Dining with savages and the laws of hostility: performing civilisation in Andersen’s English

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In its staging of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1857 visit to Charles Dickens’s Gad’s Hill home, Sebastian Barry’s play Andersen’s English (2010) draws attention to the performative status of civilised ‘Englishness’. With his limited grasp of the English language and of English cultural conventions, Andersen denaturalises and exposes the assumptions that inform the enactment of national identity. In particular, this essay argues, the hostile reactions elicited by his repeated misreadings and misunderstandings of the Dickens family’s performances belie the narratives of hospitality and civilisation integral to Victorian constructions of Englishness. The references to barbarity and violence that accrete around the play’s representations of eating further destabilise the binary oppositions between ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘savagery’ and ‘civilisation’ on which Victorian narratives of identity depend. Yet there are also limitations to the play’s critique of Victorian values. Although Andersen’s English invites its audience to draw parallels between nineteenthcentury and neo-conservative attempts to (re)order (and thus civilise) ideologically troubling histories, in doing so, it fails to acknowledge its own interest in fictionalising and (re)constructing the past.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)152-178
Number of pages27
JournalNeo-Victorian Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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