like those of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, though quite successful and bringing him fame, were interpretations of regional folk tales. His major contribution to world literature was to come with his second collection of stories, Nye Eventyre (New Fairly Tales) which were wholly original creations. In these stories, which include The Ugly Duckling, The Nightingale, The Red Shoes, The Snow Queen, The Little Match Girl, etc., the protagonists begin as sad, awkward, lonely characters adrift in a strange, often cruel world for which they are ill-equipped but, who, by story's end have overcome their circumstances and become misfit heroes, their hopes and yearnings fulfilled. Andersen had identified a universal archetype and it was him. Even more to the point, he was amongst the first writers who might be considered modern insofar as using the arc his personal life and psychological history as the basis for his characters.

It's interesting that Dickens, whose circumstances in childhood shaped his fiction, and Andersen, whose childhood informed his writing, were, at arm's length completely simpatico, but when drawn into close quarters for any length of time drove, at least Charles Dickens, nuts. Dickens, I imagine, preferred that his characters remain on the page and not come to actual life and wear out their welcome by showing up on his doorstep for an  interminable - and unendurable - stay, ala Sheridan Whiteside, who came to dinner and never left but at least was entertaining while terrorizing his hosts, "And now, will you all now leave quietly, or must I ask Miss Cutler to pass among you with a baseball bat?," a sentiment I suspect Dickens may have had success with had he directly expressed it to Andersen.

See: Dal, Eric, Nogle flere boger fra H.C. Andersen boghylde, in Andersenania 1992. Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume 8. Sotheby's Sale LN8412, Lot 111.

DICKENS, Charles. Pictures From Italy. The Vignette Illustrations on Wood, by Samuel Palmer. London: Published for the Author, by Bradbury & Evans, 1846. Second edition. Presentation Copy, inscribed by Dickens on the half-title in ink: "Hans Christian Anderson / From His friend and admirer / Charles Dickens / London Jul. 1847." Octavo. [8], 269, [1], [2, ads] pp.

Nineteenth-century full red crushed levant morocco  by F. Bedford (stamp-signed in gilt on front turn-in). Covers with gilt triple fillet border, spine decoratively tooled and lettered in gilt in compartments, board edges ruled in gilt, turn-ins decoratively tooled in gilt, top edge gilt, others uncut.  Housed in a full dark green morocco pull-off box.

Cf. Smith II, 7. Cf. Eckel p. 126-127.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

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