Like a character in one of his own fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen almost magically transformed himself from penniless street urchin to one of Europe's most celebrated authors. Here, a scholarly, penetrating biography proves that Andersen’s life also had much of the Dickens novel in it.
“What a mystery I am to myself!” Andersen once wrote. That mystery was in part self-created. The author spent a lifetime running from a childhood of squalor and hardship. (In his own autobiographies, he suppressed the fact that his aunt and grandmother were prostitutes and that his alcoholic mother died in a poorhouse hospital just a few miles from where the 28-year-old author was then living comfortably.) Best remembered for children’s tales like “Thumbelina,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Ugly Duckling,” the prolific writer composed more than 30 volumes of literary works, including novels, plays and poetry. Now, a biographer intelligently examines these, along with Andersen’s voluminous correspondence, to create a compelling portrait of both the author and of the world he traveled in. Andersen is revealed as a man who was self-centered, vain and emotionally needy, yet possessed of a childlike wonder and innocence. Tall, awkward and generally unattractive physically (“The Ugly Duckling,” like much of his writing, was clearly autobiographical), Andersen was a confirmed bachelor who doggedly remained a virgin his entire life. That’s not to say he didn’t fall in love. He pursued many platonic affairs, more often with men than women. And his critics, including the Danish Soren Kierkegaard, were not above attacking Andersen for his “effeminate, unmanly” ways and for writings that often centered on platonic romance between men. Nevertheless, Andersen was an unstoppable force, both as author and celebrity. His wanderlust took him on 30 extended tours of Europe during his 70 years, and he was toasted everywhere.
Thickly footnoted and thoughtful, this 200th birthday tribute to the great writer makes for rewarding if sometimes arduous reading.