Hans Christian Andersen’s painful fairy-tale life
By Dinah Birch
Hans Christian Andersen has introduced generations of children to the pleasures of an unhappy ending. The loyalty of the steadfast tin soldier doesn’t save him from the fire; the little mermaid will never be married to the prince; Karen’s taste for fancy footwear in “The Red Shoes” is her undoing. Few literary moments can have generated more infant tears than the death of the little match girl. Children now rarely come across the unrelieved darkness of Andersen’s imagination. Disney, who finally staged a wedding for the little mermaid in a 1989 film, have recently produced Frozen, a hugely popular adaptation of “The Snow Queen”. Its calculated brightness is a long way from Andersen’s story of Gerda’s arduous redemption of Kay. Andersen’s religiosity has also been edited out of the picture. Firmly convinced of the immortality of the soul, he swept many of his oppressed characters into heaven in the final paragraphs of his tales. Modern sensibilities prefer more earthly forms of salvation.
It may not be necessary to shelter younger readers from Andersen’s intensely personal vision. They often relish his febrile emotionalism, and find his championship of the misunderstood outsider appealing. Many lonely children have been comforted by “The Ugly Duckling”, where patient endurance is, exceptionally, rewarded by happiness. As far as Andersen was concerned, it hardly mattered whether his work was good for the young or not, for after the publication of his earliest tales he did not see himself as writing primarily for children. Paul Binding shares Andersen’s view. His study offers detailed commentaries on his subject’s novels, travel writings and autobiographies alongside the more familiar stories, in a sustained attempt to reclaim Andersen’s work for grown-ups. Binding argues that Andersen is best understood in the context of European Romanticism, and the political turmoil that followed the Napoleonic wars. Despite his isolation and oddity, Andersen was, as Binding sees him, a figure of major intellectual substance.
Binding’s book, like much of Andersen’s work, is not easy to categorise. This is an unconventional piece of Life-writing. Much is omitted, including any description of Andersen’s final years. Readers who indulge in the habit of beginning a biography with the deathbed, and working backwards, will be nonplussed. The sympathetic accounts of Jens Andersen (translated into English in 2005) or Jackie Wullschlager (2000) remain the best options for those looking for a more straightforward approach. For Binding, the point of the biographical material is to demonstrate the intimate connection between Andersen’s writing and his remarkable life. He describes the circumstances that led to Andersen’s unlikely transformation from the clumsy son of an alcoholic washerwoman into one of the most widely celebrated authors of Europe, but this narrative takes second place to his analyses of Andersen’s texts, and their representations of the distress that accompanies processes of magical change. Andersen called one of his autobiographies My Fairy-Tale Life, but it was as painful a fairy tale as any that he invented. An early story, “The Tallow-Candle” (discovered in 2012), suggests what was to come. Like much of Andersen’s mature work, it endows an inanimate object with a human consciousness. The candle knows that its great purpose is to give light, which will only be possible when flame has passed through its body. But it is stained by the handling of dirty fingers, and thrown aside as useless. A redemptive tinder-box eventually provides the necessary spark, and the candle’s hidden virtue at last shines as it should.