The Underduckling

Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller

Jackie Wullschlager
Knopf, 489 pp., $30.00

In “The Ugly Duckling”—which generations of readers have recognized as an allegory of Hans Christian Andersen’s own life—the unattractive, awkward, low-born hero becomes a swan without any effort on his part. That ending, more than anything else in the story, makes it a fantasy. Andersen began life as one of the most gawky and disadvantaged ducks that ever waddled out of a mud pond. But he transformed himself into a swan only partially, and by long and exhausting efforts.

From his earliest years as the son of a dreamy, improvident cobbler and a half-illiterate washerwoman in a small Danish town, he was what would now be called a freak. He was tall and thin and clumsy; he seldom played with other children, and his greatest delight, he wrote later, “was in making clothes for my dolls.”

Andersen’s odd appearance was not just a childhood affliction. When he was in his sixties a traveling companion described him as

strange and bizarre in his movements and carriage. His arms and legs were long and thin, out of all proportion, his hands were broad and flat, and his feet of…gigantic dimensions…. His nose [was] so disproportionately large that it seemed to dominate his whole face.

Andersen was aware that he looked peculiar; as Jackie Wullschlager tells us in her new biography, he described himself in a letter to Charles Dickens as “one who seemed to have fallen from the skies.” He was suggesting that he was a kind of otherworldly phenomenon, part child, part fool, and part natural philosopher—what at the time was called a “mooncalf.”

Andersen was never a fool, and only occasionally a philosopher, but in a sense he remained a child all his life, with a child’s egotism and intense and volatile emotions. In the language of today’s psychology, he was acutely bi-polar. He was often either wild with joy or in deep despair, wishing that he were dead. As he wrote at twenty-nine, “My pain is crushing when I suffer, but my joy when I’m happy is also inexpressible.” He also had a child’s naive but penetrating view of adult pretension and self-deception, like the little boy at the end of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” who exclaims that the ruler has nothing on.

Also, like a child, Andersen saw everything in the world as alive and conscious. In his stories not only animals and birds but also bugs and toys and flowers and even household objects have complex human personalities. In one of his tales a saucepan and a bunch of matches relate their life stories, and an earthenware pitcher proposes that they “have an intellectual entertainment.” In another tale a “decent, respectable Old Street Lamp” who is about to be retired reflects on her life. She “felt very much as a superannuated ballet-dancer feels when she is dancing for the last time, and knows that to-morrow and ever after she will sit alone in her attic …

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