Hans Christian Andersen
The fairy stories of Hans Christian Andersen have become so popular among children and adults that they have almost become folk tales, part of the world’s oral tradition of storytelling. The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Princess and the Pea, The Nightingale, The Red Shoes, The Little Match Girl, Thumbelina, and The Little Mermaid have been enjoyed everywhere for more than 150 years.
Andersen, an only child, was born in the Danish city of Odense in 1805; his mother took in washing and his father, who died when he was 11, was a shoemaker. He went to a local school and worked for a weaver and a tailor before, aged 14, moving to Copenhagen. He told his mother: “I’ll become famous. First you suffer cruelly and then you become famous.” His plan was to become an actor at the city’s Royal Theatre but he had little talent and could neither dance nor sing with any skill.
One of the theatre’s directors raised money to send him back to school, which he hated, but he went on to study at Copenhagen University and wrote his first story in 1828, the year he graduated.
He produced his first novel in 1835 and later wrote five more. He also wrote plays (but was never thought to be much of a dramatist), poetry, which is still popular in Denmark, travel books and an autobiography.
But his lasting fame rests on his 168 fairy tales, from The Tinder Box in 1835 to Urbanus, not published till 1949; The Nightingale was published in 1843 and is said to have been inspired by his unrequited passion for the soprano Jenny Lind, who became known as the ‘Swedish nightingale’.
Andersen, at first, retold the stories his grandmother and others had told him but later
created his own. He was dismissive of them at first but, influenced by the opinion of friends and critics, began to see fairy and folk stories as universal in their appeal, with themes common to all ages and cultures.
The stories have always been popular in Britain. Andersen first came to Britain in 1847 and met Charles Dickens, the English writer he admired most. In 1857, he returned to Britain and stayed with Dickens and his family. Without realising he was overstaying his welcome, he turned a short break into a five-week stay. Dickens asked him to leave and there was almost no further contact between them.
In 1872, Andersen was badly hurt after falling from his bed and soon after was diagnosed with liver cancer; he died three years later, having consulted a composer about music for his funeral: “Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps,” he said.
There are now Hans Christian Andersen museums in Odense and Copenhagen, which is also home to the statue of the Little Mermaid.