I’m really excited to bring you this episode about Hans Christian Andersen just in time for the new release of the new Little Mermaid movie! I haven’t actually seen it yet, so please no spoilers, but I’m planning to go this weekend.
Hey everyone, welcome to Unruly Figures, the podcast that celebrates history’s greatest rule-breakers. I’m your host, Valorie Clark, and today I’m going to be covering one of the most prolific writers of the nineteenth century, whose stories you’ve definitely heard even if you didn’t know it: Hans Christian Andersen.
Andersen was a Danish writer famous for his amazing stories like “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and, of course, “The Little Mermaid.” In addition to these fairytales, he was a playwright, a novelist, and a capital-r Romantic; his writing broke many of the rules and standards of the day. He’s also remembered a bit of an awkward man, who usually overstayed his welcome. And today he is probably one of the most speculated about historical figures because of his uncomfortable and unclear relationship with his own sexuality and therefore the people in his life. Today I’m going to dive into all of that–and frankly, a lot more. For this history, I’m relying a lot of Andersen’s first memoir, The True Story of My Life, as well as the biography by Jens Andersen, Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life. Since Jens, the biographer, and Hans, today's subject, share the last name Andersen, though they’re not related, I’m going to break all the rules of research and refer to Jens by his first name a lot in this. My apologies to the author.
But before we jump into Andersens’s life and how he became the originator of many of our most popular fairy tales, I want to give a huge thank you to all the paying subscribers on Substack who make this podcast possible. Y’all are the best and this podcast wouldn’t still be going without you! Each of these episodes takes me nearly 30 hours of work, which means they’ve become a part time job. So if you like this show and want more of it, please become a paying subscriber for just $6/month or $60/year! Contributions help ensure that I will be able to continue doing this work. Becoming a paying subscriber will also give you access to exclusive content, merch, and behind-the-scenes updates on the upcoming Unruly Figures book. When you’re ready to do that, head over to unrulyfigures.substack.com.
And then one quick heads up: I am going to talk pretty frankly about sex in this episode, there’s also some discussion of sexual assault. If you’ve got little ones in the car who aren’t ready for this content, or if you’re uncomfortable with it, you might want to be ready to hit fast-forward at that point. I’ll let you know when that’s coming.
All right, let’s hop back in time.
Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark, which was then the second largest city after the capital of Copenhagen. His father, Hans Andersen, was a cobbler, or a shoe-maker, and his mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter, was a washerwoman. In his memoirs, his parents were very much in love, though Anne was just a little older than Hans. They lived in poverty, though Andersen would classify that poverty as somewhat noble. In his memoir, he described the family’s little rented house as clean, covered with pictures, and complete with a kitchen full of “shining plates and metal pans.” He renders it as a happy childhood: Quote, “My father gratified me in all my wishes. I possessed his whole heart; he lived for me.” He claims that his father built him a cradle out of the catafalque that held up the coffin of a Count Trampe; the three of them lived together peacefully for a long time.
To be frank, his memoir, The True Story of My Life, written in 1847 is filled with sentimental tripe like this. The fact is that in writing this memoir (and his later memoir, The Fairy Tale of My Life), Andersen was gilding his memories. His memoir is one of the most clearly biased I think I’ve ever read; he had a mission in writing this, and so the truth of his childhood is really lost in the weeds. It’s an artistically driven mythology he builds, not unlike Audré Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, written a hundred years later. Lorde at least owned that she was doing that; Andersen tries not to.
Andersen might have had many motivations to write the sanitized version of his life. I’ll bring this up more later on, but I suspect part of it might have been trauma, and unwillingness to look too closely at the darker aspects of his own life, let alone reveal them to anyone else. Perhaps more directly though, when he agreed to set his life down in a memoir for a publisher, it was also consciously designed to live up the capital-r Romantic era’s, quote, “dream about the pure and untainted person who, like the child, was filled with impulsive spirit and nature… the autobiographies were meant to express a positive story about the divine in human beings.” Andersen was hugely influenced by philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believed in the inherent goodness of man, and he wanted to forward that philosophy. Which is all well and good; I’m all for believing man is born good and taught evil, but it does mean that his memoirs are… a lie. I actually think, ironically, that the true story of his life, that he suffered great trauma and still turned out to be a genius artist who loved people is actually a better version of Rousseau’s ideal, but it didn’t fit with nineteenth-century ideals.
So, to get a clear picture of his childhood, we have to turn to, ironically, his fairy tales. Andersen didn’t begin writing fairy tales from the start; he had had an interest in folk tales since childhood, but his early writing was mostly essays, poetry, plays, novels, and travelogues. It was in the mid-1830s, when he was in his early 30s, that he began writing fairytales, though he regarded them as just “one artistic option” available to him. The fairytales were full of a, quote, “far more evil and cruel world…[one] much closer to reality in terms of his childhood story than in his purportedly factual memoirs.” In 1842, he began writing “The Ugly Duckling” though it didn’t gain that name until moments before its publication in November 1843.
I’ve taken us this far forward, to Andersen being almost 40 years old, because “The Ugly Duckling,” more than his own memoir, tells us about Andersen’s childhood. If you’re not familiar, the story follows a duckling who hatches at the same time as his brothers and sisters. However, they consider him ugly and ostracize him from the nest. He wanders alone until he encounters some swans, when he realizes that, in fact, he has grown into a swan too. It’s a good tale about bullying, but it betrays a deep-seated sadness in Andersen. As his biographer, Jens Andersen wrote, quote, “many people read and interpreted the tale as a story about him, equating the duckling with its author… the persecuted and eternally struggling young bird withstands all the humiliations with such an indomitable and proud spirit, only to end up so weak and obedient on the last pages of the story.”
And, so with that arc in mind, let’s try that childhood story again. Keep in mind, there’s quote, “an abyss of contradictions” between Andersen’s idyllic autobiography and the, quote, “chaotic, shattered, and traumatizing family patterns that we find in his fairy tales, novels and plays… fictions that open up like Pandora’s box, and out pour evil stepfathers and unnatural mothers, rapes, incest, and–in particular–children who are lost or gone astray.” End quote. His mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter was a full ten years older than her husband, Hans Andersen. In that time, it was actually common for younger men to marry older women; they, quote, “took on a matron” to avoid having a fertile partner that would result in more mouths than they could afford to feed. That said, Anne Marie was already roughly eight months pregnant with our hero when the two married. She also had a daughter already, a girl named Karen. This half-sister is purposefully not mentioned in Andersen’s autobiographies, which led a lot of people to believe he was an only child for a very long time. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to Karen.
Andersen’s parents were married but perhaps not as idyllically in love as he’d have us believe. They married before Andersen was born, but didn’t live together until a year after; his biographer Jens believes that they were homeless for a period. The house you can see today in Odense, known as the Hans Christian Andersen house, is one of many myths of the author’s childhood; we don’t know where he was born, and he seems to have disavowed that house as his birthplace or childhood home during his lifetime.
His mother, Anne Marie, might have worked as a prostitute both before and after her marriage to make ends meet, and that might be where Karen was conceived. Anne Marie’s mother certainly owned a brothel, and when she died it was up to Anne to take care of her two younger sisters, both from different fathers. It’s not hard to believe that she would have continued the family business, as it were, though it would have been risky. During this period in Denmark, a woman who gave birth out of wedlock three times could be imprisoned and fined, then turned back out on the street without any actual support for herself or her children and no recourse to get the father to support her or her children. To be fair, if a man was accused of having fathered three children out of wedlock, he too would be fined, and his fine was twice as much as the woman’s, but the courts didn’t force him to then take an active role in his childrens’ lives.
Perhaps because of Anne Marie’s trade, at some point there was a rumor that Andersen was not his father’s biological child. This might also be because his last name is not Hansen. In Danish culture, it was traditional to give a son his father’s first name plus ‘sen’ as surname; by that tradition, our author should be named Hans Christian Hansen, if his father was his father. In the most fantastical version of this, Andersen is actually the son of the King of Denmark, Christian VIII, who supposedly passed through Odense and gave up his child with his mistress, Countess Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, to a noble poor couple, with the promise that he’d financially care for the child. It sounds like a fairytale, doesn’t it? It has a certain romantic mythos to it, but it’s easy to disprove; Christian VIII wasn’t even in Denmark at the time, and on the day of Andersen’s birth, the Countess Elise was at a public concert, though she was in Odense. Also, where was that financial support for the first 16 years of his life? Despite the tales, it seems that Andersen believed that the man who raised him was also his biological father.
Andersen’s father, Hans, was a sensitive soul as well, who had wanted nothing more than to go to school. In fact Andersen wrote that he had “a superb mind.” However, he had been apprenticed at a young age to a cobbler, and that became his trade. He wanted Andersen to get an education, though that wouldn’t begin until Andersen was in his late teens and his father already dead. He was perhaps the more emotionally involved parent; he read Andersen stories, especially from The 1001 Arabian Nights. He took his son on long walks through the woods, where he let him play make-believe. Basically, he was careful to nurture a spiritual and intellectual side to his son, that his mother, who had never received any education, didn’t do.
His father, that is, Andersen’s paternal grandfather, named Anders Hansen, had also once been a gentle and intelligent spirit who had owned a farm. However, he apparently, quote, “lost his mind,” though it’s not quite clear what that means. He apparently “roamed the streets of Odense, wearing an emperor’s crown made of gold paper.” According to Andersen, his grandfather also carved “out of wood strange figures, men with beasts’ heads, and beasts with wings; these he packed in a basket and carried them out into the country” to sell or give away. Andersen was, quote, “very much afraid” of his grandfather, even in his own memoirs; he recalls seeing, quote, “the boys in the street shouting after him,” and the young boy hid from all of them them.
In 1808 or so, Hans Andersen became intrigued by Napoleon Bonaparte and wanted to go fight with the French army. He saw the soldier’s life as romantic, and was drawn to it all the more by the disastrous inflation in Denmark that began in 1810 and eventually would bankrupt the country. After years of toying with the idea, in 1812 Hans Andersen joined up. Technically, he actually took the place of another man; he had been exempt from military service, but a rich farmer’s son who had been called up didn’t want to go, so he paid Hans Andersen to take his place. He had hoped that joining up would give him not just glory and expand his horizons, but would also provide his family with a much more steady income than shoemaking had.
It wasn’t to be. In 1813, the child author Andersen and his mother are included on a list of individuals in Odense receiving public assistance from the government–they received bread, pork, grain, butter, and peat. In 1814, Andersen’s father returned a broken man; he didn’t fire a single shot in the war, and he was, quote, “psychologically marked by his fruitless, passive days in the field. Once again, he had failed to achieve anything great.” End quote. In Andersen’s autobiography, he recalls that his father woke one morning during the winter of 1814, talking about Napoleon; quote, “he fancied that he had received orders from him to take the command. My mother immediately sent me not to the physician, but to a so-called wise woman some miles from Odense… She questioned me, measured my arm with a woolen thread, made extraordinary signs, and at last laid a green twig upon my breast.” She then sent him home by way of the river, saying that if he saw his father’s ghost there, that meant he would die; Andersen didn’t see his father’s ghost, but he died a few days later anyway. He recalled that his father had, one day that winter, suddenly propped himself up to look out the window and said, “Look, there you can see the Ice Maiden on the windowpane; she’s coming now to get me.”
This illustrates an important point–though Christianity had of course arrived in Denmark by this point, Anne Marie was not particularly religious, nor did she go in much for science. It never occurred to her to get a doctor for her husband; instead she believed in the old ways and superstitions. According to Jens Andersen, “Ghosts were very much part of reality in Denmark around 1800;” folks saw them with some regularity, and it probably didn’t seem like an antithesis to Christianity like similar beliefs are sort of seen today. Though Andersen would later talk about God in very Christian terms, he also clearly held onto his mother’s beliefs as well. His view of life was very animistic, really.
The loss of his father had a profound impact on Andersen. He was left to himself while his mother doubled down on work to make ends meet. He retreated into his imagination; he made a little theater, made doll’s clothes, and ready plays. He rarely spent time with children his age, and especially not the boys. He would play with girls his age if there were only a couple of them, but he was too shy to approach a group. Without his father, his childhood became very lonely.
However, his mother remarried, another shoemaker who was also younger than her. And her daughter Karen, Andersen’s half-sister, must have been around. Andersent so thoroughly excised her from his life story that it’s hard to know, but certainly Karen would have been around while she was young. Her father was not in the picture, nor were her maternal grandparents. Her two aunts were probably still living and working in brothels, so not a suitable place for a young girl to live. So who else would have taken care of her? Karen was only about four years older than Andersen, so during his early childhood, she should have been around. She apparently was apprenticed to be a maid in a household at some point, but she still would have come home for some holidays. But again, she’s literally never mentioned in his autobiographies, so it’s hard to say where she went and what she was doing. Did she comfort her younger brother when his dad died? Who knows.
Soon after his father’s death, Andersen was sent to work in a cloth factory. In his memoirs, he says that his mother sent him to do this, quote, “not for the sake of money, but that she might know where I was, and what I was doing.” Which, again, sounds like bunk to me. They would have needed the wages; his mother’s pay from washing wouldn’t have been enough. This time at the factory was very traumatic; I’m going to get more into it later, but let’s just say it was not a safe place for a young boy like Andersen.
Between 1814 and 1819, we don’t know much of what was going on in Andersen’s life. He was sent to a charity school, where he learned a little of religion and arithmetic. He acted as a background character when performers from the Theatre Royal passed through Odense. He started writing a little; his first piece was a tragedy. His neighbor made fun of it, and Andersen’s mother told him it was because the neighbor was jealous because her son had never written anything. After that, he tried to write a piece that included the king and queen of Denmark, but knew that they shouldn’t sound like the lay people of Odense. He put together nonsense words from several languages, German, French, and English and inserted them into the speeches his royal characters gave. It probably read like nonsense but I think this highlights both his creativity and sense of the world at a young age.
So we’ll skip ahead to September 6, 1819. Later in his life, Andersen would jokingly refer to this day as his birthday; it was the day he arrived in Copenhagen. Just over 14 years old, he had just been confirmed in the church and was ready to be an adult, more or less. He had saved up thirteen rigsdaler, the Danish currency at the time, which felt like true wealth to him. His mother wanted him to be apprenticed to a tailor, because he moved making clothes for the puppets in his theater, but he told her that he wanted to go to Copenhagen.
“What wilt thou do there?” she asked; “I will become famous,” he replied, though he didn’t seem to understand exactly how. She forbade this, at first, but according to his memoir she called a wise woman to see what that woman foresaw in Andersen’s future. Apparently the woman said, “Your son will become a great man, and in honor of him, Odense will one day be illuminated.” Having heard that, his mother wept with joy and allowed him to go.
Copenhagen was not a great city at the time; I mean, it was famous for its intellectual scene and its art, but it hadn’t quite recovered from the economic crash six years before. It was a small city with about 100,000 inhabitants, but there were four times as many rats and other animals sharing the city. In fact, there were so many horses and cows that many families had to construct their stables on the second floor of buildings, meaning that animals had to be hoisted up and down to enter and exit; cows and horses, famously, can’t go down stairs. People were crammed into dark garret rooms because that’s the only place they could sleep. Packs of starving dogs roamed the streets, which were paved but didn’t have sewers, so they were always at least a little flooded with rainwater, sewage, and scraps of food. Naturally, viruses did great in these conditions, and several epidemics ravaged the city repeatedly. However doctors were much too expensive, so many people just, like, died when they got sick because they couldn’t afford treatment.
Unemployment was very high, and morals were pretty lax. The city was packed with released soldiers who couldn’t find work, and prostitution was on the rise; illegitimate births accounted for a full 25% of all births in Copenhagen. The royal theater, in this situation then, became a favorite pastime of many people in Copenhagen because it allowed them the illusion of order, it gave them somewhere to escape to for a few hours, if they could afford it.
He took his life’s savings with him, all thirteen rigsdaler. He was convinced that his interactions with actors when they’d come through Odense meant he was destined to be an actor as well. He had heard of the famous actress, Madame Schall, and he resolved to present himself to her to obtain her support to join the theater.
The day after his arrival, Anderen showed up at the theatre and asked to meet the famous actress. He was shown to her dressing room, and told her that he loved the theater and wanted to join. She asked him what characters he felt he could portray, and he told her gravely that he thought he thought he’d make a good Cinderella. He launched into a monologue he’d memorized, then a song and dance, and she kicked him out soon after; later on she admitted to thinking he was more lunatic than genius. He repeated this same performance with theater directors and managers, and all of them told him no. Once in particular said he was “too thin for the theatre,” and Andersen–cheekily, I think–responded that if the manager would give him a salary of one hundred rigsdaler a month, then he would endeavor to grow fat as quickly as possible.
This all probably took a few weeks, and Andersen was quickly running out of money. He grew desperate and terrified of having to return back to Odense, sure he’d be ridiculed. Finally, he approached the theater’s choirmaster, Giuseppe Siboni, at his home. When the maid answered the door, Andersen tearfully told her his life story up to then. He must have looked pathetic, in his clothes that were too small–Andersen had managed to shoot up to over 6 feet, and they couldn’t afford to keep buying him new clothes–so the maid let him in and gave him a little food. She repeated the story to Siboni and his guests, who voted to allow him to come into the dining room so they could get a better look at him.
So Andersen put on the best show he could for these rich people, knowing his other option was to get back on a boat to home for a fate as a tailor, which he didn’t want. At once impressed, Siboni promised to train the young boy in singing for free and took it upon himself to ensure that he’d get a basic education. He also encouraged his guests to donate to his care and raised between 70 and 80 rigsdaler for his care; keep in mind, Andersen had thought 13 rigsdaler was wealth, so this amount was probably more money than he’d ever seen in his life. Siboni handled it for him–again, Andersen was 14–and suddenly… Andersen had a place in the world!
I realize that this story sounds sort of ridiculous. But it was not uncommon–it might have been an age of huge wealth disparities, but it was also an age of serious philanthropy. Quote, “among the well-educated and the intellectuals there was a sophisticated sense and an alert eye for what was extraordinary in individual people.” When they crossed paths with poor artists or poor geniuses, it was their duty and pleasure to sponsor them, to ensure that these people with potential had what they needed to become great. This careful cultivation of the Noble Savage, or of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's “wild child” was part of Enlightenment ideals; they saw people who were outwardly filthy but inwardly pure as more noble than quote-unqoute “civilized” people. Andersen fit the part perfectly. They called him a “genuine savage” and meant it as a compliment.
Siboni was as good as his word. He set Andersen up with lodgings and a tutor, and began giving him free singing lessons. But when Andersen’s voice dropped a year later, the project was given up. But in that time, Andersen had become close to Siboni and his family, so he wasn’t just kicked out.
He was quickly introduced into Bakkehus, the home of Kamma and Knud Rahbek and the great meeting place of the intellectual circle of Denmark; today it’s remembered as an important hub for the Danish Golden Age of art and science. It was, quote, “refreshingly free from the omnipresent repression of ideas and deeds under the absolute monarchy.” It had a salon atmosphere, where everyone was allowed to freely debate anything. Our young Andersen made his clumsy entrance; later on, the children of his fairytales would “tumble around the modern world after having been released from underground,” and this is exactly the mythology the young man built up for himself. The version of his life story that he told them was an “irresistible fairy tale of his romantic childhood, which all the distinguished Copenhagen citizens swallowed whole. They did so primarily because the extraordinary story of the boy’s life fit hand in glove with the prevailing ideas nad educational ideals of… a ‘Son of Nature.’” Kammah Rahbek quickly recognized the boy’s genius and was one of his staunchest supporters from there on out. She had an eye for undeveloped potential actually; she’s credited with noticing other Danish writers like J.P. Mynster and J.L. Heiberg first.
At Bakkehus he met the Collin family, who would be an important group to him for the rest of his life. The patriarch of the family, Jonas Collin, was a well-respected civil servant and philanthropist. Importantly, Collin was the secretary of the Foundation ad usus publicos, which was a fund for artists and intellectuals of the time.
Despite the initial support of Siboni, Andersen soon had to depend on charity. He found cheap lodging in the red-light district with a women named Madame Thorgesen. In his memoir, he claimed to have no idea of what the women were doing all night; “I lived in happy dreams, paying almost no attention to the demoralizing surroundings that daily intersected with my life.” When she could no longer provide him a room, he moved in with a Madame Henckel, another brothel owner.
From 1820, when his voice dropped and singing was no longer an option, to 1821, Andersen tried his hand acting and dancing. He was allowed to be a background figure, but usually nothing more. He did manage to perform in a couple ballets–Nina, and later Armida. The theater world was a dark one; quote, “the tone behind the curtain was raw and vulgar and…the interaction between male and female members was ‘spiced with lurid improprieties.’ Many of the men drank like pigs, while the women, in particular the scantily clad ballerinas, were the lovers of distinguished and powerful men.” The older actors treated the young learners, quote, “like slaves,” even physically hurting them for their amusement.
Thanks to his patrons, Andersen took private lessons from a man named Ferdinand Lindgren. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that Andersen’s estimation of his own talents in the theatre–acting, singing, dancing–were not based in reality. He might have been considered a gifted child back home, but in Copenhagen he was just one of many gifted children coming to seek their fortunes. Lindgren suggested that Andersen get a better education in Latin and writing, which he applied to Jonas Collin for. Collin, by that point, was not only the secretary of that aforementioned princely fund for artists, but also the manager of the Royal Theatre.
Applied is a gentle word. Andersen manipulated events through placing ads in newspapers so that it became very public that he was a young artist doomed to fail without support. He self-published a novel, titled Youthful Attempts, while also submitting several terribly written plays to the theatre for consideration. The combined press and whispers of this forced Collin’s hand. He recommended to King Frederik VI that funds from the Ad usus publicos fund be used to get a proper education for Andersen. He was granted free schooling, food, and lodging for a few years.
This is where we come to one of the darker moments of Andersen’s early life. Now seventeen years old, he was sent to school at Slagelse to study under the eminently educated headmaster Simon Meisling. Part of the darkness of this moment was that the adults had banned him from writing poetry and making art during his education, so that he could focus, though Andersen didn’t totally listen to this. Worse, Meisling was a monster.
Well, according to Andersen’s memoirs, Meisling was a relentless monster from day one. According to The Fairy Tale of My Life, Meisling’s campaign of education sounds like, quote, “an account of how to ruin the soul of a child.” Andersen famously compared his school years under Meisling as similar to all the distressed Dickensian boys of English literature. Many people categorize this relationship as abusive, and I agree that the word fits–even the best moments of their relationship, when Meisling treated Andersen as something of an adopted son, seem part of a larger boom and bust cycle of abuse.
In his diaries from the time, Andersen seems to understand that he’s being forged in fire. The two men represented different eras, different values, different ideals of children and education and even fiction. Andersen saw some of this suffering as a necessary and normal part of education, though much of it he also saw as a horror he had to endure. Meanwhile, Meisling’s life slowly fell apart during the five years Andersen was his student; he began to drink heavily, and eventually so many grievances were filed against him that he was forced to resign from his post as headmaster.
Initially, Andersen lived with a landlady in Slagelse, and I’ll talk more about this in a little while. Eventually, Meisling convinced him to move in with the Meisling family after a campaign of being paternal and kind. Meisling’s real motivation was not love for Andersen, as he tried to say it was, but money–he had several children, his wife, and all their maids to feed. He needed Andersen’s generous allowance from the government fund. He moved in, and Meisling changed completely, tormenting Andersen by alternately giving him the silent treatment for weeks on end, then seizing every opportunity to fight with the boy. The headmaster had, quote, “sudden and totally unpredictable mood swings, which meant that at one moment Anderen might be psychologically terrorized and the next praised and encouraged.” Andersen, who was already sensitive and anxious, couldn’t bear it.
Jonas Collin had picked Meisling to tutor Andersen himself. Meisling had a reputation for being intense and strict with the rules of education; and Andersen had already developed a reputation as a flighty dreamer who was unlikely to listen to gentle constructive criticism. Collin believed Andersen needed a direct teacher who wouldn’t be afraid to get frank with him; he couldn’t have predicted that Meisling would become downright cruel to Andersen over time. There are many examples of this, but I think the one that makes it the most clear is that fact that on the final night that Andersen lived with the Meisling family, the headmaster would send down the maids to Andersen’s room to ask him to return his pillow, then his blankets, then his mattress, in order that the new lodger and student might have them. As if they didn’t have extras in the house; they just wanted him to be miserable. He passed the night sleeplessly, and was probably relieved to finally be freed of the Meisling family the next morning.
He was freed before he formally graduated and sat exams, actually. For nearly five years, Andersen had sent Jonas Collin only polite updates that hid the reality of how cruel Meisling was to Andersen–hid that he picked on him in every lesson and constantly humiliated him in front of the class. But finally, Andersen had told Collin was was really happening in a direct letter written on October 26, 1826. He wrote, quote, “Every day he expresses his displeasure toward me, and on Sunday morning when I bring my Latin essay, he shakes my soul at every mistake, speaking the most awful truths. That he wishes the best for me, I have no doubt, but everything arouses his displeasure, and I live in the most horrid tension.” Andersen then listed all the degrading remarks that Meisling had lobbed at him. Collin may have doubted him, but he did his duty and followed up with Meisling, inquiring as to what was going on. It was the first time Meisling’s teaching strategies were questioned, but it would not be the last.
Meisling reacted very poorly to this letter from Collin. It would have been easy for him to be like “Oh, he’s being dramatic, I’ll apologize, everything’s fine,” but instead he wrote back and basically told Jonas Collin to go to hell. He called Andersen, quote, “a sickly, pampered creature,” and with that signed his own dismissal. Collin warned Meisling that he went too far, but instead of changing his tone, Meisling grew worse! He refused to heat Andersen’s room throughout the winter, he stopped allowing Andersen to wash his clothing, and began feeding him only rotten food. Since the cat was already out of the bag, Andersen promptly reported each new offense to Collin. On top of the steady stream of bad news, a new tutor had been hired at the school, Christian Werliin, who is basically the hero of this story because he saw how Meisling was treating Andersen, and immediately took a day off to go to Copenhagen to tell Jonas Collin to his face how bad the situation was. Christian Werliin is by far the best adult in Andersen’s life and he’d known him the least amount of time. After that, Collin finally pulled Andersen out of Meisling’s school. Meisling never got another grant from the public funding that Collin was in charge of and his career was destroyed.
Andersen still had 18 months left of education, but these were provided in Copenhagen by a private tutor, Ludvig Chrisitan Müller. He was a young theological student recommended by Christian Werliin and the two got along really well. Andersen would go on to pass his final exams just fine.
The treatment Andersen endured left his scars. He often had nightmares about his old instructor, which he documented in his diary. And for forty years after that, nearly until Andersen’s death, he dealt with this trauma in his writing; references to evil headmasters abound. For instance, in a book he wrote in 1829, Walking Tour, the protagonist goes to hell where he meets a schoolmaster, who torments him even though he’s chained up and being tormented himself.
Often, people try to put a silver lining on the treatment Andersen endured at Meisling’s school and home. I’m not a big fan of that perspective, because I mean, yes he learned grammar and art history, and became a more technically accomplished writer under Meisling’s instruction. But what might we have today if Andersen had not felt so downtrodden? What worlds could he have conjured up if he wasn’t trying to escape his own pain? Yes, art is often an outlet for great suffering, but the possibility of great art doesn’t make causing pain acceptable. Andersen could have just as easily died by his own hand or taken up drinking and died from alcoholism, which is what happened to his mother in the 1830s. There was no guarantee that this abuse from Meisling was going to turn out well, and it says more about Andersen’s strong sense of self that this life he’d lived up until his early 20s didn’t beat all the magic out of him. It would have been so easy for him to become a jaded adult and instead he created worlds of such beauty, which he was on track to do before meeting Meisling.
One thing that did crop up during this time was what Andersen called his Rhyming Demon. It was an imaginary manifestation of this calling he felt to write, which was a calling he didn’t feel that he could ignore. Andersen had been forbidden to write during his time in school in order to focus on his studies, and the Rhyming Demon became a spirit of civil disobedience, quote, “an anarchical joker who defied all authorities, including a headmaster who couldn’t understand a poet was not something a person becomes by reading the work of other poets; it was something innate.” This is a fun image, and it gives us some sense of how Andersen kept up his spirits and continued writing in the face of adversity, which is great. But I keep thinking of his earliest novel, Youthful Attempts, in which a fairy gives a boy a kiss, thereby bestowing upon him a destiny to spread joy. The boy is very clearly Andersen as a nine-year-old, and the novel was written before meeting Meisling; would this so-called Rhyming Demon that Andersen conjured up while enduring Meisling have been the much more cheerful image of a Rhyming Fairy if he’d been somewhere better? Is it a demon–a much darker, more threatening creature–because of what Meisling was telling Andersen; that he was a monster, that there is something wrong with him? I don’t know. I suspect that in a supportive, happier environment, the Rhyming Demon might have been a fairy instead.
In 1826, Andersen furtively wrote one of the poems that he would become most famous for. It wasn’t published until after he escaped from Meisling, but then it was published on the front page of a Copenhagen newspaper and then translated into German, where it became incredibly popular. The poem, “The Dying Child,” is short, but it’s a work of art and it broke many of the rules of writing at the time. Jens Andersen calls it “epochal,” which is not light praise. I’m not going to read the whole poem, but I will link to it in the show notes. However, it begins,
“Mother, I am tired, I want to sleep,
Let me fall asleep by your heart;
But do not weep, first promise me that,
For your tears burning on my cheek.
It is cold in here, outside the storm threatens,
But in dreams, all is so beautiful,
And I see the sweet angel children
When I close my weary eyes.”
So, here’s why this is groundbreaking: It was possibly the first poem ever to explore a child’s nature from the child’s point of view. It really perfectly renders a small child’s spiritual and intellectual understandings and perspective. Up until then, children were static objects in literature; even Rousseau who argued for the inherent value of childhood never wrote from the perspective of a child. Andersen made the child a subject, not an object, for the first time ever. No other author had given children agency in literature before. And to have that first poem ever be a child solemnly confronting their own death really stunned people. It quickly shot him to fame, and even later in his life people would comment on this poem, saying it was what they knew him from.
After he arrived back in Copenhagen, Andersen began producing cut paper art in addition to his poetry and prose. He’d made dolls and doll clothes as a child, and I think these were sort of a new iteration of that art form. These new paper artworks were usually of people and scenes from his stories. They’re beautiful and intricate. I’m going to include some in the show transcript.
In 1829, Andersen wrote and published Walking Tour, which was very favorably received. Critics loved the way the book played with illusions, even though he lobbed provocations at critics in it. The book is somewhat combative, Jens Andersen calls it “searching.” It is rebellious and anti-authoritarian, though it does bow down to one power: Romanticism. The works of other Romantic writers, like Friedrich Schlege and Ludwig Tieck appear in the book as part of the main character’s exploration of his own fragmentary and disjointed character.
The same year, he made his writing debut at the Royal Theater with a play called Love at Nikolai tower, or What Does the Gallery Say? Both this play and Walking Tour were revolutionary because they asked the viewer and reader to decide the ending on their own. Andersen leaves both vague. In the play, the narrator announces that the audience can choose the ending by either booing or cheering. Critics were less sure about the play than they were the novel, but they both remained popular during Andersen’s life.
In 1830, Andersen’s first poetry collection was published. It was titled Poems. There doesn’t seem to have been a proper editor for it, because it’s full of grammatical errors and it’s not well-developed. The collection, quote, “vacillates between the sublime and the slipshod.” Andersen would later call parts of it “nonsense-compote.” But they also had an irresistible power to them, and he’s clearly developing a lyrical persona in it and the two poetry collections that followed, Fantasies and Sketches in 1831 and The Twelve Months of the Year in 1832. In fact, one of the poems deals with a writer’s perspective on the tyranny of form, and uses math symbols in it as part of his artistic rebellion.
After being rescued from the trap of Meisling’s school, Andersen began to view Jonas Collin as a father figure. He was influential in Danish society and managed his money sensibly, growing the family’s wealth. His role as the secretary of the king’s art foundation that gave grants to artists put him in touch with the greatest Danish artists and thinkers of the day. And as Andersen’s fame grew, which it did quickly in the early 1830s, Collin never changed how he treated Andersen; he remained reserved but supportive, giving Andersen both a safe place to land and redirection when he needed it. Andersen became a regular visitor to the Collin home and befriended the children of the house.
He especially became interested in Edvard Collin, who had been tasked with editing Andersen’s Latin papers when Ansdersen returned to Copenhagen. Edvard was often “cold and short-tempered” with Andersen, yet he became determined to win him over.
In the fall of 1830, Andersen met and fell in love with Riborg Voigt, the daughter of a wealthy shopkeeper. She was extroverted and charming and, importantly, already engaged to someone else. She was unattainable, and therefore perfect for someone obsessed with Romantic ideology. The two had only a few meetings, which were all very chaste, which was his preferred mode. He was infatuated with her, but not unhappy about the fact that was he was unattainable.
It’s clear from the way he describes Riborg in his letters to Edvard Collin at the time that the sensual side of love was not really in his wheelhouse. He describes her but she never seems substantial, a woman with a body. She is depicted as an ethereal being, which was a pattern Andersen would establish with all the women he fell in love with.
Women loved Andersen though, and he was surrounded by them constantly. Later in his life, he would have dinner with King Frederik VII of Denmark. After, King Frederick would witness his own mistress abandon him to disappear into the, quote, “enthusiastic crowd surrounding [Andersen.]” Baffled and jealous, he asked what Andersen possessed that none of the other men at the banquet did and Andersen said, “It must be hidden attributes, Your Majesty,” in what was probably an accidentally suggestive response. But Andersen would put these women in almost “sacrosanct” roles, calling them sisters and neutralizing whatever sexual allure they held.
For a brief time, he courted Jonas Collin’s daughter, Louise, who was 18 when he was 25. Most people don’t take this courtship seriously in terms of love or attraction; it seems more likely that Andersen was trying to marry into the Collin family in order to never lose access to them. Instead, by 1832 the short-tempered older brother of Louise, Edvard, had become the focus of Andersen’s attention. Even in his letters to Louise, he talks about Edvard, begging Louise to put in a good word for him with her brother.
As I mentioned at the top, Andersen’s sexuality was–and remains–a matter of intense debate. He never married, and was extremely close to several men in his lifetime, exchanging very intense letters with them. Different biographers take different perspectives of this–some believe he was a garden variety gay man. In the eighteenth century, stereotypes of what gay men were quote-unquote “like” were emerging, and Andersen fit most of them: He remained a bachelor, he lived in the city, he loved the theater, he was artistic, he dressed like a dandy. But others point to the very intense relationships he had with a few women to say that he was, actually, straight. Others say that he was bisexual, which is the second-most modern reading of his sexuality, I think. The famous scientist of sexuality, Alfred Kinsey, inventor of the Kinsey Scale of Sexuality, got ahold of Andersen’s papers at some point. In reading them, he apparently “suspected” Andersen was gay, and even compared the stolen voice of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” to, quote, how “Andersen could not tell the world of his own homosexual love,” and thus was sublimating his feeling of being silenced into the story.
If you are uncomfortable with frank discussions of sex, this would be a good time to skip forward about ten minutes or so.
All of this speculation is further complicated by the simple fact that Andersen probably never had sex. He had opportunities, to be clear–we’ll talk about his visits to brothels in a moment–but in his diaries he maintains a sense of horror at the reality of sex. It’s mixed up a little in religion for him; he refers to the sinful nature of sexual arousal and is proud of himself when he doesn’t give in to that. Which is interesting, considering what I’ve mentioned previously about his relaxed approach to faith, especially as an adult.
It’s worth noting that when he fell in love with women, as he did with Riborg when he was twenty-five, their physicality wasn’t important to him. In fact, quote, “sexually mature women were not only alien to Andersen, they were also terrifying, and at times–whenever the conversation or his thoughts turned to prostitutes–disgusting and vile.” Andersen later said himself, quote, “my contempt for women rose to such an extent that it undoubtedly was that which continued to preserve me uncorrupted and innocent.” In his autobiography, he wrote, quote, “In general I felt a strange revulsion for older girls,” basically anyone over twelve. Not to imply that he was a pedophile, he was not attracted to girls under twelve, he just really didn’t know what to do with the reality of an adult woman.
We also can see in his diaries, however, that he masturbated often and noted when he did so. He would draw little Xs or crosses next to days when he’d masturbated, which I really only mention because it’s relevant to another theory about Andersen’s sexuality–that he was asexual. He was not aromantic, to be clear–he seems to have had a penchant for falling in love easily and often. In fact, in part because he saw himself as a capital r-Romantic in philosophy, he allowed himself to feel everything very intensely, including his love for the people in his life.
One thing I haven’t seen discussed much is the possibility that Andersen’s horror of sex might have had to do with severe unresolved trauma. Jens Andersen mentions in his biography that Simon Meisling, Andersen’s tutor, was, quote, “partially to blame for the fact that Andersen, as an erotic being, remained at the child stage during the 1820s.” He mentions that Meisling, along with other benefactors, was troubled by Andersen’s, quote, “oddly sexless nature” and commented on it quite mercilessly. He quotes, “Fear the sickliness your imagination suffers from, and fight against it! … Fix your eyes forward like a man, do not whimper like a woman who does not have a man’s courage.” End quote. For most people, it is very common for their teenage years to be when they start exploring their sexuality, and the adults in his life found it very strange that he wasn’t chasing after people the way they expected. They very clearly had a man’s man idea of masculinity and what healthy boys should be like, which left no room for a sensitive artist. Andersen could have been otherwise a stereotypical teenage boy, but it seems like these people would have taken issue with this feminine side of him that he was comfortable with no matter what. He was told that this side of him was “sickly” and that he needed to suppress these aspects. By 1826, when he was 21, Andersen’s letters to Jonas Collin began to question his sexuality and worry over his “womanish, tedious character.” Later, he wrote “I don’t really understand myself but I can tell that I’m much too feminine and weak.” So clearly, Meisling is having an impact, causing Andersen some anguish, and Andersent retreated further into himself and these idyllic images of innocent children that his psyche was conjuring up. But none of these people who were quote-unquote “concerned” were looking for why Andersen might be like this, they were just telling him to stop it.
I briefly mentioned earlier that when he was a young child, he worked in a factory in Odense. (It was a different time, child labor was a thing.) He was asked to sing for the other men, and, according to his memoir, he sang so beautifully that the men apparently became convinced he was a girl and held him down to prove he was a boy. Remember how I emphasized that his memoir was a sanitized version of his childhood? The version I just said is how he renders this event in A True Story of My Life, but in stories he told later to close friends, who then wrote them down, the men stripped him of his clothes and examined his genitalia to prove he was a boy. There’s also some implication in some versions that this moment turned violent and it’s implied that Andersen might have been raped by the men in the factory, though that’s not confirmed. He ran home crying and told his mother what happened, and she swore he never had to go back, despite how destitute the family was. I was to point out that even if Andersen was not raped by these men, forcibly removing a child’s clothing to inspect their genitalia, is already sexual assault. Soon after this, he decided to leave Odense the second he was confirmed, which was not long after.
But Copenhagen wasn’t much safer. He landed lodging in two brothels, where he witnessed clients come and go and the way they treated the women there. Again, in his memoirs he claims to be ignorant of what is happening around him, but this strains credulity for me. Remember, his memoirs are deliberately fashioned to adhere to the Romantic ideal of the innocent child, so he had to protect that image in spite of the truth, which we see time and again in his version of his childhood.
This also wasn’t the first time he encountered prostitution: Odense was a difficult place to live in the nineteenth century, and many women turned to prostitution there. The city had a significantly higher rate of out-of-wedlock births than the rest of the country–and Copenhagen was sitting at 25% illegitimate births! We know Andersen’s maternal grandmother ran a brothel, and there’s some evidence that his mother turned to sex work as well. His half-sister, Karen, also probably turned to sex work at some point in her life; when she was found dead, it was in the red light district. For Andersen to just not notice that he was living in a brothel with sex workers seems… ridiculous?
To be clear, I’m not saying that being around sex workers was traumatizing, but that seeing the desperation they experienced in a world where women didn’t have any other options and men could do whatever they wanted and then leave…that might have been traumatizing. Andersen would have seen the way women having children out of wedlock were treated, and he must have witnessed some very dark moments in the brothels that he lived in.
As if that wasn’t enough, in his first lodgings in Slagelse, he shared a bed with a pastor’s son who was not very pious at all. Sharing a bed was common for school-aged boys; what was traumatizing was that this boy would come home late at night, drunk and aggressive, and would attack Andersen while he slept. He would hold Andersen down and force him to listen to lewd stories of the boy’s visits to prostitutes or his erotic fantasies. From the way Andersen describes it, it sounds like the boy also possibly sexually assaulted him or tried to; Andersen would run away and sleep on the landlady’s couch when he could, but sometimes he couldn’t get away.
Together, all of this paints a picture of really dark repeated traumas that he experienced by the time he was like in his teens. All of this was ignored and untreated by the adults around him, forcing Andersen to deal with it all alone. To me, it seems unsurprising that an already sensitive child who endured all of this might grow up to have a severe horror of sex and want to repress that impulse in himself. Romance, the fairy tale version, was something Andersen wanted, but the physical act of sex repulsed him for life, and with a childhood like this… that makes sense to me. I’m not saying that sexual assault survivors who don’t go to therapy are doomed to live lonely lives where they never have their own sexual needs fulfilled or never get married. But I am saying that a lot of the discussion of Andersen’s sexuality is not trauma-informed! It’s not out of the realm of possibility for children who endure this kind of trauma to repress it and hide in fictional worlds and try to avoid growing up. Andersen just did that really famously.
People kind of make a joke, a little, out of Andersen’s repressed sexuality, which makes me sad. Even his closest friends in his adulthood had a, quote, “burning desire to see the virginal author on the lap of a dark and sensual bella donna. But Andersen held his ground, preferring platonic love.” I am not at all surprised that Andersen abhorred all that sex included and preferred the company of innocent children. He must have felt much safer around that innocence than around his peers and other adults who had abused him time and again.
Okay, that was a long excursion, but I just wanted to explore that all at once.
Nevertheless, despite Andersen’s repressed sexuality, there is a lot to be said for the intense friendship he had with Edvard Collin. Over the span of nearly fifty years, they exchanged more than 500 hundred letters, that we know of, many of which are emotionally intense. Edvard refused to be another one of Andersen’s “enraptured, uncritical admirers,” and many of their letters are as difficult and harsh as they are intense and loving. In fact, in Jens Andersen’s biography, Edvard comes off almost as villainous in numerous instances, and he makes suspicious choices that historians have decried since. For instance, when Andersen died in 1875, Edvard handled all the legal paperwork and wouldn’t allow Andersen’s letters with the Collin family to be published by a third party. Instead, he published a book called Hans Chrisitan Andersen and the Collin Family, which edited down their exchanges dramatically. When the unpublished letters were later revealed in the 1930s, people were up in arms because Edvard’s editing had dramatically changed the context of the letters. There was talk of his “list of sins” and his editing was classified as “an inexcusable misrepresentation” of reality. Strong words! In fact, this was a power Edvard exercised over a lot of Andersen’s writing. He had edited Andersen’s autobiographies; drafts that survive among Edvard’s papers show that he drastically cut things out in the name of editing. He especially cut anything, quote, “too tender or effusive.”
And hey–editors have to cut! I’m sure an editor would love to cut some of this down since I’m now 18 pages into this script! But Edvard’s edits are not unbiased, they are rooted in his own ideas of what should be public and should be private.
All that to say that the nature of Andersen’s feelings for Edvard is debated. Jens Andersen points out that men in the early 1800s were allowed to express more emotionally intense friendships than we got used to in the 20th century. Masculinity was not so fragile back then. Moreover, and this is part of my own research, sexual identity didn’t exist then in the same way that we think of it today. Certainly, there were people who were only attracted to members of the same sex, or to members of both sexes, but they didn’t have words like homosexuality and bisexuality to classify that attraction. Romance, attraction, and sexuality were all much more fluid at that time.
Regardless, as Jens says in his biography, quote, “it’s evident from [their letters] that the boundaries of an ordinary, formal friendship were quickly being exceeded by the insistent and, in certain respects, very impatient Andersen.” For instance, he really wanted Edvard to use the Danish informal ‘du’ with him, rather than the much more formal ‘de’. We don’t really have an equivalent in English, I guess maybe calling someone “Mr. Smith” as opposed to “John” but this is a whole verb tense. It’s similar to the difference between tu and vous in French, or tu and usted in Spanish. Andersen requested this deepening intimacy numerous times, but for over forty years of their friendship, Edvard denied him this, insisting on keeping some formal linguistic distance between them. That said, in one letter that did survive Edvard’s purge, he expresses jealousy over Andersen’s relationship with his other tutor, Ludvig Müller. He writes, quote, “I have been a little jealous hearing about your love for L.M.; you’re not about to dismiss me, are you?” Since they were both tutoring Andersen at the time, this has some plausible deniability, but still. It’s surprisingly unrestrained for Edvard.
In his book about Andersen, Edvard would say, quote, “He dreamed of finding in me a ‘novel-friend’; but I was not at all suited for that.” Again, Jens Andersen reads this as a resistance to an intense fraternal friendship, but a lot of historians of queer history see this as a sly admission of something more romantic or sexual, an attraction that Edvard didn’t return. The difference really lies in whether or not you believe that these intense capital-r Romantic friendships were truly sexless or if that dimension was just hidden for safety. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, we saw much stricter norms around gender and sexuality emerge, and the subsequent fear of your legacy being ruined led people to destroy evidence of earlier sexual relationships with members of the same sex. It’s not a far leap to wonder if that’s what Edvard was doing by culling his letters with Andersen after Andersen’s death in 1875. Especially because, in Denmark, this change was already beginning; the state had tried silent suppression when it came to uncovering illegal homosexual affairs–because they were technically illegal at the time–but people at the highest levels of government were starting to think around 1814 that silence wasn’t working. A famous case that year, where fourteen men, including some actors, were quote-unqoute “uncovered” having sexual relationships, was the catalyst for reconsidering what the government should do to quash quote-unquote “unnatural” relationships. The move to actually prosecute and punish was still far away, but the Collin family would have known about this case, and while Edvard would have been young, he would always have inner access for these stories. That might explain why he was careful about what letters from Andersen were released publicly. Unfortunately, unless more letters emerge, or another diary of Andersen’s is uncovered, he cannot know with 100% certainty what the full nature of their relationship was.
On top of that, I also want to note that they may not have been on the same page about their relationship. Edvard’s quote about not being suited for the relationship Andersen wanted serves as evidence of that. Plenty of people exist in friendships where the feeling is uneven, or we wouldn’t have so much art that revolves around longing, jealousy, and fantasy.
All that to say that it’s likely that their relationship was not sexual, simply because of what I discussed about Andersen’s issues with sexuality earlier. But whether Andersen was in love with Edvard is heavily debated. In one letter he wrote, quote, “our friendship is like ‘the mysteries,’ it cannot be truly analyzed. Oh, if only God might make you very poor and me a rich, distinguished nobleman. Yes, then I would properly initiate you into the mystery.”
It goes on–and there is so much that you can read about this well-documented friendship. Andersen used it as an inspiration in a lot of his literary work from 1830-40. Disguised under several names and in all manner of costumes, his love for Edvard Collin is wound through dozens of works of literature. There is so much more that I could say, but since we’re an hour in already, I’m going to move on. If you’re interested in more information about Andersen and Edvard, I recommend picking up basically anything ever written about Andersen; Edvard will come up.
In April 1833, Andersen applied for funding from the artist’s foundation Ad usos publicos. He wanted to go abroad to Italy to continue his education. He was awarded 600 rigsdaler annually, for two years, to go. While in Italy in 1833, he wrote the play Agnete and the Merman, based somewhat on his friendship with Edvard, though it also had a long history in Danish folklore. He regarded the work as “the most significant piece he had ever written” up to that point, though today it’s not the most famous story about a mermaid that he’s written. Unfortunately, Edvard hated it, and was a bit fierce about that hatred to Andersen. He especially hated that Andersen had lifted lines directly from their letters and put them in the mouths of fictitious lovers. One in particular was the quote “too feminine man, Hemming” saying “The spoken De becomes the hearts du / that is the dream of friendship!” In the same later that he rebuked Andersen for this, he also informed him–quite callously–that his mother had died. He offered very little sympathy about this loss; remember when I said that Edvard is painted somewhat villainously?
Andersen seemed to take the loss of his mother in stride. They had grown distant over the years; she never had learned to read or write, so they couldn’t keep up a correspondence to keep them close. On the rare occasions they did write, she was mostly writing to him to ask for money, which he would send. And in trying to insert himself into the Collin family, Andersen seems to have taken on the mantle of orphan, before it was really true.
He was in Italy for an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in February 1834, which he documented in his diary with a lot of enthusiasm. He wrote, quote, “Smoke swirled thickly up out of Vesuvius, and the lava gave off a cloud of steam… At dusk I walked down to the sea. Vesuvius spewed great streams of lava; it blazed into the air; it was like tongues of fire flaring up. This is the most violent I have seen it.” The next day, once the lava had cooled, he hiked the mountain to get close to the still-smoking top of the mountain.
While in Italy, Andersen began working on a new novel, The Improvisatore. Like many of his works, it sublimated his own reality into something that he could wrestle with and untangle. The character Antonio is aware that he is different from everyone around him, as both an artist and a sexual being. In chapter eight, Antonio says, “Resounding in my soul were dissonances that I myself was unable to resolve.” While Antonio’s beloved friend Bernardo has carnal relationships with women, Antonio, quote, “settles for giving his friend amorous looks and listening to his reports of these rendezvous, which he then converts to art.” Andersen was clearly dealing with his own issues in this character. The book ends with Antonio marrying a woman who is, quote, “so ethereal in Andersen’s description that we forget about her the instant the book is closed.” The trip to Italy made a huge impression on Andersen. He would return there several more times throughout his life.
We’ve come, finally, to Andersen writing and publishing fairy tales. To be clear, fairy tales of course already existed, he didn’t invent them. He just created new ones and retold older ones in new and inventive ways. His first was a short story called “The Ghost” that he tucked at the end of his first poetry collection in 1830. It was received very badly by critics though, and he didn’t try his hand at writing fairy tales again until 1835. He was home from Italy, finally, and broke. He’d used up the money from the grant he’d received; and he hadn’t published anything new while he’d been in Italy, so his income streams were a little low. So in the spring of 1835, he started working on a collection of fairy tales, which he explicitly told his friends were, quote, “fairy tales told for children.” He had clearly set out to make them children’s stories, which didn’t really exist at the time. Few adults respected children or childhood, and even fewer believed there was inherent value in it. For Andersen to explicitly write stories for kids was a big shift in the literary zeitgeist.
I think his interest in folklore and his struggle with adult relationships led him down this path toward children’s stories, safe places where he could sublimate scary things but usually ensure a happy ending. When he wrote the stories, he often presented them in a literary salon with adults, where people listened to him read and then he could duck out quickly. He never hung around after. In the salons, the fairy tale was complete, and, quote, “the tiniest linguistic detail had been carefully considered.” The crowd would remain silent and still, rapt listening to him. We have abundant documentation of this from people who would write about the evening to their friends, or in their journals, or in their own memoirs. Most adult listeners would fall under the, quote, “hallucinatory spell of Andersen’s reading, and only after the tale was over did they realize how far they had followed the author into his flights of fancy.”
But Andersen also told his tales to children and even actively created them with children. He would take the paper art he cut out, which I mentioned earlier, and improvise stories with them, basically performing for children in the nurseries of his friends’ houses. He would tell whatever version of the story happened to strike his fancy that day and used this as a way to test different narratives. Improvising the stories with children, quote, “gave the fairy tales free rein, much more than in the salon… In contrast to the reverent silence that Andersen required from the politely listening adults…in the children’s room all sorts of prattle and foolishness were allowed.” He especially developed a, quote, “remarkable ability to bring to life the sounds of nature,” which would make strong impressions on children. He brought these sounds into his stories and became one of the first authors to use onomatopoeia. These sounds come naturally to children but were educated out of them because it was viewed as “uncultivated, wild, [and] primitive language that had nothing to do with the finer art forms.” Andersen used it to connect better with them.
Andersen’s own childhood, combined with playtime with these kids, resulted in a collection of stories that are packed full of promising, improvising kids who have personalities and free will. Many of them are anti-authoritarian, yes, but they also often anticipate breakthroughs in children’s psychology that would happen during the twentieth century. You can read all of them for free online, if you’re interested. I’ll include a link in the transcript.
His first collection of four stories was aptly titled Fairy Tales, Told for Children. A few months later, he put out a second volume of Fairy Tales, Told for Children, which contained “Thumbelina.” The third installment, which came out over a year later, included “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Little Mermaid,” which of course has just been remade and just came out in theaters. Like many of Andersen’s fairy tales, his “The Little Mermaid” is pretty different from the 1990s Disney version of the movie. The mermaid doesn’t win the Prince’s heart and she dies at the end of the story because that was her bargain with the sea witch. In his story, the mermaids are not God’s creatures so they don’t have eternal souls, but they can earn one if they make a human man fall in love with them. Which, yikes. But when she dies she becomes one of the daughters of air, who can early their eternal souls by doing good deeds like cooling off a child who is too hot in the sun, and that’s where Andersen leaves the tale. I haven’t seen the new movie yet, but I suspect they haven’t adapted this daughters of air plotline.
One thing that Disney got right in that 1990s adaptation though is the undercurrent of subversive social messaging. Andersen had clearly transmuted his own angst about his sexuality into the story–remember, Ariel is mute and dies without ever being with the man she loves, plus she doesn’t have a soul which is clearly a reference to nineteenth-century hang-ups about same-sex attraction and sin. And the animated adaptation does the same. Writer/Producer Howard Ashman was a gay man who had survived the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Reagan and Republicans in the US claimed that HIV/AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality and refused to allocate federal funding for research for the cure. According to Smithsonian Magazine, quote, “Ashman saw the film as an opportunity to advance a social message through the medium of family entertainment. The last thing Americans would expect from Disney was a critique of patriarchy, but sure enough, Ashman’s The Little Mermaid is a gutsy film about gender and identity.” End quote.
The stories were considered subversive in Andersen’s time too. Several were considered, quote, “directly harmful for literature, as well as for children and their parents.” Reviewers criticized a number of issues with the stories, including that they were “ill-mannered” and that the depiction of the stories from a child’s perspective was “unaesthetic” and “dangerous” because it overstepped boundaries of pedagogical distance between adults and children. They thought that a child’s self-image would be, quote, “severely damaged by a storyteller who was such a congenial equal with children. The fairy tale was supposed to be a link in a child’s education and to enforce power,” end quote. Which, woof, “enforce power”? Talk about insecure adults. Clearly, being sensitive about content is nothing new.
Andersen’s view of children as autonomous beings with inner lives was considered downright heretical by many people in Europe around this time. Andersen was really the first author since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had died fifty years before, who took children seriously. Several of his peers and patrons encouraged him to stop writing these, but he continued on.
Other writers of the time were preoccupied with children too. Charles Dickens, who I’ll come back to in a minute, was writing many stories about children, though they were not told from the child’s point of view. When Andersen’s work was translated into English, Dickens immediately became a big fan.
The famous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was also a, quote, “fairytale fanatic.” He was not brought up with fairytales at home, but he grew to love them as an adult and could spend entire days reading collections of fairy tales from all regions and eras. Unlike Dickens though, Kierkegaard was not a big fan of Andersen’s work. In 1840, while on a walk with his friend Israel Levin, a philologist, he railed against Andersen’s work, even going so far as to tell several much darker fairytales as examples of better ones. He found Andersen’s work naive and sentimental.
In fact, throughout the late 1830s the Danish authors had been on a collision course. Copenhagen was not so big that they ran in the same circles and were jockeying for the same recognition and buyers. But they were not friends, and in fact, each found the other “comical” and even “ridiculous.” In one of Kierkegaard’s earliest published works, “From the Papers of One Still Alive”, he reviews and rails against Andersen’s most recent novel, Only a Fiddler. Andersen apparently got an early copy of this review, because just before it came out he cast Kierkegaard as an exotic bird who babbles incessantly in his newest fairy tale “The Galoshes of Fortune.” It’s an incredibly unflattering portrait of the young philosopher, showing that sometimes people really bring out the worst in each other.
Kierkagaard’s issue with Andersen and his writing seems to stem from his own understanding of Andersen’s “female soul.” As Jens Andersen points out, Andersen was always, quote, “an easy target for other men—they could always so easily shift their own masculine troubles onto his shoulders.” He criticizes all the soft men of Andersen’s storytelling, and exhorts Andersen to more or less straighten out or risk burning out. As harsh as this all is, it’s notable because Kierkegaard was one of the first to point out that some of the weakest parts of Andersen’s work–his strangely moral conclusions, his barely rendered women, his characters’ frequent agony–were likely stemming from the author’s own confused sexuality. He pictured him as basically a hermaphroditic plant; quote, “Andersen’s primary power should instead be compared to those flowers in which the male and female reside on one stalk.” And yes, this does seem to be coming from a very homophobic place in Kierkegaard–he was, after all, a theological first and foremost, but he’s not wrong that Andersen is dealing with his trauma and his feelings about his sexuality on the page.
Anyway, the two became eternal rivals! Andersen saw this review as the throwing down of a gauntlet more or less, and the two would trade insults if they were ever in the same room. Unfortunately, Denmark was becoming increasingly conservative as the nineteenth century continued, and Kierkegaard became the more famous Danish author during their lifetimes.
In fact, Andersen spent most of the rest of his life being much more beloved outside of Denmark than he was at home. When he traveled, he would frequently write home to Edvard Collin and others about how well-loved he was elsewhere, and it says a lot that they kind of didn’t believe him. They brushed his claims off, sure that Andersen was just exaggerating. When they did believe him, they saw him mentioning it as boasting and, worse, megalomania. Collin, in his book about Andersen, would claim that the author was a victim of his own vanity in the 1840s, but it’s unclear how true this is. After being quite famous and beloved in Copenhagen for most of the 1830s, he suddenly began to see a new turn in the critics, where reviewers could be very very harsh with him. Nevertheless, in the 1840s Andersen gained a permanent author stipend from the Kingdom of Denmark to the tune of 600 rigsdalers per year. I would love to do a conversion for you, so we could know how much that is worth now, but the Kingdom of Denmark switched to a new currency, the krone, in 1875, and I haven’t been able to find an easy way of converting 600 rigsdalers into today’s value.
In 1840, Andersen took a long trip through Eastern Europe which culminated in Constantinople. It was a long and perilous trip, and no Dane had ever made that trip before, to our knowledge. He wrote a famous travelogue after it called A Poet’s Bazaar. It’s very much a story of rebirth, of, quote, “a Nordic artist who fled south and was reborn in the East, but on his way home he panicked at the thought that his native land was once again so close.” Andersen maintained a strained relationship with Denmark for the rest of his life, though outwardly he remained usually genial with his countrymen. He could occasionally be confrontational on his own and still felt the self-confidence and pride that had long guided him. Some people saw this as vanity or smugness, but I think it had more to do with the sense of vocation and spiritual calling that writing and art were to him.
As his fame grew, Andersen became the nearly constant guest of the nobility while he was in Denmark and while he was traveling. He ostensibly stayed in their homes for free for weeks or months at a time, though with the expectation that he would provide entertainment in the evenings by reading, or would make paper cutouts and other artistic decorations for them to appreciate. To some extent they were using him as an attraction, to boost their own reputations. Andersen usually, quote, “submitted to the exploitation of his name and reputation, even though at times it did feel like a sort of intellectual prostitution.”
It was in one of these manor houses that he began writing “The Ugly Duckling,” which we discussed earlier. Strangely, it’s one of the only tales written by Andersen that has no history of drafting to it. We don’t have a scrap of an original manuscript, early drafts, nothing. We know he had them because he wrote letters including that he was working on the story, but no one to date has found any early versions of it. The story, when it was published in 1843, was a sensation. For the first time, and one of the last times, all Danish critics had a positive view of the story. He felt disarmed by the sudden praise, and it made him really anxious. But it also shot him to further heights of fame, ensuring further stays in manor houses as well as more money than he really knew what to do with.
Despite this more comfortable lifestyle, he never forgot where he came from and always wrote well about the lower classes. He may have been writing from a Duke’s estate, but he often wrote about poor kids and poor families. He also grew wealthy himself, which was a stark difference in his life from the poverty he’d grown up in. Edvard Collin managed this money for him, making Andersen before he died into a millionaire in today’s currency.
In 1844, Andersen made an intense connection with the Hereditary Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Weimar. He went there on something of a pilgrimage to visit the hometown of the poet Goethe, but he soon became fixated on the Grand Duke. In his diary, after meeting him, Andersen called him handsome and became determined to befriend him. Carl Alexander already knew of Andersen’s work and was a big fan. He was also interested in elevating Weimar back to the hub of the cultural zeitgeist and was enticing artists like the extraordinarily famous Franz Lizst to stay there. Andersen was extremely interested in this, thinking that maybe he could more permanently stay in Weimar, where his work was appreciated.
This set off another of Andersen’s intense sensitive male friendships. They exchanged some 170 letters between 1844 and 1874. Like Edvard Collin before him, Andersen’s letters to Carl Alexander–and the Grand Duke’s letters back to Andersen–are intense and lovely. They developed into a flirtation, with Carl Alexander writing things like, quote, “You should enter into my soul, like a deceased soul in India.” As Andersen had once tried to tempt Edvard Collin into further closeness, this time Carl Alexander tried to tempt Andersen with promises of wandering arm in arm through the forest around his castle at Ettersburg. Andersen was just one of many people Carl Alexander was writing to, though–he had many intense male friendships that he found through correspondence. Historians see these intense–but probably platonic–relationships as his “cult of friendship and love.”
That said, many people have thought that if Andersen did ever have a sexual relationship, it was with Carl Alexander. He notes how the grand duke “kissed me several times” when they were reunited in 1846. Moreover, the grand duke was married but lived quite a separate life from his wife, so he was free to focus his attention on Andersen. They were very affectionate with each other in Andersen’s journal; he mentions how they held hands and even had to keep their feelings for one another under wraps because even by the relaxed standards of male friendships of the day, they were seemingly somewhat inappropriate with each other.
In 1845, Andersen was planning another grand tour of Europe when he delayed it because the Swedish singer Jenny Lind came to Copenhagen. Andersen became infatuated with her and, quote, “clung to her like a shadow–happy, naïvely hopeful, terribly vulnerable.” In his diary, he wrote that he was “sick at heart” over his infatuation with her, but it was not a reciprocated feeling. She was reserved and distant, even cold to Andersen. But by December of 1845, he realized that his love for her was as “literary” as his previous infatuation with Riborg had been. He gave up hope that they’d ever be together in any sense, but he never fully gave up his idolization of her. To many scholars, Jenny Lind represents Andersen’s great, unrequited love, but I have my doubts. I mean, he himself says that his obsession with her was literary, and his love for her was more spiritual than sexual. Like the women in his novels, when he described the singer he didn’t focus on her body, rendering her somewhat sexless and androgynous.
There’s one last famous encounter that I want to talk about really quickly: The awkward visit of Hans Christian Andersen to the home of Charles Dickens. As I mentioned before, the two were fans of each other’s work, and when Andersen went to England in 1847, he was dying to meet Charles Dickens. It took several tries because they were both famous and in demand, but the two eventually met. When they finally met, it was at the home of Marguerite Blessington, who had, quote, “such a tainted reputation among London’s fine ladies…that no British upper-class woman with any respect for herself, her country, or Queen Victoria could justify being caught at that scandal-ridden house.” Now, there are two different versions of what happened next. In Olivia Rutigliano’s version in LitHub, Dickens was annoyed from Andersen from the start. Andersen came on too strong, sending Dickens too many letters and annoying him. In her version, when Dickens invited Andersen to his house to stay, he was being facetious, sarcastic even, and didn’t mean it.
In other versions, they became friendly. They had been fans of each other’s work, after all, and had a lot in common philosophically–they both loved children and wrote about them, they were both daydreamers, et cetera. After their initial meeting, they planned to get together again at Dickens’s home, and Andersen had lunch at the Dickens home before he left England. But after that, they exchanged letters for several years. At some point, Dickens sent Andersen twelve bound copies of his works, with the note “To Hans Chrisitan Andersen from his friend and Admirer, Charles Dickens.” In these letters, Dickens insisted more than once that Andersen come visit England again and even stay with Dickens when he did. “And you, my friend–when are you coming again? Nine years (as you say) have flown away since you were among us. In those nine years you have not faded out of the hearts of the English people, but have become even better known and more beloved than when you saw them for the first time… You ought to come to me, for example, and stay in my house,” Dickens wrote.
However, things quickly fell apart when Andersen did actually arrive in the summer of 1857. It was a bad time to visit. Dickens’s friend, Douglas Jerrold had died just the day before his arrival, and he was wrapped up in helping the Jerrold family recover from this. He was also in the midst of arranging several theater performances, which he was acting in. And, brewing unbeknownst to anybody just yet–Dickens was already beginning his affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, who was half his age.
But Andersen, living up to his reputation of being somewhat awkward and not being able to read a room, also did not help things. He overstayed his welcome by nearly a month; he’d told Dickens he’d be in town two weeks but stayed for nearly five. What little command Andersen had had over the English language in the 1840s had certainly faded, so they had trouble communicating with him. He also apparently expected the eldest son of the house to shave him everyday, even claiming it was a Danish tradition of hospitality; of all of these things, this is the one that feels most blown out of proportion by rumors and time. And Andersen had a tendency toward histrionics that the stiff upper lip British family really couldn’t abide. Apparently, at the premiere of The Frozen Deep that Dickens was performing in–and when Queen Victoria was apparently in the audience–Andersen loudly burst into tears, distracting everyone around him and overshadowing the performers. At one point, he actually “hurled himself down on the Dickens family lawn and passionately wept” over a bad review his most recent novel, To Be Or Not To Be, had received.
After Andersen left, Dickens apparently wrote the following either over the mantle or on a mirror: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!” According to Jens Andersen, our hero never really “managed to register” that he was bothering his hosts. Others, however, claim he did, writing to Dickens after he left, quote, “Kindly forget, the unfavorable aspect which our life together may have shown you of me.”
But, this was all perhaps forgivable. It might have faded in time. What would never be forgivable was what Andersen did in 1860: Publish a book that included a little account of his time in England titled “A Visit with Charles Dickens.” In it, Andersen presented a very intimate look at the Dickens household in 1857, when the family was kind of falling apart. Andersen wrote especially highly of Mrs. Dickens, with her, quote, “big gentle eyes” and her “good-natured smile.” He compared her to all the “most beautiful and honest women in her husband’s novels,” which could only be interpreted by Charles Dickens as a personal attack since the basis of his request for the divorce had to do with Mrs. Dickens’s being an inadequate mother and wife. This was his legal reason, at least; the real basis, of course, was the affair he was having.
On top of that layer of drama, it also never occurred to Andersen to write to Dickens and at least warn him that this publication was coming, let alone ask for permission to publish about his visit! So Dickens was blindsided and furious, understandably. Andersen wrote a, quote, “naive, sentimental portrait,” but it “thundered through all of Europe” at the same time that rumors of his affair with the young actress got out. Dickens never spoke to Andersen again.
Though we’re only in the 1850s and Andersen lived until 1875, I think we can start to wrap up here. Andersen’s life continued in much the same way after this point; he wrote, he entertained the nobility, he searched for meaning. We’ve covered his great loves, his early stories, his struggles, and possibly some of his most embarrassing moments. He traveled more and more as he got older, eventually taking men in their twenties with him. Some people might frown on this, but these relationships were platonic, even pedagogical. He would teach them about art and history and they would help carry his bags and feed him and make the trip smoother, especially as he grew weaker in his fifties and sixties.
Andersen grew more deeply religious as he got older, which is common. Death was one of the most constant characters in his stories, but it became increasingly important to him to believe that death was just a transmutation, a moment between this life and the next. As his body grew weaker, he became dependent on morphine for the aches and pains he felt. From Jens Andersen’s account, it sounds like he grew depressed, thinking dark thoughts and becoming a shell of himself. Like his grandfather and his father before him, his mind seems to have gone a little at the end; his behavior became, quote, “disgraceful,” his remarks rude, and he suddenly stopped worrying about his appearance. In his old age, he had finally distanced himself somewhat from Edvard Collin, and had grown closer to the Melchior family; they took care of him when he became very sick in 1875 and could no longer care for himself. He dedicated his last book of fairy tales, published in 1872, to the Melchior, quote, “home of the heart.” He died in their home on August 4, 1875. He was 70 years old.
Today, he is remembered as an exceptional storyteller, the originator of some of our most beloved fairy tales.
That is the story of Hans Christian Andersen! I hope you enjoyed this episode! I know it was a really long one. If you did, please tell a friend about it. You can also let me know your thoughts by following me on Twitter and Instagram as unrulyfigures, or joining us over on Substack at unrulyfigures.substack.com. If you have a moment, please give this show a five-star review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts–it really does help other folks find this work. Thanks for listening!
Andersen, Hans Christian. The True Story of My Life. Accessed May 20, 2023. https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B0083ZG03K&ref_=kwl_kr_iv_rec_2 .
Andersen, Jens. Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life. Translated by Tiina Nunnally. 1st edition. ABRAMS Press, 2006.
Bi.org. “Hans Christian Andersen.” Accessed May 23, 2023. http://bi.org/en/famous/hans-christian-andersen/.
Essen, Leah Rachel von. “Queerness, Hans Christian Andersen, and The Little Mermaid.” BOOK RIOT (blog), March 28, 2017. https://bookriot.com/queerness-little-mermaid/.
“Hans Christian Andersen | Biography, Fairy Tales, & Books | Britannica,” May 18, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hans-Christian-Andersen-Danish-author.
Ingwersen, Niels. “How Enigmatic Is Hans Christian Andersen? On Three Recent Biographies.” Edited by Jackie Wullschlager, Alison Prince, and Jens Andersen. Scandinavian Studies 76, no. 4 (2004): 535–48.
Landis, Michael. “The Subversive History of ‘The Little Mermaid.’” Smithsonian Magazine, November 5, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/little-mermaid-was-way-more-subversive-you-realized-180973464/.
Norton, Rictor. “The Gay Love Letters of Hans Christian Andersen, Excerpts from ‘My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Throuhg the Centuries.’” Accessed May 23, 2023. https://rictornorton.co.uk/andersen.htm.
Philippas, Ann. “Hans Christian Andersen: The Eccentric Guest.” Charles Dickens Museum. Accessed May 25, 2023. https://dickensmuseum.com/blogs/charles-dickens-museum/hans-christian-andersen-the-eccentric-guest.
Popova, Maria. “Hans Christian Andersen’s Daily Routine.” The Marginalian (blog), January 23, 2015. https://www.themarginalian.org/2015/01/23/hans-christian-andersen-daily-routine/.
Rutigliano, Olivia. “Charles Dickens Really, Really Hated His Fanboy Hans Christian Andersen.” Literary Hub, March 4, 2020. https://lithub.com/charles-dickens-really-really-hated-his-fanboy-hans-christian-andersen/.
Strike, Karen. “Hans Christian Andersen Diaries: Sex In Paris And Climbing Vesuvius As It Erupted.” Flashbak, December 18, 2015. https://flashbak.com/hans-christian-andersen-diaries-sex-in-paris-and-climbing-vesuvius-as-it-erupted-48866/.
Twitter. “Tweet / Twitter.” Accessed May 23, 2023. https://twitter.com/whoresofyore/status/1290726187380158465.
“While You Wait: Read Hans Christian Andersen’s Diary | Kb.Dk.” Accessed May 23, 2023. https://www.kb.dk/en/inspiration/while-you-wait/read-hans-christian-andersens-diary.