Eccentrics

The Horrible Five-Week Visit That Destroyed a Friendship

It shouldn’t have been surprising that Chuck and John struck up a friendship. After all, the two men had a lot in common. They shared many of the same interests, a common profession, and were both highly regarded in their field. They first met at a social gathering where John appealed to Chuck’s vanity by declaring himself a great admirer of the man’s work. For the next nine years, the men wrote back and forth, striking up a close friendship through correspondence.

Some relationships are best maintained from a distance. Even the closest of friends can get on each other’s nerves if they have to spend too much time together. That seems to be what destroyed the bond between these two men. John came to pay Chuck a visit, and their relationship would never be the same again.

Writing to confirm his travel plans, John said, “My visit is intended for you alone… Above all, always leave me a small corner in your heart.” Both men anticipated long, engaging conversations about their mutual interests. Perhaps they hoped to learn some important vocational tips from each other.

Benjamin Franklin is often credited with saying that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days. John was supposed to stay no longer than two weeks. When the visit extended to five weeks, Chuck would have preferred to have been stuck with a pile of rotting fish.

The friendship that worked so well through correspondence came under an immediate strain when the two men shared a roof. To be fair, there were cultural and language differences that had to be overcome. Even more than that, it was soon crystal clear that their personalities clashed.

Chuck complained to a confidant that “He spoke French like Peter the Wild Boy and English like the Deaf and Dumb School.” He said that John’s prickly personality got him into plenty of arguments with cab drivers. He also mocked John’s thin skin which resulted in him going out and crying on the lawn after receiving criticism.

John was less than enamored with his accommodations. He complained that Chuck kept his home far too cold for John’s comfort, even in the hot months of June and July. He was also accustomed to having a servant attend him in the morning and was irritated that he had to shave himself.

Just to make matters worse, this was a particularly difficult time for Chuck. His marriage was in shambles, and he was seriously considering leaving his wife. His latest project for his work was not received as well as he had hoped. In short, he was already in a pretty bad mood before John arrived. John’s peculiarities and personality began grating on him from the beginning.

By the time John and Chuck said their goodbyes, the friendship was in tatters. No sooner had John vacated his lodgings when Chuck wrote on the mirror of the guest room, “[John] slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” The reference to the family was not an exaggeration. Chuck’s daughter, Kate, referred to John as “a bony bore.”

Their correspondence died out shortly after John returned home. What was once a bond of mutual admiration was shredded by the traumatic experiences of those five long weeks.

They probably shouldn’t have been surprised that they couldn’t get along well under such close conditions. A requirement for their common vocation is creativity. It is well known that creative people can be a bit temperamental at times. When you put two creative men together for a long time, it is probably inevitable that there will be problems.

Although we’ve mentioned it once, it bears repeating that there was also a language barrier. English was Chuck’s mother tongue, but for John, Danish was the way he preferred to communicate. In fact, he much preferred the Danish form of his first name: “Hans.”

Charles Dickens (left) and Hans Christian Andersen (right)

For that matter, “Chuck” would have been appalled if his houseguest had referred to him in that way. His name was Charles, and that is how he preferred to be addressed.

Although the long visit between these two very different men ended their friendship, it wasn’t a complete loss. Some time later, Charles threw himself into another project and apparently used Hans for inspiration —- although not in a way the latter would have appreciated.

The vocation the two men shared was writing. Charles needed an antagonist for his new novel. The character was the embodiment of sycophancy. He was notable for his cloying humility, unctuousness, obsequiousness, and insincerity. Although Charles didn’t come right out and say it, many scholars have since speculated that Hans was the inspiration.

For that reason, subsequent generations of readers can be thankful for those dismal five weeks endured by the two writers in the summer of 1857. When they read about the annoying and manipulating Uriah Heep in the classic novel David Copperfield, little did they suspect that its author, Charles Dickens, was working out his frustration with Hans Christian Andersen.


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