Friday, April 2, 2021

The Clingy Duckling?

Title page for A Christmas GreetingToday is Hans Christian Andersen's birthday! The famous Danish author-poet-playwright was born in Odense, Denmark, in 1805 and is probably best remembered in the US for his fairy tales, such as "The Little Mermaid" or "The Ugly Duckling." When he published his first children's stories in the late 1830s, critics took issue with Andersen's tone because they felt that he wasn't preachy enough. Children's lit was meant for instruction and edification, not for wild flights of fancy.

Despite Danish scholarly criticism, Andersen's stories were very successful across the Channel. The first English translation of his fairy tales was published in 1846 and, in the summer of 1847, Andersen made his first trip to England. He slayed socially; the Countess of Blessington, Marguerite Gardiner, helped him make connections with the intellectual and cultural elite of England. Among the who's who was an author who had name recognition beyond the British Isles: Charles Dickens.

Unbeknownst to Dickens at the time, Andersen was what in today's parlance might be called a Dickens "fanboi." The two men took a stroll together on Blessington's veranda and chatted briefly about their mutual respect for each other's work, and that was that. For Dickens, it was another random encounter; for Andersen, it was a mountaintop experience with his literary hero. Several months later, he published a new gathering of stories, titled A Christmas Greeting. The book contains a letter of dedication to Charles Dickens, in which Andersen mentions their meeting and says that the English author has "taken root forever in [his] heart."

That one moment in the summer of 1847 started nearly a decade's worth of correspondence between the two men, with a reluctant Dickens struggling to keep Andersen at arm's length. Their "relationship" culminated in a visit by Andersen to Dickens's home in 1857, where he extended a short stay into a five-week encampment. He fawned over Dickens while acting entitled and imperious at every social gathering he attended with his host. By the end of Andersen's visit, Dickens and his entire family had concluded that they had experienced a lifetime's worth of Andersen. After the Danish author finally left, Dickens began tapering off his correspondence and relationship with Andersen until he had squeezed him out of his life.

To see a copy of A Christmas Greeting, ask for 1926 Collection A51c.