Hans Christian Andersen’s painful fairy-tale life

Hans Christian Andersen has introduced generations of children to the pleasures of an unhappy ending. The loyalty of the steadfast tin soldier doesn’t save him from the fire; the little mermaid will never be married to the prince; Karen’s taste for fancy footwear in “The Red Shoes” is her undoing. Few literary moments can have generated more infant tears than the death of the little match girl. Children now rarely come across the unrelieved darkness of Andersen’s imagination. Disney, who finally staged a wedding for the little mermaid in a 1989 film, have recently produced Frozen, a hugely popular adaptation of “The Snow Queen”. Its calculated brightness is a long way from Andersen’s story of Gerda’s arduous redemption of Kay. Andersen’s religiosity has also been edited out of the picture. Firmly convinced of the immortality of the soul, he swept many of his oppressed characters into heaven in the final paragraphs of his tales. Modern sensibilities prefer more earthly forms of salvation.

It may not be necessary to shelter younger readers from Andersen’s intensely personal vision. They often relish his febrile emotionalism, and find his championship of the misunderstood outsider appealing. Many lonely children have been comforted by “The Ugly Duckling”, where patient endurance is, exceptionally, rewarded by happiness. As far as Andersen was concerned, it hardly mattered whether his work was good for the young or not, for after the publication of his earliest tales he did not see himself as writing primarily for children. Paul Binding shares Andersen’s view. His study offers detailed commentaries on his subject’s novels, travel writings and autobiographies alongside the more familiar stories, in a sustained attempt to reclaim Andersen’s work for grown-ups. Binding argues that Andersen is best understood in the context of European Romanticism, and the political turmoil that followed the Napoleonic wars. Despite his isolation and oddity, Andersen was, as Binding sees him, a figure of major intellectual substance.

Binding’s book, like much of Andersen’s work, is not easy to categorize. This is an unconventional piece of Life-writing. Much is omitted, including any description of Andersen’s final years. Readers who indulge in the habit of beginning a biography with the deathbed, and working backwards, will be nonplussed. The sympathetic accounts of Jens Andersen (translated into English in 2005) or Jackie Wullschlager (2000) remain the best options for those looking for a more straightforward approach. For Binding, the point of the biographical material is to demonstrate the intimate connection between Andersen’s writing and his remarkable life. He describes the circumstances that led to Andersen’s unlikely transformation from the clumsy son of an alcoholic washerwoman into one of the most widely celebrated authors of Europe, but this narrative takes second place to his analyses of Andersen’s texts, and their representations of the distress that accompanies processes of magical change. Andersen called one of his autobiographies My Fairy-Tale Life, but it was as painful a fairy tale as any that he invented. An early story, “The Tallow-Candle” (discovered in 2012), suggests what was to come. Like much of Andersen’s mature work, it endows an inanimate object with a human consciousness. The candle knows that its great purpose is to give light, which will only be possible when flame has passed through its body. But it is stained by the handling of dirty fingers, and thrown aside as useless. A redemptive tinder-box eventually provides the necessary spark, and the candle’s hidden virtue at last shines as it should.

Andersen wrote this fable in the 1820s, when he was still at school, but its preoccupation with innocence damaged by callous indifference is characteristic of his subsequent work. He had left the town of Odense as an eager fourteen-year-old without money, education or connections, to make a name for himself in Copenhagen. He could sing and dance, and had some talent for acting, but any prospect of his finding success must have seemed remote. Yet he was as convinced as the tallow-candle that he was destined to illuminate the world. His confidence came out of nowhere, but it seemed justified by the generosity which nurtured his attempts to forge a career. In an act of daring that was to change his life, he presented two plays to the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen. He was seventeen, and his inexperience was only too evident. But the turn from performance to writing liberated his distinctive creativity. The plays were thought to show promise, and the theatre’s management, headed by Jonas Collin, was able to secure sufficient money to support Andersen’s education. Jonas became Andersen’s official guardian, and the long and close relationship with the Collin family that followed became central to his life.

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