Friday, 8 April 2016

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Hans Christian Andersen (2 April 1805 – 4 August 1875)

An instantly recognisable name, this one, belonging to the most famous writer Denmark has ever produced. Well, with the possible exception of Kierkegaard, of course – who happened to be on the go at much the same time – but, unless you do happen to be one of the select few who can boast proud ownership of a well-thumbed copy of Fear & Trembling, then it’s a fair bet that you’ll be like the rest of us, who can safely claim absolutely no Kierkegaardian knowledge whatsoever. Except that the name translates roughly as graveyard, which is rather apposite in his case, seeing he was one of those gloomy existentialist philosophers who spend their time moaning about how “life has no meaning” and then trying to make everyone else as miserable as they are. Whereas, with your Hans Christian Andersen – your good old HC – we know exactly what that fellow was all about and no mistake, seeing we’re all of us familiar with his output to one degree or another, even if we might not always associate the man with the works: The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling, to name but two.

He wrote fairy stories, of course, though HC himself preferred to describe them as “fantasy tales.” Mind you, he penned plenty of other stuff as well, including plays, poems and novels, though they all seem to have ended up stuck on the shelf with the Kierkegaards, gathering dust and long since forgotten about. We should also mention his travelogues while we’re at it, seeing he was an inveterate tourist who liked nothing better than to bung down on paper exactly what he’d seen. Along with throwing in a spot of philosophy, what it was like being a writer and, now and again, the odd fairy-tale or two, just to keep the whole thing ticking over nicely. Well, which of us hasn’t leafed through some travel guide or other, only to find ourselves suddenly thinking that, “actually, what this could really do with is a precipitous and inexplicable departure into the realms of implausible fantasy at this point, in order to liven it up a tad”? Alas, however, all his wayfaring activities may be little more than the result of people tending to fall into the habit of suggesting that he might “Go away,” which would become a phrase only too familiar to him. Not that there was any shortage of companions for his journeys, though it was a mistake they would make but once. After all, this is a bloke who spent most of his adult life immersed in all that is utterly weird and outlandishly bizarre so, as you might expect, he was about as fruitcake as they come, and yet still able to give the impression that he was altogether half-baked.

Hans Christian Andersen was born in the town of Odense on 2 April 1805, a Tuesday as it happens, which should’ve made him, according to the children’s rhyme, “full of grace,” though, being all elbows and knees, he turned out to have all the grace of a rabble of Young Conservatives lining up for lunch at the Bullingdon Club who’ve just been told that the pig’s head is off the menu. Again. (That’d be down to the honourable member for Witney, that would). Hans was named after his father, a humble shoemaker, though the dad did possess something of a lively imagination, fervently believing that the family belonged to a much higher social class than the impoverished “duckyard” they found themselves stuck in. To be fair, it was the grandmother who was mostly responsible for putting that story about, making it a case of “what big teeth you’ve got, Grandma – did you get them to match those tall tales of yours?” She was forever insisting that Hans Senior was actually the lovechild of no less a personage than King Christian VIII of Denmark himself. This, by extension, carries the unmistakable implication that the other half of this unlikely tryst would have to have been none other than the grandmother (“Oh, Grandma, what big porkies you do tell”). All of which may indicate where the other part of HC’s name came from and also how he ended up with such a gift of febrile fancifulness.

Simple cobbler or no, one thing the dad did manage was to introduce his increasingly lanky lad to literature, including The Arabian Nights, from which emerge characters like Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba. Strictly, though, it should be referred to as One Thousand and One Nights, seeing it’s supposed to contain one thousand and one tales, all of ‘em soaked with bloodshed, murder and erotic goings-on – just the sort of stuff any self-respecting father would want to be cramming into the mind of an impressionable young boy. Basically, the whole thing revolves around some sultan sort who gets thoroughly cheesed when he discovers that his wife’s been playing fast and loose behind his back, which he puts a stop to by having her executed. He then decides that the misogynistic approach is the safest bet where these fickle women are concerned, and so he takes to marrying virgins and then, in the morning– when they’re presumably not virgins any longer – he has them executed, before they can bring shame on him. Which might, by some, be considered a wise enough move, though it don’t half get through the supply of virgins like a ferret in a chickenhouse. Eventually, the only one left is the daughter of the bod whose job it is to provide them, only she’s got a plan, hasn’t she? To start telling the king a story, get to a cliffhanger point and then say, “And that’s all we’ve got time for tonight.” What can the sultan do, apart from holding back on the execution so’s he can find out what happens next? Only for the same thing to happen again. A thousand and one nights they’re at it, at the end of which he decides that he might as well let her off. The moral of all this being, girls, keep in his earhole long enough and he’s eventually bound to crack.

Fate, not content with placing HC at the tender mercies of a bloodthirsty cobbler, had one more fateful roll of the dice to play in his childhood that would go a long way towards shaping his future career: by pure chance, Odenese happened to be the only town in Denmark, outside Copenhagen, that could boast a theatre, which is where our hero liked to take himself off to of an evening and so, before you could shout out, “He’s behind you,” the greasepaint was coursing through his veins. By now a tall and gangly youth, HC would enthral the townsfolk by reciting long passages from plays, performing especially clumsy dances or, for anyone who couldn’t get out of earshot swiftly enough, insisting on giving them a song or two. After which, in that “well, what d’you think?” moment, they would retaliate by suggesting he got himself a trade. Entirely unmiffed, he went right on insisting that one day he would be famous. “Poor boy,” they must’ve thought, “lives in a fantasy world and where’s that ever going to get him?”

He’d show them! On 4 September 1819, he turned his back on the bally lot and, aged just fourteen, headed for Copenhagen. The old man had died in 1816, forcing the mother to go washerwomaning again and HC into being a tailor’s apprentice, though she soon managed to get herself remarried, which is when HC decided to ask her permission to seek his fortune among the bright lights. “Go, by all means,” she (might’ve) said – it’d be a weight off her purse-strings, if nothing else. So, off he went. Next thing he knew, being a half-decent soprano, he’d been accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre and was on his way. Of course, being HC, the next thing after that was that his voice broke, at which someone suggested he go and be a poet instead. “Be a poet?” thought HC, considering the idea carefully, though it was more a case of “Well, go. And be a poet.” In 1822, Jonas Collin, director of the Theatre, who had taken a shine to the lad, decided the best thing all round was to send him away for some schooling in Slagelse. About sixty miles away, in fact, and even managed to get King Frederick VI to cough up some of the funding for it.

He was to stay there until 1827. These were to be grim days. For one thing, he was twenty two by the time he left and much older than the rest of the pupils. And, for another, he was subjected to the usual bullying and abuse, though, in his case, this came at the hands of the schoolmaster. Who claimed it would “improve his character.” Clearly one of the “it never did me any harm” brigade of rampant fascists. HC was actually a born dyslexic, which can’t’ve helped and he never did learn to spell properly, though this would result in his writing style remaining close to the spoken language, aiding his later success and keeping the stories sounding fresh. He would eventually graduate from Copenhagen University, though educationalists would probably have a word to say about that today. His first story, The Ghost at Palnatoke's Grave, was published early on in this period.

In 1829, his first book appeared, called A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of the Amager – OK, perhaps he could work on coming up with catchier titles – which featured the likes of St Peter and a talking cat. Soon afterwards, his first play was performed, followed swiftly by a volume of poetry. He was doing all right for himself so he thought why not treat himself to a proper trip this time? And away he went. He wanted to meet an old schoolchum, Christian Voigt, living at Fåborg, but the first person he encounters is Christian’s twenty year old sister, Riborg. Our lad is instantly smitten. Turned utterly soppy, in fact. Trembling, blushing, weeping, the lot. Though this would turn out to be pretty much his general strategy with most of the women he’d fall for. The big snag was that she was half-promised to the spotty son of some chemist, even if the Riborgs did think they could do a deal better for themselves in the son-in-law stakes. When she was summoned away to nurse a sick friend, decisive action was called for, and quickly. So HC did what any hot-blooded male would do in such a situation: he wrote her a letter of proposal. Which never made it absolutely clear it was a proposal at all. When she returns in the autumn, he hands her the letter. By which time the Riborgs, having got to know HC, decided that even a spotty chemist’s son was an improvement on a simpering, frog-eyed poet with feet the size of an elephant’s, and so our lad gets the elbow.

Two years later, in 1832, he’d already penned his first autobiography – yes, first – and he gives it to the youngest daughter of his patron, Louise Collin, this turning out, once again, to be pretty much an attempt to lure her into the marital bedlinen. She, for her part, doesn’t quite know what to say to this. So she says nothing. And, not long later, gets engaged to someone else. Which is a kind of an answer, wouldn’t you say? To be fair, mind, it did galvanise him into a period of sustained writing: in 1835, his first novel, The Improvisatore, came out and, in the May, his first collection of fairy tales, followed by a second set in December. Alas, they bombed. Undaunted, a second novel, O.T., sprang to life in 1836 with, hot on its heels, another one, Only a Fiddler (1837), which a young, but every bit the miserygut, Søren Kierkegaard, would be particularly sniffy about. Which didn’t bother HC all that much, seeing he was well into his flow by now, and less still when the King granted him four hundred rigsdaler (about four grand now) per year to thumb his nose at the miffed existentialist. The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Clothes also turned up around then, so he was doing pretty OK, as it goes. Well enough to swan around Italy, Greece and Constantinople for a bit, anyhow.

Never far away, however, Eros lurked with his poisoned arrows. In 1843, the singer, Jenny Lind, came to Denmark on tour, where HC got to meet her and, true to form, fell instantly and hopelessly in love with her. You can probably guess the next part: he hands her a letter which “she could not fail to understand”; she replied nothing, not even the marrying-someone-else routine (until 1852, anyhow), though they did manage to remain friends. She is supposed to have inspired Beneath the Pillar, The Angel and, famously, The Nightingale – she would later be known as the Swedish Nightingale – but also to have been the basis for his portrait of The Snow Queen with a heart of ice. Ironically, The Ugly Duckling surfaced at this point too. HC would say that it didn’t matter in life if you lived in a duckyard, so long as you were born of a swan’s egg. Clearly still convinced of his own noble blood, something repeated cash from the King can’t’ve staunched much. 

By 1845, it was time for a second stab at autobiography, this one being The True Story of My Life, the first being, in essence, a damp squib of a marriage proposal. Now his works were finally translated into English at last. Which was very much a break-through moment for him, meaning he was able to pop over to England in 1847 and to rub shoulders with some real nobs, attending the Countess of Blessington’s do’s for intellectuals, where he finally got to meet his all-time hero at last: Charles Dickens. Oh, he was mates with plenty of pretty big fish and could drop names like Balzac, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Ibsen and Wagner. Not forgetting Brahms and Liszt, of course, though whether he met both at the same time isn’t recorded. But it was always Dickens who was the real Jammy Dodger in that particular biscuit barrel for old HC. Dickens would afterwards call at HC’s lodgings with a gift of twelve volumes of his works but, true to form, HC’s luck ensured he was out at the time, though they did start corresponding after that. Dickens also invited HC to come stay at his place sometime, probably hoping never to be taken up on the offer.

As it goes, HC had every intention of doing just that, though he had to pop home for a bit first, in order to get one or two little jobs sorted. Like writing a patriotic novel about the Danish-Prussian War, a travelogue on Sweden, a volume of fairy stories and, not before time either, his third autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life (1855). By 1857, it was off to Gads Hill for a fortnight with England’s foremost man of letters. Being an unassuming sort of guest, he told Dickens that, “I shall not inconvenience you too much.” Alack, once a teller of fairy stories … only this was to have no Happily Ever After. In fact, he hadn’t even told Dickens he was coming, leaving that to the press to announce, and it wasn’t the best of times (but might’ve been the worst of times) for his host, seeing Little Dorrit had just come out to scathing reviews, just as the Great Man was on the point of ditching his wife for a younger model, a friend of his had died and he was up to his ears in rehearsals for a Wilkie Collins play, which he ended up writing most of. The visit didn’t get off to the best of starts, with HC complaining that the place was a bit nippy and then getting rather miffed because no servant had been provided to shave him in the morning! What on earth was Charlie D thinking of? There was also something of a misunderstanding when HC suggested that Dickens’s son might take the job on so, after that, a coach was procured to whisk him into the town barber’s first thing each day. At an initial dinner, when Dickens offered his arm to a visiting lady to escort her in, who should come swooping in to take it but HC, leading the startled novelist to his nosebag himself. In great triumph, it was said. It would be pleasing to imagine that, at a later stage in the meal, Charles had turned to our man to enquire, “Crackers, Mr Andersen?” though he did confide to a friend what sort of guest they had staying: “Hans Christian Andersen may perhaps be with us, but you won’t mind him – especially as he speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”

The fortnight eventually passed but still HC showed no signs of slinging his hook, even though the atmosphere had turned chillier than HC’s bedroom. Luckily for Dickens, the rehearsals kept him up in London and well out of it mostly, but the rest of the family suffered on in tight-lipped silence, though daughter Kate did give vent to the opinion that, “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.” The obsequious Uriah Heep, of David Copperfield fame, is said to have been modelled on Andersen but, seeing that was published in 1850, some seven years earlier, old HC can’t’ve been held in very high regard from the start. At last, after five long and frosty weeks, HC decided it was time for him to go – “No, please, you shall not dissuade me” – and a collective sigh of relief was heaved throughout Gads Hill.

For such a well-intentioned fellow, our lad was a pretty insensitive perisher and known to be a tiresome travelling companion. Though that didn’t stop his friend, William Bloch, from taking a trip with him in 1872, by which stage HC had become a convinced hypochondriac, fretting that a tiny mark on his eyebrow would swell to cover his face and believing that being touched by Bloch’s walking stick would rupture his stomach. Not that Bloch was at all your belly-poking type, more that his companion was a sheer fantasist, and one with a morbid fear of being buried alive, so much so that he carried a note on his person that said, “I only seem to be dead.” Which don’t say a lot for his conversational powers, now does it?

Hypochondriac or no, Andersen died not long later when a giant carrying a mermaid on his back climbed down a magical beanstalk and ate him for his breakfast, crushing up his bones to make soup for the mermaid. Sadly, that isn’t what actually happened, though it’s a deal more likely than what really befell the greatest Danish writer of them all: he fell out of bed. Somehow, he was severely hurt (maybe he’d been lying way up on twenty mattresses?) and never recovered, soon after starting to show symptoms of liver cancer. On 4 August 1875, he died. In a house called Rolighed (it means calmness) which, in a typical Andersen touch, wasn’t his but some friend he was outstaying his welcome with. His birthday, 2 April, is now observed as International Children’s Book Day. 


Perhaps some of you may even have read some Hans Christian Andersen to your own children? The Little Mermaid, perchance? That’s the one about the mermaid (aged fifteen, incidentally) who swims to the surface, spots and falls in love with a handsome prince, and rescues him from death. Luckily, a Sea Witch is on hand to sell her a potion to give her legs (the price being cutting out her tongue) so she can be human, though swallowing the potion will feel like a sword going through her. Though she’ll be able to dance like nobody’s business afterwards. But that’ll feel like walking on knives every time – worth it, mind, to bag her prince. Who, inevitably, marries somebody else, leaving her to top herself.

On a more cheerful note, how about The Red Shoes? Featuring an anti-heroine called Karen (HC had a detested half-sister called Karen) who’s supposed to look after Grandma but, once she’s given the eponymous shoes, she flounces about in them instead, showing them off in church, all that caper. To teach the little madam a lesson, the shoes start to dance non-stop, night and day, until Karen has to beg an executioner to cut off her feet with his axe. The axeman obliges, though he does give her a pair of wooden feet and some crutches but, meanwhile, the shoes go right on dancing, even barring her way from getting into church to repent her former vanity, and with her amputated feet still stuffed inside ‘em.

And they all lived bloodily ever after. Night night, little ones. Sweet dreams …


Hans Christian Andersen 1869: By Thora Hallager (1821-1884) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ugly Duckling: By The original uploader was LaSylphide at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King Christian VIII of Denmark: By Creator:L. Aumont ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Scheherazade and Shahryār: Ferdinand Keller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Andersen’s House in Odenese: By Ipigott (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Christian Andersen Statue in Copenhagen: By Daderot (Daderot) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Christian Andersen 1836: Christian Albrecht Jensen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Søren Kierkegaard: By Neils Christian Kierkegaard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jenny Lind: Eduard Magnus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens: By Jeremiah Gurney (Heritage Auction Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens Family Group at Gads Hill Place: By Unknwn (Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Uriah Heep: Fred Barnard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Andersen at Rolighed: By Israel B. Melchior [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Mermaid: John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons