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 …

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