He might not have been the easiest person to get along with, but Hans Christian Andersen left an enduring legacy of stories for children. Dinah Starkey looks at his life and work
There once was an ugly duckling... If ever there was an author who lived up to that description, it was Hans Christian Andersen, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year. He was born in 1805, the son of a cobbler and a serving girl from the slums of Odense, a provincial town in Denmark. His grandfather was mad, his grandmother a pathological liar. His aunt ran a brothel and his mother became a hopeless alcoholic. It was an unpromising beginning for Scandinavia's foremost celebrity, and to make matters worse, he was hopelessly plain, clumsy and odd-looking. In later life Andersen liked to romanticise his early days but the bare facts are strange enough.
Another child would have gone under, but Andersen clearly had a charismatic personality and talent for attracting the interest of potential patrons.
Inspired by visits to the local theatre, he was convinced that he had a great future as an actor or a singer. He persuaded people to contribute funds for a journey to Copenhagen, where he planned to seek his fortune on the stage. At 14, alone and friendless in the capital, he scraped acquaintance with anyone who could help him and, against all the odds, scrambled himself into a place at the Royal Ballet School. He was plain, he was gawky, and reports by successive directors make it clear that he had had neither the talent nor the appearance necessary for the stage, but he persevered for three years with singing and dancing lessons and, as his dreams of life as a performer faded, he set his sights on a career as a playwright.
Once again his knack of acquiring patrons came to his rescue. The plays were derivative juvenilia, but his persistence won the attention of the board of directors of the Royal Theatre and, having turned down yet another of his melodramas ("a collection of words and tirades without any dramatic action, without plan, without character"), they nevertheless saw sufficient merit in the young man to offer him a free scholarship to grammar school.
By now Andersen was an awkward 17-year-old with a burning ambition to become a Digter - a cross between a poet, playwright and bard. Older than the other boys, badly dressed and poorly grounded, he struggled with the dry curriculum of Latin, maths and Danish grammar. To make matters worse, he was strictly forbidden to write imaginative fiction and suffered agonies of guilt when he broke the ban.
His benefactors had expected him to enter one of the professions but as soon as he left school he embarked on a career as a writer. His first success was A Journey on Foot from Hohn Canal to the East Point of Ameger.
Naively derivative, it nevertheless made a modest profit, and from then on he began to find his own voice. For the rest of his life he published a stream of plays and novels, fiction and non-fiction. His first collection of fairy tales came out in 1835 and in the same year he wrote two of his best known stories, Little Claus and Big Claus, and The Tinderbox.
As his popularity grew, the poor cobbler's son from Odense became a celebrity, lionised by society and hobnobbing with princes. It should have been a fairytale happy ending but Andersen remained a lonely outsider, convinced, despite his global popularity, that his own country never honoured him as it should. A hypochondriac with an insatiable appetite for flattery, he never married or settled down in one place for long. He relied for emotional support on a network of friends and patrons who became his honorary parents, brothers and sisters, but was ashamed of his own family and did everything he could to distance himself from his brothel-keeper aunt and an illegitimate half-sister whom he described only as "my mother's daughter".
Charles Dickens conveys the flavour of this complex personality in a letter he wrote after one of Andersen's visits: "Whenever he got to London, he got into wild entanglements of cabs and Sherry and never seemed to get out of them again until he came back here and cut out paper into all sorts of patterns and gathered nosegays in the woods."
He outstayed his welcome on this occasion. When he had gone, Dickens wrote a card which he stuck up on the dressing table mirror: "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks - which seemed to the family AGES!"
If the Dickens family didn't appreciate him, there were plenty of others who did. In his later life he was showered with royal honours and a statue was erected in Copenhagen's central park. More than a century after his death, his stories are being published and republished and he is acknowledged as the creator of an entirely new genre of writing for children.
* Andersen's stories often encapsulate a message, so they lend themselves to work on inference. Younger children can find this concept hard to grasp; for an easy introduction, try reading The Emperor's New Clothes or The Ugly Duckling. A follow-up discussion could begin by reviewing what happened in the story and then broaden into a consideration of what the story is about, and what Hans Andersen was trying to say. Children could be encouraged to come up with a statement about the story. Cue them in with an opening phrase - "This story makes me think that ...", and then ask for individual contributions.
* Andersen's stories draw on certain elements of the fairy story but are not folk tales. When introducing children to the notion of the style and voice of traditional story language, try comparing The Tinder Box with the story of Aladdin from 1001 Nights and see if children can detect common elements. Are they fairy stories? What are the features that define them? Then read another story by Andersen, such as The Fir Tree or The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Is this a fairy story? Which elements are lacking?
* Read the opening paragraph of one of the less well-known stories.
Thumbelina is a good example. What happens next? Ask children to write a couple of paragraphs continuing the story. Look out for those who recognise and continue the familiar theme of the child going out into the world to seek his or her fortune. Talk about this and ask for examples of other stories which use it as a springboard (for example Jack the Giant Killer, Dick Whittington).
* Older children can explore the fairy tale genre by subverting it. Read the story of The Constant Tin Soldier and ask them to write an up-to-date version involving Action Man or a Ninja Turtle. They must use as many incidents as possible from the original story but each must be updated to the 21st century. Can they turn it into a horror story or an action adventure?