Hans Christian Anderson

This article was commissioned by the Sunday Express to celebrate the bicentennial of Anderson’s birth.

It is one of the many ironies of his life that Hans Christian Anderson, arguably the world’s greatest children’s author, felt no great affinity with children. When, at the height of his fame, the Danish public raised a subscription to erect a statue to him, he so detested the original sketch which showed him with a group of children that the sculptor abandoned it in favour of a solitary figure reading aloud from a book.

Anderson, who was born two hundred years ago this April, lived a life full of contradictions. He was the son of an impoverished shoemaker and an illiterate washerwoman and yet went on to become one of the most celebrated figures of the nineteenth century. His amazement at his own good fortune is clear when he writes in 1844: ‘Twenty-five years ago, I arrived with my small parcel in Copenhagen, a poor stranger of a boy, and, today, I have drunk chocolate with the Queen, sitting opposite her and the King at the table.’

The opening words of his autobiography read ‘My life is a beautiful fairytale, so eventful has it been and wondrous happy.’ But, just as writers are not always the best judges of their own work, so they are not always the most honest chroniclers of their own lives. Anderson was a far more complex and tortured figure than such an idealised portrait would suggest. He was a man wracked with social and sexual insecurities. He was even more haunted by childhood poverty and family scandal than his friend, Charles Dickens. All in all, he was far from the picture-book writer familiar from our nurseries and the charming down portrayed by Danny Kaye in the Hollywood film.

Although his lasting fame rests on his fairy stories, of which he wrote 168 in all, Anderson was a well-rounded man of letters: an accomplished journalist, novelist and travel-writer. His most recent and most revealing biographer, Jackie Wullschlager, considers him ‘as representative of the Romantic spirit as Balzac or Victor Hugo.’

He was born on 1 April 1805, in a small cottage in the poorest part of Odense, a small provincial town in Denmark. His mother had already had a daughter by a married man, a local potter. This half-sister haunted Hans, for whom she became an emblem of degradation and ignorance. As he struggled to achieve literary and social respectability, he constantly feared that Karen-Marie would drag him down, and he was to give her name to the wicked, wild heroine of his story. The Red Shoes.

The young Hans was dogged by the associations of poverty and promiscuity in his mother’s family, most apparent in her sister, Christine, who ran a brothel in Copenhagen. His paternal legacy was equally disturbing. His grandfather, who spoke to him only once in his life, was insane and would often return from walks covered in leaves and singing at the top of his voice. ‘You’re becoming just like your grandfather,’ the local children taunted Hans.

Anderson’s father died in April 1816, leaving his mother dependent on a meagre wage earned from washing clothes, standing knee-deep for up to six hours at a time in the nearby river. The strain of trying to keep warm during the icy winter led to the addiction to gin which ultimately killed her.

His mother ordered Hans to supplement the family income by working in the local mill, but he lasted only a few days. After hearing his beautiful treble voice, his fellow workers grabbed him and, in the first of the many sexual humiliations of his life, stripped him – in his own words – to find out ‘if I were a boy or a girl’.

His brief appearance as an extra at the city theatre in the summer of 1818 fired his determination to go on the stage and, the following year, at the age of fourteen, he persuaded his deeply sceptical mother to allow him to go to Copenhagen to make his fortune as a performer.

During his first three years in the city, between 1819 and 1822, Hans fought desperately to gain a place in the theatre as a ballet-dancer, actor and singer. His first attempts as a dancer proved to be vain, when he turned up for an audition and the maidservant threw him a coin, thinking that he was a beggar. He fared no better as an actor, when the director of the Theatre Royal told him that he was ‘too thin’, which Anderson took as a euphemism for ‘too poor’, replying that ‘if you will only engage me with one hundred rixdollars salary, then I shall get too fat.’

He found more success as a singer. A chance meeting with the eccentric composer CEF Weyse led to his being made a small allowance and given lessons at the Royal Choir School. All went well until his money ran out and his voice broke, and he was offered the dismaying advice to go home and learn a trade. Dismissing it in the manner of so many artistic young men both before and since, he managed to scrape together a small allowance from various rich patrons and tried his hand at playwriting.

He sent one of his plays to Jonas Collin, the eminence grise of early nineteenth century Danish cultural life, who decreed that he should be sent to grammar school to receive a formal education. Although this was not the result for which he had hoped, it proved to be crucial to his future development. He obtained a powerful patron as well as an entree into the exciting Collin family circle, one of Jonas’s sons, Edvard, becoming the love – inevitably unrequited – of his life.

The familiar trauma of starting at a new school was intensified for Anderson who, at the age of seventeen, was placed in a classroom of eleven year olds and made painfully aware that he was an anomaly. The seeds of the Ugly Duckling and the many other misfits and outcasts who populate his stories were sewn in his experience of school.

After matriculating from Copenhagen university, Anderson embarked on a literary career. His next few years were to ones of professional success and private sorrow. He suffered two frustrated loves, for Edvard Collin and Ludvig Muller, a twenty-three year old student. After his disappointment at the hands of Muller, he wrote to a friend: ‘What will become of me? 1 don’t look forward to anything, hope for anything, only to write, because I have to. I can’t help it. The world would be so beautiful, if only everyone would let their heart play a greater part than it is allowed to do.’

He put his heart in his stories, publishing his first book of four fairy tales, including The Tinderbox and The Princess and the Pea, in May 1835. Tales poured out of him. April 1837 brought two of his most celebrated. The Little Mermaid and The Emperor’s New Clothes. June 1838 brought the Steadfast Tin Soldier, his first tale to have neither a folk-tale original nor a literary model but to come straight from his own imagination.

The hero, whose lack of a leg makes him the odd man out in a box of tin soldiers is an oblique self-portrait of the author. Sexual repression lies just beneath the surface. Thomas Mann, who like Anderson, spent a lifetime tormented by homoerotic desires, wrote at eighty; ‘I have always liked Andersen’s fairy tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier, Fundamentally, it is the symbol of my life.’ In Andersen’s time, the Tin Soldier was seen as inspirational. One of Andersen’s royal friends, the Grand Duchess of Weimar, said that, when she went into labour, she hoped to exhibit similar courage.

Anderson’s homoerotic desires lasted throughout his life, although, as the years went by, he grew somewhat bolder about expressing them and received at least a partial measure of fulfilment from the young Danish dancer, Harald Scharff. There was, however, one women who roused him to equally strong passion: the great Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, whom he first met briefly in 1840 and then more extensively when she sang in Copenhagen in 1843.

Anderson fell deeply in love with her but, while she valued him as a friend and confidant, she never viewed him as a potential husband. Frank Loesser’s song for Danny Kaye, ‘No two people have ever been so in love’ is a typical Hollywood distortion.

Nevertheless, Jenny inspired Anderson and, in the year after meeting her, he wrote four of his best-loved tales. The Ugly Duckling, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen and The Fir Tree. These set the seal on his international success. He was widely admired by his fellow authors. Thackery, for instance, wrote to a friend in January 1847: ‘And Hans Christian Anderson, have you read him? 1 am wild about him, having only just discovered that delightful, fanciful creature.’

Dickens was an ardent fan and, when Anderson visited London, he invited him to stay, which turned out to be a disappointment to them both, largely because Dickens was preoccupied with theatrical production and his clandestine love affair with Ellen Ternan. Evidence that Andersen’s rapport with children was not as happy as it is sometimes portrayed can be found in the notice that the younger Dickens children pinned on his bedroom door after his departure: ‘Mr Anderson slept in this room for five weeks it seemed AGES!’

Anderson’s was an exemplary nineteenth century career, in its rise from the bottom of the social scale to a position where he consorted with statesmen and royalty. He died, wreathed in honours, at the age of seventy, and was awarded a state funeral in the presence of both the King and the Crown Prince,

He left his estate and the rights in his work to Edvard Collin, but he left a far greater legacy in the form of 168 stories, translated into 80 languages (more than almost any other author) and a moral, which no amount of Hollywood mawkishness can tarnish: ‘Being born in a duck yard doesn’t matter if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg.’