Hans Christian Andersen was born in the slums of Odense. His father was a shoemaker and literate. His mother, who worked as washerwoman, was uneducated and superstitious, but opened for his son the world of folklore. Andersen’s half-sister worked as a prostitute for a time. Andersen received little education, and as a child he was highly emotional, suffering all kinds of fears and humiliations because of his tallness and effeminate interests. Andersen’s hysterical attacks of cramps were falsely diagnosed as epileptic fits. Encouraged by his mother he composed his own fairy tales and arrange puppet theatre shows.
In 1816 his father died and Andersen was forced to go to work. He was for a short time apprenticed to a weaver and tailor, and he also worked at a tobacco factory. Once his trousers were pulled down when other workers suspected that he was a girl. At the age of 14 Andersen moved to Copenhagen to start a career as a singer, dancer or an actor – he had a beautiful soprano voice. The following three years were full of hardships although he found supporters who paved his way to the theatre. Andersen succeeded in becoming associated with the Royal Theater, but he had to leave it when his voice began to change. When he was casually referred as a poet it changed his plans: “It went through me, body and soul, and tears filled my eyes. I knew that, from this very moment, my mind was awake to writing and poetry.” He then began to write plays, all of which were rejected.
In 1822 Jonas Collin, one of the directors of the Royal Theatre and an influential government official, gave Andersen a grant to enter the grammar school at Slagelse. He lived in the home of the school headmaster Meisling, who was annoyed at the oversensitive student and tried to harden his character. Other pupils were much younger, 11-year-olds, among whom six years older Andersen was definitely overgrown.
Collin arranged in 1827 a private tuition for Andersen. He gained admission to Copenhagen University, where he completed his education. In 1828 Andersen wrote a travel sketch, Fodrejse Fra Holmens Kanal Til Østpynten Af Amager, a fantastic tale in the style of the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Children’s and Household Tales had appeared between 1812 and 1815, but they were based on original folktales. Andersen’s poem ‘The Dying Child’, was published in a Copenhagen journal and the Royal Theatre produced in 1829 his musical drama. Phantasier og Skisser, a collection of poems, was born when Andersen fell in love with Riborg Voight, who was engaged. Edvard, Jonas Collin’s son, was for Andersen another object of unfulfilled dreams.
In succeeding years he also wrote impressionistic prose arabesques, plays, and novels. From 1831 onwards he travelled widely in Europe, and remained a passionate traveller all his life. A visit to Germany in 1831 inspired the first of his many travel sketches. He later wrote sketches about Sweden, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and the Middle East. During his journeys Andersen met in Paris among others Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Balzac and Alexandre Dumas. In London he met Charles Dickens in 1847, to whom Andersen dedicated A Poet’s Day Dreams (1853). In Rome he met the young writer Björnson.
As a novelist Andersen made his breakthrough with The Improvisatore (1835), using Italy as the setting. The story was autobiographical and depicted a poor boy’s integration into society, an Ugly Duckling theme of self-discovery in which Andersen returned in several of his works. The book gained international success and during his life it remained the most widely read of all his works. E.B. Browning wrote warmly to her future husband of the novel and her last poem was written for Andersen in 1861, shortly before her death.
However, Andersen’s fame rests on his Fairy Tales and Stories, written between 1835 and 1872. The third volume of his tales, published in 1837, ontained ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Among Andersen’s other best known fairy tales are ‘Little Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Tinderbox,’ ‘Little Claus and Big Claus’, ‘Princess and the Pea’, ‘The Snow Queen’, ‘The Nightingale,’ and ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’.
In his fairy tale collections Andersen broke new ground in both style and content, and employed the idioms and constructions of spoken language in a way that was new in Danish writing. When fairy tales at his time were didactic, he brought into them ambiguity. His identification with the unfortunate and outcast made his tales very compelling. Some of Andersen’s tales revealed an optimistic belief in the triumph of the good, among them ‘The Snow Queen’ and ‘Little Ugly Duckling’, and some ended unhappily, like ‘The Little Match Girl.’ In ‘The Little Mermaid’ the author expressed a longing for ordinary life – he never had such. Andersen’s tales were translated throughout Europe, with four editions appearing in the UK in 1846 alone. His works influenced among others Charles Dickens, Willam Thackeray and Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Isak Dinesen, P.O. Enquist, whose play, Rainsnakes, was about Andersen, Cees Noteboom, and a number of other writers.
Between the years 1840 and 1857 Andersen made journeys throughout Europa, Asia Minor, and Africa, recording his impressions and adventures in a number of travel books. He wrote and rewrote his memoirs, The Fairy Tale of My Life, but the standard edition is generally considered the 1855 edition. Andersen died in his home in Rolighed on August 4, 1875. Edvard Collin and his wife were later buried with Andersen. However, their family members moved the Collins’ bodies after some years to the family plot in another cemetery.
The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson