literature

Nether Stowey, Somerset: Coleridge Cottage

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Alright, yes, it is ANOTHER National Trust property, and it won’t be the last one this year by a long shot, but I am trying to space them out as promised.  Besides, it’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge we’re talking about here.  I named my now deceased Madagascar Dragon Tree after him (one of the “easiest indoor plants to grow and maintain” my ass), and I would have gone to see his house even if it wasn’t covered by my National Trust membership, so I think I deserve a break on this one.  There’s actually a whole “Coleridge Way” walk that runs through the Quantocks, but that seemed overly ambitious considering the changeable state of the weather and my lack of hiking attire.  Coleridge Cottage is located in the amusingly named village (one of many in Somerset; I’m partial to Goathurst and Queen Camel myself) of Nether Stowey (naturally, there is also an Over Stowey, which is actually south of Nether Stowey, so not quite sure how it’s “Over”), and admission is £5.60 sans Gift Aid (which I admit is a bit steep for how long it takes to see the property).  The house is not particularly large; it initially only consisted of four rooms, and has since had a kitchen and a couple other rooms added on for use as museum space, but is still rather small.

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Although Coleridge and his family only lived in the cottage for a three year period (it was rented out to him by his friend, Thomas Poole), it was one of the most productive periods of his working life, so his most famous poems, including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” and “The Nightingale” were written here.  I am not, generally speaking, a big poetry person, but I first read Coleridge back in high school, and I’ve always liked him (I think the whole opium thing made me think he was cool when I was a teenager), so I was interested to learn how some of his poems evolved (other than in a drug-induced haze, of course).  Helpfully, those stories were provided within the house (and the garden); for example, “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison” was written after his wife accidentally spilled scalding milk on his leg, and he was forced to stay home and sit under a lime tree whilst his wife went for a walk with the Wordsworths and Charles Lamb (personally, I’d take sitting under a lime tree and reading over going on a walk any day, assuming there weren’t too many bugs about.  I’d even whip up a key lime pie for my guests to enjoy upon their return, but I guess that wasn’t a thing in Coleridge’s day).

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Because of the bonus museum rooms, Coleridge Cottage actually had quite a bit more information than the average National Trust property (I overheard one of the volunteers saying that they’re officially National Trust, but they’re left alone for the most part, which could well be why it was more homely and charming than a lot of National Trust stuff).  I learned a lot about Coleridge’s childhood, including that Coleridge once threatened his brother with a knife in a fight over a cheese toastie, ran outside and hid all night in the cold, and was consequently ill with a fever for weeks.  Now, I’m not generally a violent person, but I am VERY possessive of my food, so if anything was going to drive me to violence, it probably would be someone stealing a delicious grilled cheese (or other tasty food) from me (made with a nice mature cheddar though, not that awful American “cheese” gloop; since Coleridge’s incident took place in Devon, not far from Somerset, cheddar seems a likely choice for him too).  I also learned that Coleridge enlisted in the army under a fake name – Silas Tomkyn Comberbache (that surname sounds a lot like that of a certain British actor when you say it out loud), but Coleridge couldn’t hack it and begged his brothers to get him out; they managed to have him declared insane and discharged.

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Since the house was infested with mice (since we were just talking about cheese…) whilst Coleridge lived there, there was also a special mouse trail throughout the house, with adorable little stuffed mice hidden in each room along with facts about Coleridge’s battle with them (they annoyed the piss out of him, basically, but he felt bad about laying traps.  As someone who lived in a house with a bad mouse infestation, but still left out cake for the mouse in my room (who I named Sammy, another accidental Coleridge connection) because I liked him, even though his rustling around at night was super irritating; again, I can relate).  In addition, there was a station upstairs where you could practice writing with a quill pen and ink (total failure, as always), and a nice cushy reading room stocked with plenty of books.

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The cafe was located outside, and was oddly confined by a fenced enclosure thingy, so we had to go through various little doors to see the well and garden, with all the people in the cafe staring at us as we walked back and forth, but the garden was unexpectedly quite large and pleasant.  There were benches scattered throughout with little speakers attached to tell you more about Coleridge’s poems, and some cute fake ducks and pigs made from metal.  We also found a random shed that was apparently used for games and demonstrations, which had a big trunk full of old-timey toys (ball in a cup, anyone?).

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Although it was not an outwardly impressive property, I still left feeling reasonably impressed with Coleridge Cottage, having learned a fair bit about Coleridge’s personal life (particularly his troubled relationship with his wife), and having enjoyed the various diversions around the house.  If you’re fond of Coleridge, I do think this is well worth the stop, even if, like me, you’re not keen on walking the “Coleridge Way.” 3.5/5. I should mention (since I have a photo of Yankee Jack all ready to go) that there are more Coleridge themed attractions in the vicinity that don’t involve much walking.  Most notably, in the seaside town of Watchet, there is a statue of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and a couple small museums that mention Coleridge.  However, the statue I’m pictured with here is actually one that shares the promenade with the Ancient Mariner – Yankee Jack. He was not American, but ran the blockades during the American Civil War, thus acquiring his nickname.  I have to say that his statue was more appealing to me than the emaciated old mariner, but either way, Watchet is a good place for statues, despite its small size and extremely mucky harbour, so it may be worth a gander as well on a Coleridgey day out.

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London: Strawberry Hill House

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I’ve been wanting to visit Strawberry Hill House since seeing it profiled in the Gothic Imagination exhibit at the BL last fall, but as it was closed all winter, I’ve had to bide my time (admittedly not that much of a hardship, since I dislike venturing outside at the best of times, but especially in the cold (and the heat)).  But the proof of my eagerness to investigate Strawberry Hill can be seen in the date of my visit: the 1st of March, the very day that the house finally reopened to the public (especially impressive when you consider that I usually procrastinate and don’t make it to things until the week before they close).

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Strawberry Hill was built by Horace Walpole (son of Robert, the first Prime Minister) over a period of many years, roughly 1748-1790, as his summer villa, and is a prime (and wonderful) example of Gothic Revival architecture (there was a house already standing on the property when he bought it, but Walpole added on and completely transformed the building).  Horace Walpole is primarily known as the author of The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, and as a man of letters, but old Horace also really seemed like a man after my own heart.  Not only did he build this amazing house, but he filled it with a splendid collection of curiosities that included things like Cardinal Wolsey’s hat, John Dee’s spirit summoning mirror, and Charles I’s death warrant, which has sadly since been dispersed thanks to his real piece of shit work distant relation George Waldegrave, who inherited and promptly sold off the collection to pay his personal debts (Waldegrave being a drunkard and spendthrift, and probably other unpleasant things as well).  (Seriously, have you ever wanted to go back in time and just punch somebody in the face?  That’s what I want to do to this George Waldegrave character.)

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Because I suppose there’s not much point having a collection of awesome things if no one is around to appreciate them (at least in a pre-internet age before you could just brag about them on Facebook or Instagram), Walpole allowed visitors into his home, and even wrote and published a guide for them, on his in-house printing press.  You’re given an abridged version of this guide today when you visit, and even though portions of it are no longer applicable thanks to George Waldegrave’s plundering, it is still a very nice touch indeed.

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But enough background, let’s get down to the house.  Strawberry Hill House is located in Twickenham, where all the cool Georgians lived (that’s what it seems like anyway, Alexander Pope’s house was just a few streets away, though he was dead by the time Walpole moved in), and stands incongruously fabulous at the end of a normal, boring residential street.  Entrance to the house is by self-guided tour, but they let in a rather limited amount of people for each time slot (I think only about 20, which is nice.  Nothing worse than trying to walk around a crowded house, especially when you’re as misanthropic as I am), so you may want to book ahead on their website before you visit, especially since there’s no booking fee.  And, that National Trust membership has paid off already, because National Trust members get half off the admission price (normal admission is £10.80), which definitely makes it worth visiting.

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After a short introduction, we were let loose in the house, booklets in hand, to explore using Walpole’s own directions.  The only problem with this was that the instructions issued by the room stewards were rather confusing; they told us to head all the way up the staircase before we entered a room, so we mistakenly took that to mean we should go all the way up to the third floor, when in fact they meant to go into a room on the first floor, then go up, and then come back down to see the public rooms.  Basically, we were kind of lost and confused for the first few rooms because the information in the booklet didn’t seem to match up with the interiors, but we figured it out eventually. Clear signage saying what each room is would help with this immensely, and if done tastefully, shouldn’t detract from the atmosphere of the house.  This is only a minor quibble though, because the house was amazing.

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I loved everything, from the fireplaces to the stained glass windows (particularly one that Walpole himself described as “ridiculous”); he seemed to have a bit of an obsession with the Stuarts, as Charles I and II appeared in many of the windows, something I can definitely appreciate.

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And the man seemed to love really deep beautiful colours, especially blues, which is my own favourite colour (as I said, he was a man after my own heart), so yeah, it was magnificent.  Not everything in the rooms is original (again, thanks to Ass-wipe Magee, as I shall henceforth refer to George Waldegrave, who in addition to selling off Walpole’s collection, also left the interior in a sorry state), but they’ve been doing their best to reproduce and recover what they can, one example being the beautiful hand-stencilled Gothic arch wallpaper in the entrance hall.

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Rather like his American near-contemporary Thomas Jefferson, Walpole was a tinkerer and inventor, and came up with a number of neat innovations for his house, among them shutters that slid fully back into the wall when not in use, and the bookcases shown above, that swung open at the touch of a finger for easy access to all those books, because what’s the use of having a fabulous library full of them if you never actually read them?

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The house is a mix of public and private rooms, the private rooms having just reopened this year for the first time in centuries, which is pretty neat.  The public rooms were obviously far grander, with hand-flocked wallpaper, high ceilings, and interesting room shapes (octagons, hexagons, and round, amongst others), but it was nice being able to see all of them, especially as there was some nice painted glass in his private rooms.

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I feel like I’ve reached the point where I’ve prattled on all I can for the minute, so I’ll just leave you with some more pictures of the interior to enjoy (with me standing awkwardly in the middle of many of them) for a minute or two before I wrap up.

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The only really depressing part of this whole exercise was reading Walpole’s descriptions of things that should have been in the rooms, before Ass-wipe Magee ruined that for everyone, but I think I need to stop dwelling on that and focus on the house that remains, which is still brilliant.  I would live in the place in a heartbeat (assuming you could get modern heating in there), even at the risk of dreaming the strange Gothic dreams that Walpole was himself prone to (who knows, I could get inspired to write a novel just like Walpole was).  When we finished with the house, there was still a small museum to see downstairs.

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The most enlightening bits of that were learning that Walpole really hated Henry VII, which I found strangely hilarious for some reason (maybe because I take against historical figures with the same vehemence (as can be seen throughout this post)), and seeing how different he looked from his father.  Robert Walpole was this portly, florid man with a cocksure pose, whilst Horace was slim and bookish, and well, looked like the kind of person who would be into everything Gothic (not really an insult, as I tend to have a thing for thin, pasty men).

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We finished off with a peek at some medieval alabasters, and a random peacock paper mache creation (presumably created by children and not the university students who made a lot of the replicas of the original furniture in the house, since their work was generally excellent).  There are also a couple gardens surrounding the house, though nothing much was in bloom so early in the year save for herbs and snowdrops.  I’ve just now realised (reading the last couple pages of the guide, which I neglected to do when I was there), that Walpole’s personal chapel is still around, and you can see it if you walk back through the “woodland walk;” although it’s not normally open, you can at least check out the exterior.

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I didn’t have strong feelings towards Horace Walpole either way when I began my visit, but I came out of the tour with a real affection for Walpole, his vision, and his house.  Although there were a few minor problems with unfriendly staff (most of them were lovely, but there’s always one or two bad apples) and being confused by the lack of signage, I think Walpole’s own guide (plus the supplementary materials provided in the rooms) is really sufficient to appreciate the house as Walpole would have wanted his visitors to.  I certainly hope they can recover more of Walpole’s lost collection with time, but even without it, the house is definitely a must-see for anyone with an interest in architecture, the Gothic, or history.  Smashing place.  4/5.

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Rome, Italy: Keats-Shelley House

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When it came down to a choice between visiting the Napoleonic Museum and the Keats-Shelley House, there was really no question over which museum was going to emerge victorious.  Seeing the room where a tubercular English poet died trumps looking at the art collection of a Corsican dictator any day!  The Keats-Shelley House is located at the foot of the Spanish Steps, so getting inside involves dodging hordes of tourists and jerks trying to sell you crap, but you will be instantly rewarded upon entering the cool, calm interior of the house.  The house is considered a British museum abroad, and it was a refreshing and much needed taste of home.  Entrance was 5 euros, and everything inside the museum is in English only, which was a rare treat (though I could see Italian people justifiably being annoyed by this).

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Upon climbing the steps from the gift shop up to the museum, I was pretty much instantly in heaven, as the walls of the rooms were completely lined with books (now THIS was a proper library, unlike Leighton’s lame attempt).  I began with the Severn and Keats rooms, which is where the poet and his friend lived in the weeks leading up to Keats’s early death. John Keats is of course famous for his poetry, most notably “Ode to a Nightingale” and “On a Grecian Urn,”  but because Keats died in the house, much of the focus here is on his death – as I am a lover of medical history, this was a-ok with me!  Keats had been suffering from tuberculosis for some years before he came to Rome; his mother and one of his brothers had already died of the contagious disease, and it was recommended that he go to Italy, as the climate might have improved his health, but he suffered a relapse and died not long after arriving, at the age of 25.  His companion was Joseph Severn, a friend and painter, who took the room adjoining Keats.  Both of these rooms are now filled with cases about Keats’s life and death.

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There were a few life masks of Keats, as well as numerous portraits of him.  Disturbingly, I think the closer he got to death, the better looking he became, but I’ve always had a weird fetish for all those tubercular English Romantics (yes, I know TB is a terrible disease that still kills many people in developing countries, but I think I’ve absorbed some of the Regency and Victorian romanticism relating to it).  Unfortunately, because Italian law at the time required destroying all the furniture in a house where someone died from tuberculosis, none of the furniture in Keats’s room is original.  Even the wallpaper was destroyed (though the ceiling tiles survived), and the house itself was narrowly saved from destruction by intervention from the US (led by TR) and other governments in the early 1900s.  However, the view from the window is much the same as it was in Keats’s day, and you can delight in the same views of the crowd that Keats enjoyed before he was confined to his bed.

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The house is also devoted in part to Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to a lesser extent, Lord Byron (though I suspect he was just dragged in to add some sex appeal).  Even Shelley’s connection to the actual house is tenuous at best; he did live in Rome for a time, but not at the same time as Keats, and he and Keats never met, although they did correspond with each other, and Shelley wrote an ode to Keats after he died.  However, they were both English Romantic poets, and Shelley drowned a year after Keats, and was buried in the same cemetery (the Non-Catholic Cemetery -I would have liked to visit, but we just plain ran out of time, plus we were ever so tired of walking), so why not include him?  I think in this day and age, Percy Shelley has probably been eclipsed by his wife, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, so it was nice to learn a bit more about him.  The museum had a lock of his and Keats’s hair, and again, a few portraits.

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Of course, Byron’s flamboyant personality meant that the section devoted to him was the liveliest in the museum (Keats’s was the most poignant, particularly the letters from his sister Fanny to his fiancee, Fanny Brawne).  It included a Carnival mask of an old man that Byron delighted in wearing, and a rather pompous-looking sketch of the poet.  In one of those snarky little touches of humour that I adore in a museum, its caption featured a quote from Marianne Hunt who said that in it, Byron looked like, “a great schoolboy who had a plain bun given to him instead of a plum one,” which cracked me right up (even though personally I’d much prefer the plain bun – I do not understand the English obsession with fruited breads and cakes).  This room also had an extensive collection of correspondence from all the main poets featured here, as well as Mary Shelley.

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This etching of Keats was said by Severn to make him look like a “sneaking fellow,” which also made me laugh.

The Keats-Shelley House proved to be a much needed little oasis of quiet in the middle of the often overwhelming city of Rome, and I’m very glad I went here instead of the Napoleonic Museum (though the Napoleonic might well be just as good, I’ll put it on the list for next time!).  I adored all the British humour on show, and relished the opportunity to learn more about Keats and Shelley.  I found it a well-run, lovely museum, and advise anyone tired of the bustle of Roman life to pay it a visit!  4/5

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After seeing the Spanish Steps, I appreciated the tranquility of the museum all the more!

Odense, Denmark: Hans Christian Andersen Museum

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Compared to the blocky ’70s architecture that dominates much of Copenhagen, the part of Odense where the Hans Christian Andersen Museum is located is downright lovely, full of cobblestone streets and low, colourful old homes closely packed together.  I was a great fan of fairy tales as a child, and though my particular favourite was Hansel and Gretel (as told by my grandmother), I also loved the works of Hans Christian Andersen, so I was keen to see his museum and childhood home.  In life, he was fairly peripatetic, and when he wasn’t travelling, tended to base himself in Copenhagen.  However, Odense is where he was born into poverty, and spent the first 14 years of his life, and it is thus home to his museum.

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Admission to the museum is DKK 85, which seemed positively modest after Egeskov (although apparently, if you also visited Egeskov, you can get a discount at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and the toll bridge over from Zealand, which no one bothered to tell us, but I’ll be nice enough to give you the heads up).  The idea is that you follow footprints around the museum, which will take you chronologically through his life story.  The footprints were pretty big, so may have been based on Hans’ actual feet.

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The opening gallery offered a brief overview of Danish and world history during Andersen’s lifetime, which covered most of the 19th century (and the gallery dwelt a fair bit on the American Civil War).  After reading physical descriptions of Andersen given by his contemporaries, which were downright mean, and examining some of his clothes, we progressed into a temporary exhibition about his failures in love.  I was already beginning to feel quite sorry for Hans, what with everyone mocking his big nose and gawky frame (I can certainly relate to the former problem), and the unrequited love gallery only served to intensify my pity.

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In addition to two failed relationships with women in his youth (where each professed love, but ran off to marry another man), Andersen was infatuated in his later years with Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale.  I’d heard of Lind before, as I’ve read quite a bit about PT Barnum and the various acts who worked for him (he hired her to perform concerts in his museum), but I wasn’t aware of her relationship with Andersen.  Apparently, after he declared his love, she publicly announced that she thought of him as a brother.  Kind of harsh, Jenny.  Andersen also had a close friendship with a man (probably platonic, but maybe something more), but even that went awry when the other man refused to let Andersen address him as “du” instead of “de.” As far as I could tell, this is somewhat akin to the use of tu over vous in French, where tu would denote a closer relationship than vous, but the “du” relationship in Danish is even more intimate.  According to the museum, the main problem with Andersen was not so much his looks as his lack of prospects and poor income when he was a young man.  Andersen’s paper cuttings in this section attest to his mood at the time, one of them depicting lovers hanged from a love noose.

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We next carried on through an attractive rotunda full of mosaic scenes on Andersen’s life, and then to the biographical gallery that surrounds it.  Here, I learned more about his childhood with a cobbler father who died young and an alcoholic mother, and how he moved to Copenhagen on the strength of his singing voice.  After his voice broke, he turned to acting, and then ultimately, to writing, surviving some pretty horrible experiences along the way, like an abusive schoolmaster, who was also his landlord, and having to attend school in his 20s with a bunch of children, as he was too poor to receive a proper education as a child.  This section also talked more about his writing and adult life, right up until his death from liver cancer, which was all surprisingly interesting, though the museum did assume a working knowledge of most of his fairy tales on the part of the visitor (fair enough I suppose, as why else would you want to visit it in the first place?).  My favourite objects in all of this were the aforementioned paper cuttings, which he was incredibly skilled at, and frequently included in notes to friends.

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It was then time to head into the replica of his childhood home, which is inside a small yellow cottage that you pass on your way into the museum (I believe his actual childhood home is several blocks away, though I’m actually quite confused about this.  His home is listed as a separate museum with its own admission fee, but inside the replica, there was a plaque saying Andersen was born in that room, so I have no idea what was going on).  It was full of tools and simple furniture, as would befit the family of a cobbler.  Back in the museum, there was a re-creation of Andersen’s sitting room in Copenhagen, which was much nicer and packed with Victorian knickknacks.

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When I saw a sign directing me downstairs to the Cabinet of Curiosities, I HAD to venture in.  It was primarily a collection of Andersen’s possessions, ranging from his shaving set and hat to a rope he carried everywhere with him in case he had to escape from a fire via a hotel room window.  Now, that’s the kind of paranoia I can relate to!  Like Jane Carlyle, and pretty much every other Victorian with time on their hands, Andersen also made a decoupage screen, which was displayed here.  I really must take up decoupaging one of these days…

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Throughout the museum, we found anecdotes from people who knew him, most of which were pretty harsh.  Dickens hated him after Andersen came for a month-long visit, and one of Dickens’ daughters referred to him “that bony bore.” Someone else remarked that he was almost impossible to shave in his latter years as he’d lost all his teeth, and his mouth never stopped making chewing motions.  I just spent the whole time feeling sorrier and sorrier for Andersen, though I guess at least children liked him, which is probably more than I’ve got going for myself.

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The museum also housed a library full of his titles published in over a hundred different languages, many of which I’d never even heard of (the languages, that is).  The final hallway held a collection of illustrations to his fairy tales done by modern artists, some of which were quite good, though I was disappointed no one had tried their hand at the dog with eyes as big as tea cups (or the dog with eyes as big as towers, for that matter!).

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Aside from his fairy tales, and that terribly inaccurate film from the 1950s (with Danny Kaye,”I’m Hans Christian Andersen, Andersen that’s who,” which I still get stuck in my head now and again), I didn’t know much about Hans Christian Andersen prior to visiting his museum. I have to admit that I didn’t go in expecting much, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality, and definitely recommend it to anyone passing through Odense.  I’m glad I got the chance to learn about Andersen’s fascinating life, as I now see him as a very sympathetic character who even seemed to share some of my quirks (which will perhaps give a new dimension to his fairy tales). 4.5/5