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Hard Times

The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen

selected and translated by Patricia L. Conroy, by Sven H. Rossel
University of Washington Press, 502 pp., $45.00

The Kiss of the Snow Queen: Hans Christian Andersen and Man’s Redemption by Woman

by Wolfgang Lederer
University of California Press, 262 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES.” So Dickens inscribed a card which he stuck on a mirror in the guest room at Gad’s Hill. The readers of Andersen’s diaries will easily understand why.

As an unhappy schoolboy Andersen poured out his frustrations in a diary for 1825 and 1826. He returned to diary keeping when he went abroad, on his visits to country estates in Denmark, and in times of stress, such as during the war over Schleswig-Holstein in 1848, which separated him from his German friends. The complete diaries were published in twelve volumes in Denmark (1971–1976); the volume under review, the first English translation, offers a selection, though the diaries for Andersen’s two trips to England are given in full. The translators provide helpful introductions to each section, setting the entries in the context of Andersen’s life and circumstances. Mostly, their version reads well, though now and then, when we are coasting along in the mid-nineteenth century, a word—doghouse, rain check, minibus, twerp, socialize, ship’s loo—jerks us into the late twentieth. Most of the illustrations are from Andersen’s own drawings—spirited sketches of Vesuvius in eruption, the Simplon Pass, whirling dervishes at Pera, and other wonders of travel—and the ingenious paper cutouts with which he delighted children.

Hans Andersen was born in 1805 in Odense, a provincial town which was then over two days’ journey from the Danish capital, Copenhagen. His father was a cobbler who read Voltaire, La Fontaine, the Arabian Nights, and bitterly regretted his lack of proper education; his mother, born in poverty and sent out into the streets to beg, was equally determined that her son should have a better life. The boy grew up in a countryside where legend and superstition flourished; he listened eagerly to the tales told by old women in a hospital near his house, and regaled them with tales of his own invention. He could weave legends about himself, assuring his schoolfellows that he was really a nobleman who had been kidnapped in youth. When his father died suddenly, the eleven-year-old Hans was sent to work first in a cloth mill, then in a tobacco factory. In both, his chief occupation seems to have been singing songs and telling stories to the men at work. His beautiful voice became the talk of the town; leading citizens invited him to sing and recite in their homes and lent him books; the local theater gave him a walk-on part.

Encouraged by such small successes, he decided to try his luck in the capital; his mother, assured by a fortuneteller of his genius, reluctantly agreed; and the fourteen-year-old Hans boarded the coach for Copenhagen. There, after many rebuffs from the theater, he impressed the Italian director of the song school, who not only offered to teach him, but raised money to cover his keep from others who had been impressed by this awkward, determined, and talented lad.

The most important of his patrons was Jonas Collin, who later brought Andersen into his family life and became something of a substitute father. Collin was a senior government official, closely connected with the theater, and an adviser to the king. He saw promise in a play which Andersen had submitted, but was sure that this talent for writing would be improved by a grammar-school education, for which he secured a royal grant. So Andersen, now seventeen, was packed off to a boarding school in a small town ninety miles from Copenhagen; and it is there, two years later, that his diaries begin.

This first diary is one long moan, and no wonder. There he was, from seventeen to twenty-one, slogging away at Latin, Greek, and mathematics, with boys half his age, under a master who forbade him to write anything but school exercises.

Unlucky me! Did miserably in Latin. You won’t be advanced into the fourth form!… To become an artisan or a corpse is your fate!… Farewell to all of my hopes and dreams…. Why did the principal have to examine me in precisely what I have trouble with?

He cheers up when he spends a Christmas holiday with the family of one of his patrons, Peter Wulff, the translator of Shakespeare. Books, theatergoing, parlor games, jolly gatherings where he’s asked to read his stories and poems, make him see life less gloomily. “One drop of the honey of happiness can get me to forget the bitterness”—though there are still worries about clothes. At a grand party, with royalty present, “I was the only one in gray;…they probably take me for one of the servers, and Lotte Oehlenschläger has to see me like this! Oh, what torment!”

His prolonged education lasted until 1829; and by 1831, when he made his first trip abroad, Andersen had published sketches and poems which had drawn some unkind criticism, had fallen in love, and been rejected. So he took his wounded pride and broken heart to Germany for six weeks. “Oh, to travel, to travel, if one could only spend his life fluttering from one place to another!”—the great Romantic cry, heard more starkly from the anguished lovers of Pelléas et Melisande, “Il faut voyager.” For Andersen, travel was to be the great escape.

On this first trip he visited the poet Klopstock’s grave near Hamburg and crawled under a fence to inscribe his false love’s name on the monument: “Since Riborg is dead, her name belongs on a tombstone.” But her rejected lover lived on to enjoy German ice cream, German churches, theaters, and art galleries. At Dresden,

Mary Magdalene by Batoni was lovely, but somewhat worldly; she seemed to be flirting with her sanctity, and an old colonel remarked about her: “She was probably good for a few more years of service!”

Two years later he was off on a longer tour to Germany and Italy, spending six months in Rome. There are lively accounts of crossing the Alps by the Simplon Pass in a post coach, of climbing Vesuvius, of strolling around Rome and admiring the fountains; there are plodding accounts of sight-seeing in Paris and Milan, with conscientious lists of pictures in galleries. At one point, when he sees the Cenci castle in the moonlight, he thinks of writing Beatrice Cenci’s life story. What he does write is a dramatic poem, “Agnete and the Merman,” based on a Danish folk ballad, and during the winter in Rome he begins a novel, The Improvisatore—the story of an Italian peasant boy who has been educated by a nobleman. Much of his own adolescence is here, translated to Italy.

In spite of grumbles about uncongenial companions, toothache, and tiresome letters from home, there is a lightheartedness about these first travel diaries, a relish at being Abroad, that we seldom find again. For by 1840, when he next set out on a ten-month journey that took him as far as the Black Sea, he was carrying the burden of his reputation. The Improvisatore had been a great success at home and in Germany. He had published two more novels, two plays, a collection of poems, and two books of fairy tales. But it had not been roses all the way. Søren Kierkegaard—whom Andersen had thought a friend!—wrote that the hero of the novel Only a Fiddler was “a sniveler”; other critics said he was wasting his time with fairy tales. Perhaps they were regarded as too childish a result after all the effort that good Copenhagen citizens had put into his education: the stuff lacked higher purpose, and the language was too colloquial.

Yet though Andersen still hoped for fame as novelist and dramatist, he would not be driven from his tales, publishing a new collection every year, and they became the base of his growing and enduring fame. To write in this mode was natural to the boy brought up on folk tales in Odense. To bring himself into the tales was natural to a young man who had romanced about being a child of noble birth. He could transpose himself into the Ugly Duckling—the gawky target of petty persecution who became the handsome, admired swan. He could put aspects of himself into many of the tales—The Red Shoes translated the squeaking new boots he wore at his confirmation into the scarlet shoes that shocked the congregation when Karen walked up the aisle. Remembering his own childhood, he could appeal to his readers’ memories of childish humiliations, of daydreams of revenge on those by whom they had been misunderstood. And he could tell the tales in a manner that brought the teller and the hearer close together—sharing little jokes against the pompous and the powerful, enjoying the clever tricks that let the simple and the weak win through.

Andersen met Jakob Grimm, the famous editor of German folk tales, in 1845; but of this occasion he records only that he “talked with me about tales.” One longs to know what passed between the great collector of old fairy tales and the great creator of new ones: old and new with much in common, yet so different. Both Grimm and Andersen tap subconscious fears, give shapes to childhood traumas. Yet Grimm goes about it in a matter-of-fact way, even when dealing with horrors; Andersen’s tales have a softer edge. And even when there is no conventionally happy ending—when the Little Match Girl actually freezes to death—he can invoke the supernatural to give her happiness in Heaven with her dear old Grannie. At his worst Andersen can be pietistic and sentimental: at his best—“The Little Mermaid, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Nightingale,” “Ugly Duckling,” “Snow Queen”—he is poignant and funny and tender, and tells us something true about our own feelings and desires.

It would be tedious to chronicle the succession of Andersen’s travels, as recorded in the diaries, between 1840 and 1873, when he made a final visit to Switzerland shortly before he died. Here are some highlights. A celebrity now himself, as more of his fairy tales were published and translated, he met the celebrities of the day: Liszt, who in 1852 “won’t do Mozart’—whom he says is old-hat—but Wagner and other sensation-mongers”; Dumas père et fils—aged thirty-six and eighteen!; the great actress Rachel—“You get ice-cold shivers down your back, as if you were watching a sleepwalker who expressed your hidden, deepest feelings”; Heine; Clara Schumann; Mendelssohn, who told him, “No one reads fairy tales like you!” In 1861 Andersen visited the American sculptor William Wetmore Story in Rome, where he also found Longfellow’s brother, Robert Browning, and a party of children. Henry James, in his life of Story, describes the scene:

After he [Andersen] had read out to his young friends “The Ugly Duckling,” Browning struck up with “The Pied Piper”; which led to the formation of a grand march through the spacious Barberini apartment, with Story doing his best on a flute in default of bagpipes.

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