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date: 22 March 2019

ANDERSEN, Hans Christian

The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature

Daniel Hahn

ANDERSEN, Hans Christian (1805–75) Danish writer, 

the author of over 150 fairy stories and other tales, either of his own invention or based on folk themes, many of which have become international classics of children’s literature. Andersen was born and brought up in Odense, then the second city of Denmark, the only son of a free-thinking shoemaker who loved literature but was embittered by his lack of formal education and by the fantasy that he came from a family of prosperous, even aristocratic, origin, brought down by misfortune. Andersen’s mother was almost illiterate and deeply superstitious; she was fifteen years her husband’s senior, and had an older, illegitimate daughter, brought up elsewhere. But the family seems to have ranked among the respectable poor and Andersen considered his childhood happy. He was not aware of want, a greater embarrassment being the insanity of his paternal grandfather, which contributed to his lifelong fear that he would go mad himself.

Andersen’s father doted on him, and read to him from the Arabian Nights, La Fontaine, and Danish dramatic works; he made him toy theatres, and took him to the Odense playhouse. Andersen recalled in his autobiography that, because such a visit could only seldom be afforded, he made friends with the distributor of the playbills, was given one every day, and ‘with this I seated myself in a corner and imagined an entire play, according to the name of the piece and the characters in it. That was my first, unconscious poetizing’.

He went to local schools, and often visited the spinning-room of the asylum and workhouse where his grandmother tended the garden; there he would trade embroidered scraps of schoolroom information for the folk songs and tales of the spinners.

The boy was eleven years old at the time of his father’s death; shortly afterwards he left school and worked briefly in local factories. However, he had a good singing voice, managed to work his way into walk-on parts in the local theatre, and began to be known among the local bourgeoisie for his singing and dramatic recitations. This culminated in an interview with the Crown Prince of Denmark. But the boy was then bitterly disappointed at being told that he should learn a trade before embarking on any more sensational career; and he decided, at the age of fourteen, to take all his savings and go to Copenhagen.

He knew no one there. An Odense well-wisher gave him an introduction to the leading ballerina at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen; but when he presented it, took off his boots in front of her, and improvised a dramatic scene complete with singing and dancing, she thought him mad. He managed to talk his way into the house of the director of the Royal Theatre’s song school, and impressed him and his dinner guests enough for them to collect subscriptions to support him while he was taught music. During the next three years he had small parts at the theatre, and submitted plays to it anonymously, without success. Then his voice broke, and he could no longer work.

Rescue this time came from Jonas Collin, a senior civil servant and governor of the Royal Theatre. Collin became Andersen’s most notable benefactor, and the whole family grew to be his lifelong friends; Edvard, Collin’s son, eventually came to manage much of the business of publishing Andersen’s work, including correcting his always uncertain spelling.

Collin secured a royal grant for Andersen to be educated at a state grammar school, but this belated education was an unhappy experience. At seventeen he was put in a class of twelve-year-olds; the headmaster mocked and bullied him, and he had to go to a private tutor before, at the age of twenty-three, passing the university matriculation examination that was the passport to the professional classes. He now openly chose the career of writer, had a play performed, and fell in love.

The first of his series of unrequited passions was for Riborg Voigt, sister of a fellow student. She appeared attracted to him but was already informally engaged, and Andersen made the strange gesture of both declaring his love for her and renouncing her to his rival at the same time. Meeting her long afterwards led to his writing The Sweethearts, a tale about a superior morocco leather ball which refuses to become engaged to a spinning top; years later the ball lies rotting in the rubbish bin, while the top is honoured and respected. At Andersen’s death a letter from her was found hanging in a pouch at his neck.

Andersen now had to support himself by writing; he published poetry, librettos, translations, and travel books, and became a phenomenon of some interest, though also of amusement, to sophisticated Danish society. His social awkwardness was still obvious, and he was physically ungainly, tall, with a large nose and small eyes; his emotions, both of joy and despair, were generally extreme and unrestrained, and his persistence in reading his own works aloud at every opportunity, coupled with an absurd sensitivity to criticism, incurred complaints about his vanity and egotism, though at the same time he was acknowledged to be witty and good company.

His next love was Louise, younger daughter of Jonas Collin, who as a young girl had always taken his part against family teasing. She was fond of him, but was careful not to give him any encouragement, and was soon engaged to someone else. Andersen took revenge by casting her as the haughty princess in The Swineherd, and as the prince in The Little Mermaid. To recover from his disappointment he travelled extensively in Germany, France, and Italy, sketching and keeping diaries, and gathering material for his novel The Improvisatore (1835), which effectively made his international reputation.

The small, cheap booklet that came out later the same year was in complete contrast. It was called Eventyr fortalte for Børn, ‘Tales told for Children’. The word ‘eventyr’, generally rendered ‘fairy stories’, is in fact related to ‘adventure’, and has the sense of a short fantastic story for any age of reader. Andersen wrote to a friend: ‘I have done a couple of stories I remember having liked when little, and that I think are not generally known. I have written them exactly as I would tell them to a child.’ In fact three of the stories were based on folk tales: The Tinder Box, ‘Little Claus and Big Claus’, and The Princess on the Pea. The fourth, Little Ida’s Flowers, was Andersen’s own invention.

Critics complained at the roughness of Andersen’s deliberately colloquial style, at the immorality of ‘Big Claus and Little Claus’ (which hints at adultery involving a church official), and at the lack of instructive content, given the intended audience of children. But more of the tales followed, generally in small batches every Christmas, and by the end of ten years both Andersen and his public were agreed in recognizing his mastery of this form of story.

Andersen wrote that ‘how much could be accomplished through the fairy tale became clearer and clearer to me as I learned through the years of my own power and its limitations’; and the proportion of his tales that were wholly original increased as time passed. Ideas for these, he said, ‘lay in my mind like seeds and only needed a gentle touch—the kiss of a sunbeam or drop of malice—to flower’. He frequently used his stories to revenge himself on detractors and enemies, and even his retellings of folk stories were personal: ‘Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself. Every character is from life.’

Andersen’s last unrequited love gave another deeper meaning to his story of the nightingale. Jenny Lind, nicknamed ‘The Swedish Nightingale’, gave her first performances in Denmark in 1843. Andersen had already met her, knew of her phenomenal singing voice, and noted that like him she had risen by artistry from lowly origins. Now he wrote in his diary: ‘I love her.’ Jenny Lind, however, much as she liked Andersen’s company, did not love him. They remained friends and continued to meet socially, but from this point he seems to have accepted that he would remain single. The Nightingale was a celebration of Jenny Lind’s voice and natural style, triumphing over the fashionable artificiality of Italian operatic convention. He wrote that her art had a more ennobling influence on him than any books or men.

He continued to write and to travel, though his love of going abroad was always warring with a terror of missing trains, losing his passport, or being burnt alive in his hotel. (He always carried a coil of rope in his luggage.) In Berlin he became a friend of the brothers Grimm, though their first meeting was blighted by Jacob’s never having heard of him. He visited England and Scotland in 1847, and met Mary Howitt, who was one of his English translators, and Charles Dickens. He was generally so enchanted with his reception that he sent five stories to be published in England in 1848, six weeks ahead of their Danish appearance, entitled A Christmas Greeting to my English Friends and dedicated to Dickens. The friendship remained warm until Andersen overstayed his welcome in 1857, when he was invited for two weeks to Dickens’s house and stayed for five, apparently oblivious of the family strain around him. He was never asked back, and Dickens stuck up a card on the dressing-room mirror of the spare room: ‘Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!’ But in general Andersen was welcome in the houses of the cultured and aristocratic all over Europe. His autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life (1855), is full of his pride in this achievement. In his last years he was given a home by the Melchiors, a banking family in Copenhagen, and he died at their summer villa, at the age of seventy, of cancer of the liver. His last fairy tales were published in 1872; the second collected edition of 156 fairy tales and longer stories appeared in 1874, the year before his death.

Selections of Hans Andersen’s stories first appeared in English in 1846. Mary Howitt’s Wonderful Stories for Children contained ten tales, and two other selections by different translators came out in the same year: Charles Boner’s version, A Danish Story-Book, was published in February, just after the Howitt edition, and Caroline Peachey’s translation, Danish Fairy Legends and Tales, appeared in May. Andersen’s work was immediately naturalized into English children’s literature, and was the second great element, after Grimm, in the revival of public enthusiasm for fairy tale and fantasy. However, another collection, published in 1847, was introduced as being distinguished by containing ‘those pieces which seemed most suitable for juvenile reading’, and translators often softened or bowdlerized Andersen’s work: The Princess on the Pea was even modified by one of them, presumably for reasons of delicacy, to The Princess and the Bean. Andersen’s humour, his colloquial diction, and his deliberate story-teller’s gestures and roughness of style were often lost. His reputation for sentimentality is also partly the fault of his translators, though something close to the sentimental can be found in many of the tales, as well as a vein of what Naomi Lewis called ‘submissive, almost superstitious piety’.

Andersen was adamant that he was writing for all ages. He eventually dropped ‘told for children’ from the title of his tales, and he was furious at a proposal for a statue to depict him surrounded by children. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘I had arrived at the conviction that people of different ages were equally amused by the tales. The children made themselves merry for the most part over what might be called the actors; older people, on the contrary, were interested in the deeper meaning.’ His ability to humanize the inanimate, or elements of nature, or household objects, does seem appropriate for children; on the other hand his humour, the veiled autobiographical element in his stories, and his treatment of such themes as love, changes of fortune and status, grief, and death, are only fully appreciated by adults. In one of his last stories, ‘The Cripple’, a bedridden boy reads aloud from a book of fairy tales to his work-bowed family; the father is entranced by two of the stories, which are ‘like two sun rays in the warped, cowed soul of the man’; and the book of fairy stories carries Hans, the crippled boy, ‘where his legs refuse to go—out into the world beyond the cottage walls’.

Andersen’s life and stories were used as the basis of a Hollywood film starring Danny Kaye, Hans Christian Andersen (1952), which, though a sentimental travesty of the true facts, contained several songs by Frank Loesser that became popular with children, most notably ‘The Ugly Duckling’.

Andersen’s influence may be seen in English fairy stories of the later 19th cent., though he was not often imitated successfully—an exception being Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (1888).

Innumerable artists have illustrated English editions of Andersen (not to mention individual stories), ranging from the highly unsuitable Mabel Lucie Attwell (1913) to Arthur Rackham (1932), Rex Whistler (1935), Val Biro (2005), Emma Chichester Clark (1999, retold by Naomi Lewis; and 2010, retold by Martin Waddell), and Joel Stewart (2004, Lewis again).