The Swedish Nightingale

A couple of weeks ago, I gathered with others in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner for a talk by Professor Michael Slater on his biography of Charles Dickens. As I listened, my gaze wandered about the wall of tablets opposite and lighted on the white Sicilian marble monument to Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt, the great Swedish coloratura soprano, whose famous trill led to her being compared to a nightingale.

(The note on the Westminster Abbey website says in passing of her memorial that “the monument to Sir Thomas Robinson was cut down to accommodate it.” It’s tempting to interpret this as a concrete expression of an institutional wish to cut the memory of the tall, eccentric and extravagant amateur architect down to size. He had a partiality for the – baseless – Roman Doric column. He employed an organist to play for him while he fell asleep.)

Back to Jenny Lind. In 1843 she toured Denmark, where Hans Christian Andersen, according to popular legend, met and fell in unrequited love with her. Robert Lepage has a different take on this, and points out that her touring schedule made a relationship out of the question. This, Lepage implies, made her an ideal love object for Andersen, who maintained lifelong celibacy.

Thank you for your talk, Professor Slater. My “take home message”? Notice the fascination Dickens has with the glass eye, the false tooth, the wooden leg – what lies between animate and inanimate.

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