Most readers think of Hans Christian Andersen less as the author of his stories than as their curator. The Ugly Duckling and the Little Mermaid, the Snow Queen and the Steadfast Tin Soldier are not characters like Lady Macbeth or David Copperfield; they are myths that seem to have existed always. Yet all these stories, and many more, were either invented or put in their definitive form by Andersen, a very modern literary artist and a very unhappy man.
The artist and the man are vividly present in Jackie Wullschlager's new biography, "Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller." Wullschlager, a journalist and the author of a study of English children's literature, has written an exemplary book: informed, sympathetic, lucid. With scholarly diligence and critical insight, she allows us to discover the real Andersen for the first time.
First, and most important, he was a boy from the slums of Odense, a provincial Danish town. His father, a shoemaker, died when Andersen was 11, and he was left to the care of an illiterate, alcoholic mother. He had little education and no prospects. All he had was a good soprano voice, which he milked for all it was worth, singing and performing in the homes of the Odense gentry. Their indulgent applause led to dreams of stardom at Copenhagen's Royal Theatre, and, in 1819, at age 14, he set out alone for the capital, bent on making his fortune.
It did not come easily. The most affecting part of Wullschlager's book is her portrait of the young Andersen, friendless and penniless, desperately trying to interest ballerinas and directors in his fate. When his voice broke, it became clear that he would never be a singer. Yet he had managed to win the interest of Jonas Collin, a statesman and director of a public charity fund, who arranged for him to get the education he had missed. Andersen suffered intensely at his provincial school and for the rest of his life had nightmares about his bullying headmaster. But when he finally made it back to Copenhagen in 1827, he was equipped for his true calling: He would become a writer.
In middle age, when he was a European celebrity and a friend of kings, Andersen wrote an autobiography called "The Fairy Tale of My Life," so astonishing was his rise. After winning a small reputation with his novel of Italy, "The Improvisatore," he turned to writing fairy tales. Immediately he sensed that he had found his real subject. Just before the publication of the first volume of "Tales, Told for Children," in April 1835, he wrote to a friend: "[P]eople will say: the work of my immortality!"
He was right. As Wullschlager skillfully shows, Andersen's fairy tales were like nothing Denmark, or the world, had seen before. "What made Andersen revolutionary," she writes, "was that he was the first person to take the fairy tale as a literary form and to invent new ones of his own." Just as important was his language, "the colloquial, vivid style that seemed to speak itself, and which children found instantly accessible and entertaining." For the rest of his life, Andersen would return to this form, interrupted from time to time by his novels, travel books and poems, none of which are still read outside Denmark. From "Thumbelina" through "The Ugly Duckling," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" to erotic and experimental late stories such as "The Ice Maiden," fairy tales were Andersen's greatest creations and the cause of his rapid rise to fame.
Yet the theme of Wullschlager's book is the persistence of the duckling in the swan. Andersen never entirely ceased to be the poor, ignorant boy from Odense, desperate to please; he could never get enough reassurance, enough acclaim, enough love. The story of his relationship with Edvard Collin, the son of his patron, is alternately sad and grotesque as Andersen's naked bids for affection are endlessly rebuffed. In 1831, Andersen wrote Edvard a letter begging to be allowed to call him "Du," the intimate form of the second-person; Edvard refused, politely but firmly ("it has saddened me that this issue should come up at all"). As Wullschlager writes, "It was a devastating blow .... At a vulnerable time when his social and sexual identity were still being formed, this crushing letter had a crucial impact."
Andersen was 25 at the time, yet clearly Wullschlager is right: He was still unformed. And though he lived to be 70, he never seemed entirely grown up. He had desperate crushes on men and women, though he seems never to have had sex with anyone. (Wullschlager is perceptive and undogmatic about Andersen's sexuality. It is likely that he was basically straight, though his intense need for male friendship sometimes found erotic expression.) He was petulant, vain, greedy for praise; he traveled across Europe in search of new, more appreciative audiences. Even Wullschlager occasionally loses patience with this side of her subject.
Yet Andersen's childish vices were accompanied by childish terrors that compel pity. He was neurotically afraid of shipwreck, of being buried alive, of fire; he traveled with a rope, in case his hotel burned and he had to climb out the window. And his success did nothing to assuage his loneliness. Sixteen years after the "Du" incident, Andersen was in London, a phenomenal celebrity. He wrote to Edvard: "It says in the newspaper where my portrait is that I am 'one of the most remarkable and interesting men of his day,' but you were too proud to say 'Du' to me--phew!"
Wullschlager's comment on "The Ugly Duckling" summarizes the tragedy of Andersen's life: "That Andersen could invent such a story suggests that his emotional makeup was still that of a child, but he constructed it with the classical elegance and wit of the mature artist." In nothing is he more Romantic, more truly 19th century, than in his tenacious effort to transform agony into art. After reading Wullschlager's book, one returns to Andersen's fairy tales with deeper understanding and a new respect for the man who wrote them.
Hans Christian Andersen's childish vices were accompanied by childish terrors that compel pity. He was neurotically afraid of shipwreck, of being buried alive, of fire; he traveled with a rope, in case his hotel burned and he had to climb out the window. And his success did nothing to assuage his loneliness.