About Hans Christian Andersen
By: Melanie Zimmer
Some of the most memorable fairy tales to this day are those of Hans Christian Andersen. A great deal is known about Andersen as he wrote his first autobiography when he was twenty-seven and published additional ones in 1847, 1855 and 1869. However, “The Fairy Tale of My Life” is not considered a reliable work by many, and it is known that Andersen altered facts freely to create the public image he desired in those later publications. Andersen became a well-known figure in his own lifetime, achieving much acclaim, and lived as a public figure frequently visiting kings, nobles, and artistic minds of the time thus much was written about him in letters and correspondence. Furthermore, Anderson kept a personal journal over the years and corresponded frequently with others. Many letters still exist and serve to inform biographers of the non-public aspects of his life. But perhaps most importantly, Anderson used his life experiences extensively in his writings as he explains plainly in a letter from 1834 “Every character is taken from life; every one of them; not one of them is invented. I know and have known them all.”
Andersen was born on April 2, 1805, in a small rented home in Odense, Denmark. He was the son of a poor shoemaker, Hans Andersen, and the approximately thirty-year-old Anne Marie Andersdatter, an illiterate, superstitious peasant woman who was later instrumental in introducing young Christian, as they sometimes called Hans Christian, to the folklore stories that were to later help mold his own writings. Andersen’s parents married in February of 1805. (Anne Marie, after the death of her husband, Hans Andersen, married another cobbler, but they were even less financially successful than before, and eventually, she was widowed a second time, and forced to make a living as a washerwoman, laundering clothes in the icy canals of Odense. There, to escape the freezing waters, she developed the habit of drinking gin to warm herself. In his tale, “She Was Good For Nothing,” Andersen gives a portrait of his mother Anne Marie as an alcoholic washerwoman, as well as revealing himself as a child, although we must realize that Andersen had already moved to Copenhagen by the time his mother became a widowed laundress.) Anne Marie was a clean housekeeper, and protective of her son. She, herself, had been forced to beg as a child, and later Andersen used his mother’s childhood experience as the basis for “The Little Match Girl.” Anne Marie had an illegitimate daughter, Karen-Marie, who was rarely seen, and a half-sister to Hans Christian. She was the daughter of a married potter, and was not raised as part of the family but boarded out. Karen-Marie at one point became a prostitute, and Andersen feared throughout his life that she would re-appear to embarrass him, although she came to him only on several occasions.
Hans Christian’s father was poor, yet able to read and write. He was a self-taught man, who had a keen interest in new political ideas, and enjoyed nature and the theater. It was Hans Andersen who built Hans Christian his puppet theater and taught him to observe nature on their Sunday walks. Hans Christian was taken to his first theatrical performance which was in German when he was seven years old. Though the boy could not speak the language, he was captivated by the stage. The theater became his first love, and he took to performing plays by himself as a child.
Hans Andersen’s economic condition deteriorated and he decided to abandon shoemaking to become a soldier in 1812. Though the war ended before he could fight, he returned home with deteriorating health and died in 1816 when Hans Christian Andersen was eleven years old. Upon her husband’s death, Anne Marie told young Anderson, that the Ice Maiden had carried him off. The winter before Hans Andersen had shown them what appeared to be the figure of a woman made by the ice formed on the window and had told them that the Ice Maiden had come to take him. This too later became incorporated into Andersen’s work.
Andersen’s mother soon remarried another cobbler, but they did not prosper. Hans Christian, shortly after the re-marriage, decided to seek his fortune in the theater in Copenhagen. Though his mother objected to his leaving, at last, she agreed. Hans Christian raised money for his trip by improvisational singing in Odense. Later in life, he drew upon these youthful singing experiences and placed them in an Italian setting in his book The Improvisatore, one of his first literary works to bring him acclaim. Even as a youth, he sought associations with those in better economic circumstances, and frequented the homes of the middle class where he had access to books. He sang and performed for the more educated of Odense and was able to raise thirteen rixdollars from money given to him for his performances, and with this money, he set off for Copenhagen to pursue a life on the stage when he was fourteen years old.
Copenhagen, a walled medieval city, was overcrowded and bustling and seemed a place of wonder to Andersen. He found a cheap room and ventured out into the city. Andersen visited the homes of several notables from the Royal Theater, at one, dancing in his stocking feet while improvising the music, and text, and playing the tambourine. Andersen was escorted unceremoniously out the door. He soon ran out of money but refused to return home. At last, he decided to sing instead. He found his way to the home of Giuseppe Siboni, the Royal Choir Director. He told his story there and auditioned in front of a table full of guests. The next morning, when Andersen visited Weyse, one of Siboni’s dinner guests of the prior night, he was told that seventy rixdollars had been raised for him, and Andersen would be given a ten rixdollar stipend for seven months. Siboni would provide meals, and allow him to use his house during the day, but Andersen must provide his own nighttime lodgings. During the day, Andersen received singing lessons, and had artistic duties at the Siboni house, while at night he lived in a tiny windowless room in a slum. At last, his fund ran out, and Andersen was dismissed by Siboni.
At this point, an old friend from Odense gave him a bit of money, then he was able to obtain a subscription from the writer Fredrik Guldberg for the same monthly amount, except that now, Andersen had to purchase his own food as well. Guldberg gave him lessons in Danish and German, but during this period, Andersen was truly desperate, often eating only breakfast which was included in his board, and a bit of bread later in the day. He had outgrown his clothes and was unable to replace them so his limbs hung out beneath his trousers and sleeves.
In May of 1820, Andersen was accepted into the Royal Theatre’s Ballet school, but Andersen was decidedly lacking in grace, and by August, it was recommended that he not be employed by the theatre, although one actor, kindly offered Andersen free lessons that winter. The following month, Anderson joined the choir of the Royal Theatre and was given a series of minor roles. Guldberg offered Andersen free Latin lessons, but Andersen was not a prime student. Guldberg, annoyed with Andersen’s non-studious nature, ended his sponsorship. Andersen was still dancing and singing in early 1822, and wrote a tragedy, “The Robbers of Wissenberg,” but soon Andersen was dismissed from singing and dancing school, and found his tragedy rejected due to his lack of education as revealed by the piece.
His career on the stage having ended abruptly, Andersen was sent to see Jonas Collin who was the director of the Royal Theatre and in charge of financing worthwhile students. Andersen was given the opportunity to attend elementary school. He received a grant for that and was sent to Slagelse when he was seventeen years old to study. At school, the other students in his class were six years younger than he, and the headmaster, a crude, unhygienic, verbally abusive man, famous for his translations of Virgil, developed a dislike of Andersen, while at the same time, exploiting him as a babysitter for his own children. None-the-less, Andersen progressed in his lessons, while loathing each minute he spent in the school master’s presence. Andersen’s loves were reading books, and creative writing, for which he was mocked unceasingly by Simon Meisling, the headmaster. At last, another teacher at the school and Andersen went to Collin to convince him of the problem, and Andersen was allowed to complete his studies in Copenhagen under a private tutor. Andersen used the images of a poor student in his attic reading books in several of his tales.
Upon his return to Copenhagen, he began to dine each evening of the week with a different family – a common practice among students, designed to introduce them into society and to develop their intellectual capacities. Andersen retained this practice for the remainder of his life when he was in Copenhagen, only rarely dining on his own. One of the families he would dine with weekly were the Collins, and they became to him, his second family. Andersen continued his relations with the Collins for the rest of his life, viewing Jonas Collin as a father figure. Edvard Collin also became a friend to him, many times copying his work for him in preparation for publication. The two men, Andersen and Edvard Collin corresponded for years.
Andersen’s first work of significance (he had had a few childishly misspelled pieces published in his youth) was a poem called “The Dying Child.,” which he wrote when he was twenty-one years old. It was published first in German, and became popular, expressing the point of view of the child, rather than the adult. Later it was published in Danish, and it became popular in France as well. At last, Andersen felt he had some recognition as a poet. In fact, Andersen continued to think of himself as a poet until his dying day. One of his last pieces published, “Auntie Toothache,” (Andersen was continually plagued by toothaches throughout much of his adult life, and eventually lost all his teeth,) is a piece published just before his death where the dreaded Auntie Toothache comes to visit a poet during the night, insisting that “a great poet must have a great toothache, and little poet, a little toothache.”
Andersen’s next notable work was “A Walking Tour” which was an absurdist piece that won him acclaim in Germany and in certain other parts of Europe. Andersen self-published the first edition, then it ran for two more published by Reitzel, who became his publisher in Denmark.
In 1833 and 1834 Andersen went abroad, funded by a travel grant from the Royal Fund that Collin had written on Andersen’s behalf. During this extensive trip, Andersen became fascinated by Italy, and upon his return, wrote The Improvisatore, a book about a young improvisational singer set in Italy. The book was filled with delightfully rich descriptions of the Italian landscape and became an immediate success.
When Andersen returned from Italy, he rented rooms at 20 Nyhavn in Copenhagen. He had a bedroom and a study, both furnished, and which overlooked the water. Andersen, in fact, rented furnished rooms his entire life, never owning a house, and not purchasing his own bed until he was an old man. (He only purchased a bed then because he had rented a set of rooms that were only partially furnished, and was old enough that traveling had become onerous.) At Nyhavn, Andersen would rise at eight in the morning, and have coffee, then work until noon at which time he would bathe, then walk and visit until three. Then, he would rest until four and have dinner until six. In the evenings, Andersen would visit the theater if there was something he wished to see, or alternatively, stay home to write and read.
It was here at 20 Nyhavn, that Andersen began his first fairy tales. Of these, he writes to a friend, that people say these tales will make him immortal. Some of the tales were ones he heard as a child back in Odense, and others were ones he had written himself. What made these tales different from children’s writing of the time was Andersen’s conversational tone and childlike manner. He wrote the tales as if he were telling them to a child, his tone is pleasant and amusing, and yet he never forgets that it is the adults who are reading the stories, and so in Andersen’s work, there is something for both the children and their parents. Andersen explains he takes an idea for adults and tells the story to the little ones in a manner appropriate for them. “The Princess and the Pea” and “The Tinderbox” were two pieces of folklore in this original collection, called “Eventyr” as well as “Big Claus, Little Claus,” however, he also included an original piece, “Little Ida’s Flowers” that he had written. Around Christmas time of 1835, another set of fairy tales were published in which “Thumbelina” and “The Naughty Boy” were original to him. After his first volume, Andersen set about creating original fairy tales and later ceased relying on folklore as the basis for much of his work, although he was sometimes inspired by it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was inspired by a medieval Spanish story involving a Moorish king seeking his son, but Andersen changed the storyline significantly, as well as the perspective of the story, leaving posterity a timeless classic.
Andersen’s writings were unique not just for the expression of a childlike perspective, but also because of his way of animating the inanimate – flowers, toys and everyday objects came to life and spoke. Animals also were given the power of speech, and all of this serves to make Andersen’s work refreshing and new even after so much time has passed.
Andersen’s fairy tales were not loved in all quarters. Many praised them, others rejected them as worthless and an insult to a man who had published works such as “The Improvisatore.” None-the-less, the fairytales sold, and Andersen’s lively readings were in demand. Andersen’s voice was described as “mellow and musical.”
During these early years as a writer, Andersen often complained bitterly of his poverty. Though his works were popular, the Danish literary market was small. It was not until later that Andersen was able to achieve financial stability when his works were translated into many languages, and he was the beneficiary of yearly royal grants. However, even in his old age, when Andersen had amassed a significant amount of savings, he still worried about finances, living in boarding houses when he could have afforded better quarters. In the third portion of “Auntie Toothache,” written in his old age, Andersen describes a boarding house he was living in (not 20 Nyhavn) at a time when he could have afforded a home. His descriptions include the noise, how the carriages on the street make the pictures move, people coming and going at all hours, the lodger above who gives trombone lessons during the day, and a multitude of other disturbances.
Besides writing, traveling was what Andersen loved best. Enchanted by his first trip through Europe in 1833 and 1834, Andersen spent a lifetime traveling across Europe. He was especially intrigued by royalty and nobility and adored the admiration he received outside of Denmark as an author. He often complained in person and through correspondence, that the Danes do not appreciate him as does the rest of Europe, and often times found his trips away from Denmark freeing. He moved from place to place, the pampered guest of nobles, kings, and intellectuals, welcomed as a guest, and prized as a lively reader. Andersen often did not write while traveling, but rather upon his return, or during longer stays at a residence. Often, as a guest, Andersen would not only converse and read for adults but would entertain all ages by cutting paper. He was a lanky man, with long arms and legs and oversized hands. By no description was he a handsome man, but often, when he spoke, his intellect and benevolence would shine through. He would carry with him, when he traveled, a large pair of scissors and paper, and quickly cutting, would form intricate and beautiful designs, some of which were published by a fellow traveler. In a design, there might be trolls, fairies, a stage, vegetation, swans, angels and a menagerie of other creatures all woven together in the same design. When I first saw this work, I was quite astounded by its intricacy and beauty. Andersen would cut a design, and present it to someone as a small gift, and this skill seemed to fascinate many.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Little Mermaid” appeared in a third pamphlet, and Andersen had the three pamphlets bound together and sold as Tales, Told for Children. Andersen’s reputation as an author of fairy tales was growing. Andersen wrote several more novels, but those have not withstood the test of time. He published in 1837, “The Galoshes of Fortune, “ and received better compensation for that then for his first fairy tale book, but still was faced with financial hardship. At last, Andersen asked a noble admirer to apply to the king for a yearly grant on his behalf, and in January, he was awarded a yearly grant of $400 rixdollars. Andersen was delighted and ceased writing novels for some time. Instead, he produced “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Daisy” and “The Wild Swans.” and by December of 1838, Andersen, feeling financially more secure, moved from Nyhavn into the Hotel du Nord. This left him free to leave when he desired to travel, and the facilities were far more luxurious than his rooms on Nyhavn.
In September of 1843, Andersen met the renowned Swedish singer, Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind had been born out of wedlock and raised since a young age by her mother, Anne-Marie Fellborg, a stern schoolmistress who denied publically that Jenny was her daughter until she signed financially beneficial papers allowing Jenny to be trained as a singer for the theater. Jenny was treated as a nuisance by her mother, who felt she might be a threat to her good reputation as a schoolmistress, and as one more mouth to feed on her already strapped income. Initially, Jenny was boarded out, and at another point, she went to live with another family near her grandmother, a kind old woman who instilled upon her strong Christian values which she never forgot. With time, Jenny matured into an unforgettable singer and outgrew her teachers at the theater. Her appearance and demeanor were so unassuming, she soon won the hearts of all of Sweden, and later the world. Jenny Lind, was dubbed “The Swedish Nightingale” for her magnificent voice. P.T. Barnum brought Jenny Lind to the United States and hundreds of products bore her name. Jenny Lind furniture is one remnant of that craze. When Andersen and Lind met, Lind was terrified of performing outside of her beloved Sweden, and it was Andersen that encouraged her. She encountered, at her performance, nothing but admiration, and gained confidence from the experience. Andersen fell in love with Jenny Lind, and though she did not reciprocate, he loved her deeply for many years, disappointed she found him only a dear friend. It is said that Andersen wrote “The Nightingale” in honor of Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” but Jenny Lind preferred his story “The Ugly Duckling,” for she considered herself one as well. Throughout his life, Andersen fell in love several times but never married. He felt disappointed in that, and considered himself unfortunate in love, but compensated with regard to fame.
Andersen’s fame continued to grow and by 1846, his works were being translated into English and finding resonance with Victorian England, and in 1847, Andersen, himself, arrived in London discovering himself an instant celebrity with the British people. Publishers vied for his work; translators competed for his attention; the public followed his works and his travels, and he was received everywhere as a great literary talent. Andersen was astounded at the degree of attention he received in England, and nearly collapsed from his bustling schedule, and the constant greetings of well-wishers. At last, he fled, fighting exhaustion, and anxiety.
Andersen’s fame continued to grow, and he produced enormous quantities of work over his lifetime. H.C. Andersen died in his sleep, after suffering for some time of liver difficulties, on August 4th of 1875. His work, however, has remained vibrant to this day.
Melanie Zimmer is a storyteller and author in New York. This article first appeared at Storyteller.net in 2004.