No writer ever drew mersenore portraits of himself in words than Hans Christian Andersen. He started at the Poor School in Odense, telling his fellow pupils stories in which ‘I was always the chief person’. Whatever his story is ostensibly about, the true hero is always Andersen himself. Couple this with the evidence of his voluminous diaries, and you might imagine that everything that could be known about him, is known. Yet Hans Christian Andersen remains an essentially mysterious figure. Neil Philip explains.
Hans Christian Andersen’s biographers can’t even agree if he was truly the son of a poor cobbler and a washerwoman; in recent years two Danish writers have written books claiming that Andersen was in fact the illegitimate son of Crown Prince Christian (the future Christian VIII of Denmark) and the teenage Countess Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. Neither can they agree if he was a homosexual nor – despite an explicit account in his autobiographical novel The Improviser – whether or not he was sexually abused as a child. Andersen’s diaries are incredibly cagey. ‘What happened within and around me I don’t put on paper out of consideration for myself and others,’ he wrote. His unreliable and self-serving autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life , combines a long list of his encounters with royalty and nobility with an equally long list of slighting remarks made to or about him. When the Steadfast Tin Soldier is consumed by flames, all that remains of him is ‘a little tin heart’. The Fairy Tale of My Life reveals nothing so eloquent.
So it is in the fairy tales that we meet Andersen most truly. The little match girl is Andersen’s mother as a child, sent out to beg by her parents, wretched with starvation and cold. The soldier returning from the wars in ‘The Tinderbox’ is his father, coming home a broken man from the armies gathered to fight for Napoleon. Images of Andersen’s pauper childhood flicker through the opening scenes of his masterpiece, ‘The Snow Queen’. The horror of his mother’s alcoholism sears through the little-known story ‘“She Was No Good”’, in which he depicts her standing knee-deep in the freezing river, fortifying herself with the schnapps he brings her. ‘Ah! That’s what I needed. It warms me up! It’s as good as a hot meal, and it doesn’t cost so much. Take a swallow, son – you look so pale, you must be freezing too.’
Andersen’s half-sister Karen Marie worked, like his aunt, as a Copenhagen prostitute. He always dreaded her appearance, and took his revenge in the cruel ‘The Red Shoes’, in which a girl named Karen is punished for her sinful delight in her new shoes by being made to dance until she begs for her feet to be cut off. But he was merciless to himself, too. Story after story shows him all too aware of his own vanity, hypochondria, attention-seeking and hyper-sensitivity.
Andersen the student
Some of Andersen’s most telling self-portraits show him as a shy young student whose only gifts are his affinity with children, his cunning way with a pair of scissors, and his love of storytelling. The student first appears in ‘Little Ida’s Flowers’ (1835). Little Ida ‘was very fond of him, because he used to tell her wonderful stories and could cut amazing pictures out of a piece of paper – hearts with little dancers in them, flowers and great castles with doors that opened.’ The figure of the student recurs throughout the fairy tales, of which Andersen was eventually to publish 156.
He is there in ‘The Goblin at the Grocer’s’, choosing a torn-up book of poetry over the chunk of cheese that has been wrapped in it. He is there in ‘Dance, Dance, Dolly Mine!’, singing a nonsense song to a three-year-old girl. He is there in the bitter doppelgänger tale in which a shadow surpasses its former master. And he is there in the very last story of all, the mordant ‘Auntie Toothache’.
Andersen suffered terribly from toothache. When at the age of 14 he told his mother that he wanted to go to Copenhagen, rather than stay in Odense and become a tailor, she asked a wise woman to tell his future. After reading coffee-grounds and cards she announced, ‘Your son will become a great man, and one day Odense will be illuminated in his honour.’ In 1867 this prophecy came true. ‘I stepped to the open window,’ Andersen wrote. ‘There was a blaze of light from the torches, the place was quite full of people. They sang, and I was overcome in my soul.’ But even then, Andersen could not be wholly happy. Wracked with a terrible toothache, instead of enjoying the crowd’s song, he sneaked a look at the printed page ‘to see how many verses there were to be before I could slip away from the torture which the cold air sent through my teeth.’
One of the qualities that makes Andersen’s fairy tales unique is their sense of disillusion and disenchantment. By no means all end happily – think of ‘The Little Mermaid’, and a number end on a note of weary cynicism. When Auntie Toothache visits the student, she promises to teach him poetry ‘in all the metres of pain’.
And the moral of this last tale, summing up a lifetime of striving, as he promised as a schoolboy, to ‘paint for mankind the vision that stands before my soul’?
‘Everything ends up in the rubbish.’
Neil Philip is a writer and folklorist. His translation of 40 Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen , with illustrations by Isabelle Brent, was published by Reader’s Digest in March 2005 (0 276 42830 7, £29.99 hbk).
BfK ’s Hans Christian Andersen bicentenary celebration continues in our July issue when Brian Alderson considers how the Tales have been published.