Celebrating Denmark's gift to the imagination
A 'consciousness of God's infinite goodness' stood against the dark.
Readers all over the world have grown up with Hans Christian Andersen's stories such as "The Red Shoes," "The Ugly Duckling," and "The Emperor's Clothes." Now a new and arguably definitive biography of him has been published in the United States to observe the bicentenary of his birth in 1805.
In "Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life," the Danish literary critic and biographer Jens Andersen (no relation) illuminates the often misunderstood aspects of Andersen's idiosyncratic nature.
Where previous biographies have painted H.C. Andersen's character with a broad brush dipped in post-Freudian theories, Jens Andersen limns it with compassion in the context of the 19th century's "romantic androgyny" and platonic love. He draws on his subject's journals and letters to substantiate an admitted lifelong aversion to intimate contact with women, his attraction - both intellectual and physical - to men, and his necessary, but frustrating, choice of celibacy to protect his childlike relationship to the world.
(To avoid confusion here and for anyone attending the numerous activities planned for the HCA2005 festivities in Denmark, H.C. Andersen is the correct Danish style, pronounced approximately as " 'Ho-Say' Enn' awsen.")
Andersen was careful throughout his life to suppress any hint of poverty in his childhood - especially in view of the home and tuition provided him by the wealthy Copenhagen Collin family and his later connections with Danish nobility. But Jens Andersen finds the likely picture of H.C. Andersen's early years in his fairy tales. These tales, known as "adventures" in Danish, are often grounded in a stark reality, resembling Dickens's portrayal of the degrading conditions of street life in London.
In Jens Andersen's analysis, tales such as those of the little match girl who freezes to death and of the princess who is raped and abducted in "The Marsh King's Daughter" are clues to the Odense milieu into which H.C. Andersen was born and where he lived until he fled to Copenhagen when he was 14. Support for this is found in journal entries recording his anguish when his illegitimate older half-sister appeared in Copenhagen after 20 years, seeking to renew their contact!
The enduring object of H.C. Andersen's affection was Edvard Collin, son of his benefactor, Jonas Collin. Throughout the years of their near-filial relationship, volumes of correspondence, and Edvard's services as Andersen's business manager, Edvard aristocratically refused Andersen's pleas that they address each other with the Danish informal "du." He not only held Andersen at emotional arm's length, but he also was apparently blind to Andersen's growing fame throughout Europe, especially in Germany and his beloved Italy - a fame that was slow to come in Denmark.
The disappointments and peculiarities of the life Jens Andersen unveils are, however, redeemed by the many tales of happy relationships with the children of the noble and culturally elite families who made Andersen a guest in their city homes and country estates. The biographer relates the hours of enchantment Andersen provided through his storytelling, his floral decorations, and the intricate paper cutouts he devised. Among the many color illustrations are examples of these ingenious artworks, as well as the collages that depicted chapters of his life on the folding screens in his bachelor apartment.
Andersen's final years of illness and decline do not make pleasant reading, but they are highlighted by the conscientious caring of his wealthy Jewish friends, the Melchior family, who took him into their Copenhagen home until his death.
Despite his torments, the great storyteller saw his own life in the light of what he called "unconscious church worship" out in nature and in an intimate relationship with God. He rejected the doctrine of an unforgivable sinner, hell, and eternal damnation, finding them "inconsistent with the consciousness of God's infinite goodness."
The biographer's own background enables him to bring strikingly to life the period of Denmark's 19th-century Golden Age and Andersen's friendships with most of the cultural giants of this period. They include philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; ballet master August Bournonville; sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen in Rome; author Adelbert Chamisso; composer Franz Liszt in Germany; and, of course, the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, with whom Andersen was deeply - but passingly - infatuated.
This book is a work of art, lovingly illustrated and amply annotated, with an extensive bibliography and index, and a practical list of Andersen's works in side-by-side Danish and English. It follows the 2003 Danish publication. Translator Tiina Nunnally has provided a seamless rendering into English.
• Lucie Lehmann-Barclay has been a Danish-to- English translator and was a recipient of two research grants from the Danish Ministry of Culture.