You really have to feel sorry for Hans Christian Andersen. He wasn’t pretty. He was unlucky in love. He had patrons who made him feel inferior his whole life. And to make matters worse, his originally promising friendship with Charles Dickens went crashing down like a lead blimp. Which is counterintuitive, when you think about it, because Dickens was also a fairy tale author of sorts (in the sense that his rags to riches, good beats evil stories are often so improbable that they are fairy tales in a way), and his stories share much in common with Andersen’s (think “Ugly Duckling” meets “Oliver Twist,” and you’ll get the idea).


Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Andersen was always socially awkward in his own country, but he enjoyed great success when he visited England. There he met Dickens, and the two of them *gasp* walked out together onto a veranda, to talk in private. Andersen gushed about it in his letters, and after the party Dickens dropped off some book at Andersen’s lodgings. Clearly, thought Andersen, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. If only Dickens could have known what we know, that Andersen’s goal in life was to make people like him, and not just any people; people of high social or literary status:

You know that my greatest vanity, or call it rather joy, consists in making you realize that I am worthy of you. All the kind of appreciation I get makes me think of you. I am truly popular, truly appreciated abroad…all right, you are smiling…Oh, no one at home thinks of this, among the many who entirely ignore me… – from a letter to Jonas Collins, his patron

Yikes! Talk about a guy who wants approval. That appreciation from abroad of which he’s talking includes England…and Dickens. Since Andersen was so ignored by his patron and the upper-crust Danes, foreign approval meant all that much more to him, and when Dickens himself showed him appreciation, Andersen was on cloud nine. Which meant, basically, that he was going to hold onto Dickens like a leach, and Dickens was going to have a hell of a time letting go.

From the 1952 movie, starring Danny Kaye. See how much more attractive he is than the real deal?

From the 1952 movie, starring Danny Kaye. See how much more attractive he is than the real deal?

Their friendship breaks after the jump:

So, some time passes after the *veranda* incident. Dickens invites Andersen to stay with him in England for a bit. Just a bit. Not too long. And in return, Andersen promises not to inconvenience Dickens. He was originally supposed to stay for just two weeks. But, as this article from the Times makes clear, it didn’t actually go down that way:

The Danish man of letters, a tall, gaunt and rather ungainly character, extended his visit to five weeks. Dickens dropped polite hints that he should leave, but they were, perhaps, too subtle. 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!”

David Brass, a Californian antiquarian dealer… said: “To Andersen, the visit was timeless Elysium, a holiday, a fairy tale come true. To Dickens, his wife, and particularly his children it was eternal torment, a holy hell, a horror story made real. Their patience strained to the limit, Dickens’s daughter Kate would later recall that Andersen ‘was a bony bore, and stayed on and on’. A social blockhead, Andersen never quite understood why Dickens afterwards ceased to answer any of his letters.”

Sheesh! Part of what made Andersen so unbearable was how much he wanted to be liked by others, how much he felt he had to ingratiate himself, bow and scrape. Though this was thought of positively in Denmark (keep in mind, it was a country of only about 1 million at that time, meaning everyone had an assigned place and had better know it), it was definitely a negative in the more progressive Dickens’ house, who had rather that Andersen just shut up and act natural. As Jack Zipes points out in “Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion,” Andersen was actually trying to live one of his fairy tales, to be the Ugly Duckling:

Andersen as Aladdin. Andersen’s life as a fairy tale. There is something schizophrenic in pretending that one is a fairy-tale character in reality, and Andersen was indeed troubled by nervous disorders and psychic disturbances throughout his life….he inserted himself into the sociohistorical nexus of the dominated, denying his origins and his need to receive applause, money, comfort, and space to write about social contradictions that he had difficulty resolving for himself. Such a situation meant a life of self doubt and anxiety for Andersen. – Zipes, pgs. 88-89

All of that combined would have made him a pretty miserable houseguest, wouldn’t you say? Still, I at least feel a little better for him because he was so oblivious; he never did get why Dickens stopped answering his letters, and probably thought they were the best of friends till the end of his days.