This Day In Literary History
On April 2nd, 1805, the legendary Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark. The Andersens were a working class family, but speculation (which persists to this day) suggests that Hans' father was of a different lineage.
The senior Andersen may have been an illegitimate son of the Danish royal family. When he was a boy, King Frederick VI took a special interest in him and paid for part of his education. His son wasn't so fortunate.
Hans Christian Andersen had to leave school at 13 and work to support himself. He first found employment as an apprentice weaver, then as a tailor's apprentice. A year later, at the age of 14, he moved to Copenhagen, hoping to become an actor.
However, it was Andersen's excellent soprano singing voice, not his acting, that gained him entrance into the Royal Danish Theatre. When his voice changed, his theatrical career faltered. When one of his theater colleagues pointed out his talent for poetry, he decided to become a writer.
In a chance meeting, Andersen encountered Jonas Collin, a director for the Royal Danish Theatre, who became very fond of him. Collin decided to help Hans become a writer. He sent him to school and paid for his education.
Hans attended schools in Slagelse and Elsinore, but because of his dyslexia, he was a fair student at best. Older than his classmates, he felt alienated from them. At one school, he lived with the headmaster, who beat him frequently "to improve his character."
His teachers discouraged him from becoming a writer, driving him to depression. For these reasons, he would describe his school years as the darkest and most bitter years of his life. Despite his teachers' discouragement, Hans Christian Andersen did become a writer.
He burst onto the literary scene in 1824 with his short story A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager. He also published a poetry collection and a comic play. In 1833, he received a traveling grant from the King and embarked on the first of many travels throughout Europe.
During his traveling years, Andersen wrote his first novel, The Improvisatore, which would be published in early 1835. It became an overnight sensation. That same year, he also published a short story collection, Eventyr, the first of several volumes Eventyr, known in English as Fairy Tales.
The book sold poorly, as the brilliance and beauty of the stories had yet to be recognized. Andersen returned to novel writing, and his next two novels, O.T. (1836) and Only A Fiddler (1837), proved to be just as successful as his first.
The year his third novel was published, Andersen made his first visit to Sweden. Inspired by Scandinavism, he decided to write about the Scandinavian brotherhood shared by the Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians.
The result was his classic poem Jeg er en Skandinav (I am a Scandinavian), which would be set to music by Swedish composer Otto Lindblad. Andersen continued his travels throughout Europe. He would write travelogues about his experiences in countries such as Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal.
In 1847, he made his first visit to England. His writing career was then at its peak, and his volumes of fairy tales were celebrated throughout Europe - except in his native Denmark, where at the time, they still received a lukewarm reception.
In England, Andersen became a noted guest at the famous parties of Marguerite Gardiner, the Countess of Blessington, who was a writer herself. Her parties were known as gathering places for writers, intellectuals, and other illuminati.
Andersen was a hit at the parties - a big social success. At one party, he was overjoyed when he got to meet his literary idol, the legendary Enlgish novelist Charles Dickens.
During one of his later visits to England, Andersen stayed with Dickens for five weeks, oblivious to his host's blatant hints that he had worn out his welcome.
The friendship between the two men soured, and Dickens was said to have modeled the character of Uriah Heep, from his classic novel David Copperfield (1849), after Hans Christian Andersen.
As for Andersen's personal life, he never married. He was a bisexual who preferred women, but was very shy and awkward around them. He would fall in love with unattainable women, and their inevitable rejection of him would result in great heartbreak.
His most famous paramour was the legendary Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind. He fell madly in love with her, and his fairy tale The Nightingale was a tribute to her singing. Her famous nickname, "the Swedish Nightingale," was inspired by Andersen's story.
Hans proposed to Jenny, but she turned him down. She had come to love him like a brother, and referred to him as her brother in a dear john letter. Andersen's failures with women would be repeated in his gay relationships; he would become attracted to unattainable men who failed to reciprocate his love.
Ultimately, he never married or had any children. He gave up on love and most likely patronized brothels; shortly before his death, in the throes of severe illness, he dictated journal entries recalling memories of his many relationships with "loose women."
In 1872, Hans Christian Andersen fell out of bed and injured himself severely. He never recovered and his health began to deteriorate. Three years later, he died of liver cancer. At the time of his death, he had finally been recognized in his native Denmark for his legendary fairy tales.
Nearly 150 years later, his classic stories, such as The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, Thumbelina, and The Emperor's New Clothes, continue to enchant readers of all ages. They would be adapted as plays, ballets, and feature films.
Readers are quite surprised that, like the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Andersen's stories are quite different from the retellings and adaptations they spawned. The Little Mermaid, for example, ends on a tragic note.
The little mermaid made a deal with the Sea Witch to become human so she could marry the Prince, but he marries another girl whom he discovers is his true love - the girl who had saved him from drowning.
Heartbroken, the little mermaid can only return to mermaid form if she kills him with a dagger given to her by the Sea Witch. She sneaks up on the Prince, asleep with his new wife, but can't bring herself to kill him, and commits suicide instead, throwing herself into the sea.
Quote Of The Day
"Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale." - Hans Christian Andersen
Today's video features a reading of a collection of Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tales. Enjoy!