Staying power – Alison Healy on why Charles Dickens regretted asking Hans Christian Andersen to drop over

His host’s teenage daughter Katey declared him to be a “bony bore” who “stayed on and on”

If you’ve been entertaining house guests over the festive season you might feel some kinship with Charles Dickens. He hosted Hans Christian Andersen in his home one summer and it certainly took its toll.

The Danish writer may be responsible for some of the world’s best-loved fairy tales, such as The Ugly Duckling, and The Princess and the Pea, but he was not the world’s best-loved house guest.

After his prolonged stay at the Dickens’ home in Kent in 1857, his host’s teenage daughter Katey declared him to be a “bony bore” who “stayed on and on”.

In fairness to the Dickens’ family, the children’s writer had announced that he was coming for a short stay, a fortnight at most. But upon arriving, he showed no interest whatsoever in leaving. It was five weeks later when he finally packed his bags. They must have exhausted their supply of good towels by then, and I doubt there was a fancy biscuit left in the house.


It was an eventful stay, by all accounts. He immediately got under the family’s skin by telling them that he expected to be shaved by one of Dickens’ sons every morning. Dickens instead organised daily appointments at a local barber shop. His guest also complained that the house was cold, he suffered mood swings, and his every utterance appeared to annoy Charles Dickens. He also baffled the family when he flung himself on the grass and sobbed uncontrollably, upon receiving a bad review for one of his books.

When he finally departed, Charles Dickens pinned a note in the guest room saying he had slept there for five weeks “which seemed to the family AGES!” The capitalisation came from Dickens, and you can almost hear his joyful relief that his guest had finally left the building.

While they didn’t have a feud, the visit signalled the death knell for their friendship. But Dickens wasn’t a man to shirk from a good literary feud. He enjoyed a testy friendship with William Makepeace Thackeray until it spilled over into something bigger after Dickens’ marriage broke down the year after he hosted Hans Christian Andersen. He was angry with Thackeray for telling someone he was having an affair with an actress Ellen Ternan, and they became bitter rivals.

Of course, history is littered with accounts of literary feuds involving some very thin-skinned authors. The US writer Richard Ford was particularly allergic to bad reviews. When the New York Times had the temerity to publish Alice Hoffman’s slightly negative review of The Sportswriter, he and his wife took one of Hoffman’s books into the garden, shot bullet holes through it and posted the tattered remains to her.

That would have appealed to the gung-ho adventurous nature of Ernest Hemingway who often had several literary feuds on the go at the same time. But they were never with James Joyce. He liked to tell a story, possibly apocryphal, about his friendship with the Ulysses author. He would claim that Joyce had a tendency to pick fights in bar rooms and then, when matters accelerated, he would retreat behind the much larger and stronger Hemingway and call on him to deal with the aggrieved patron.

All of which brings us back to where we started. James Joyce was fascinated by all things Danish and believed Hans Christian Andersen to be Denmark’s greatest writer. He learned Danish because of his love of Ibsen, and the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen.

Joyce travelled to Copenhagen with Nora Barnacle for three weeks in 1936 and was guided around the city by journalist Ole Vinding. The journalist had passed himself off as a painter in a bid to get close to the writer, with the hope of getting an article out of the experience.

But, like Dane’s stay at the Dickens’ home, Joyce’s trip didn’t go entirely to plan. According to Vinding, Joyce’s enthusiasm began to wane after the first day. Joyce and Nora didn’t like the food and they found the service in restaurants to be the worst in Europe.

And after studying the language for so long, Joyce was frustrated that he still had to struggle to understand spoken Danish.

Vinding found Joyce to be exhausting company and by the fourth day, he’d had enough of his tour guiding duties and bade the couple goodbye.

So, if you’ve had a challenging house guest this Christmas, or if your holiday plans are not living up to expectations, take comfort in the fact that you are in good company.

And it’s highly unlikely that anyone will call you a bony bore after spending time with you this festive season.