Fairy tales with thorns
Danny Kaye he was not, though in one respect the 1952 Hollywood movie may have got it about right. One of the songs, repeatedly asked for on children's radio request programmes, along with "The Ugly Duckling", concluded - if memory serves - "I'm Hans Christian Andersen, Hans Christian Andersen, Andersen, that's me!". His egocentricity was indeed relentless.
In her new biography, Jackie Wullschlager hopes to show how much Andersen has to offer adults, and convey "the struggle against both circumstances and liabilities of temperament - wild imagination, inner rage, tormenting anxieties and hypochondria, insatiable ambition - that formed him". His novels, plays and poetry are little read in this country, and the few tales we know - perhaps 10 or so from the 156 in the Collected Works - may well be in versions for very young children. The writer himself indignantly declared that "my tales were just as much for older people as for children".
A biographer has to accommodate readers unfamiliar with the subject and revisit some well-trodden ground. So here we follow Andersen from his humble origins in Odense to Copenhagen in his search for fortune (and patrons), his education at the hands of the harsh schoolmaster Meisling, his early struggles as a writer, his travels and his growing fame as the author of the literary fairy tales.
The fascination of this biography, however, stems from Wullschlager's extensive use of letters, diaries and contemporary accounts, many of which have never been translated before and which are, she tells us, little known even in Denmark.
From these sources emerges a figure very different from the hero of Andersen's own memoirs and autobiographies. These are unreliable testimonies: "Andersen promises honesty, but delivers only the public persona he offered up in life to kings and princes." Wullschlager's Andersen is a deeply self-absorbed, disturbed, often tortured man. He is, by turns, petulant, neurotic, arrogant, sycophantic and self-pitying. Socially, he was often an enormous embarrassment, demanding centre stage by insisting on reading his stories at dinner parties, or performing his party piece of snipping out paper figures for any child who was present - he was good at this, admittedly. "You certainly do your best to wear out your friends," wrote one of his most steadfast women supporers. He was one of those people for whom the rest of us make continual allowances for the sake of a rare talent.
He regularly fell in love, or with some notion of being in love, though his insistent declarations are transparent bids for a return of intimacy. The objects of his passion were almost always safely unattainable: women already engaged to be married or, for several years, the "Swedish Nightingale", Jenny Lind, who was kind to him without offering any further encouragement.
Wullschlager takes us further, for the letters reveal frequent infatuations with men, often concurrent with his fixation upon a woman. She detects "a pattern in Andersen's love affairs...that to fall in love with a woman, he needed two emotional objects, one male and one female". The constraints of personality and social conventions never allowed him to consummate a relationship, it seems, with either woman or man. In the heat of Naples, he was tormented by temptation when a small boy repeatedly offered him his sister and, in later years in Paris, he would pay prostitutes to sit and talk with him. Poignantly, he recorded occasions when he was reduced to fevered masturbation by marking a plus sign in his diaries.
Andersen's restless search for sensation and approbation prompted him to travel widely throughout Europe. Everywhere he went, he courted and sometimes received the friendship and hospitality of the eminent. When he called upon the Brothers Grimm, Jakob had never heard of him, to their mutual chagrin. In Weimar, he and the young Hereditary Grand Duke, Carl Alexander, "cuddled up to one another on sofas - and squeezed each other's palms under the table at ceremonial dinners".
Invited for a fortnight's stay at Gad's Hill with Dickens, he so overstayed his welcome that Dickens famously pinned up a note: "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks - which seemed to the family AGES!". Yet out of this turbulence came the sublime tales. Wullschlager's commentaries on his writing are rooted in the condition of his life and mind at the time of creation, rather than on the words on the page. Certainly, she persuaded this adult reader to turn to the works themselves. It is to her immense credit that she has distilled such a mass of material, and so complex a subject, into so readable a narrative. She conjures up an enigmatic genius whose work we might admire, but whose company we, like Dickens, might find exasperating and wearisome.