Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen; drawing by David Levine

“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.

The kings of Prussia and Saxony and other German states invited Andersen to read his tales (Heine observed that Andersen fulfilled exactly a prince’s idea of a poet). There could be few European princelings and little princesses who did not hear the old magician. Among these child listeners were the future Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria-Hungary and King George V of Britain: it is not on record what they made of it.

Here and there in the diaries are some memorable pictures: a flood in Barcelona, the Rambla a raging torrent and people disappearing into the sewers below; and a scene in Constantinople which I was sure must have been the inspiration for “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and was disappointed to find that the tale had been written some years earlier.

Large numbers of beautiful horses with magnificent caparisons studded with precious gems were led by as music played…. Then came all the officers. Then the officials and the Grand Vizier. After that a column of horses with plumes and costly caparisons. Then came a column of pages of some sort wearing green peacock feathers, and in the midst of them (they were on foot) rode on horseback the young, nineteen-year-old Sultan in a jacket, a fez with a diamond and some kind of feather from a bird of paradise. He looked very pale.

Yet on the whole the diaries reflect Scenes from Foreign Parts less than they do Scenes from the Ego of Hans Christian Andersen. However widely he voyaged, however many of the famous he met, there is a sameness of tone as he carries his grievances and obsessions across Europe.

Loudest of the recurrent themes is his relationship with his home country—sharpened by his having no proper home of his own. When he wasn’t visiting friends elsewhere in Denmark, he lived on lodgings or hotels in Copenhagen. He never married, though he often thought he was in love, and for many years he nursed a passion for Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale—but she persisted in calling him her brother.

On the face of it, Denmark did well by him. For his first European journey he was granted a royal travel allowance. The king and his family invited him to visit them on their summer holiday by the sea. Friends were forever giving dinners to celebrate his departure, his return, his arrival among the Danish colony in Paris. And yet—why was he fêted in Munich and not at home? Why was there so much unfair sniping in the newspapers? Why did his staunch benefactors, the Collin family, write such admonishing and imperceptive letters about his novels and treat him like a child?

Why must it always be me—now that there are so many people who could be viewed as much more suitable targets—that is picked on as the one to be mocked and laughed at.

The good news reached him in Frankfurt in 1855 of a substantial cheek from the Collins, who looked after his money affairs, and there were letters from friends saying how much they were enjoying his autobiography (The Fairy Tale of My Life)—but when that same day he heard that a Danish critic was about to attack it, “All my happiness was gone now.” When news reached him in Paris that the dramatized version of “Agnete and the Merman” had been hissed, he fairly boiled over:

May I never set eye on the home that only has eyes for my faults, but no heart for the great gifts God has given me. I hate whatever hates me; I curse whatever curses me!—From Denmark are always coming the chill draughts that turn me to stone!

—and a good deal more in the same vein. The Swan who was admired abroad was still at home the Ugly Duckling.

Danish traveling companions added to his irritation abroad: sons and grandsons of his Copenhagen benefactors, sent along to make sure he bought his tickets, kept his appointments, didn’t get into muddles. But Harald Drewsen was just as annoying as his elder brothers Viggo and Einar had been, Jonas Collin went around Spain brooding and paid Andersen more insults than compliments.

At one moment he is in a bad mood because people in Denmark don’t make enough of him, but when they do, something always goes wrong. He enjoys the fuss when in 1867 he is made an honorary citizen of his home town of Odense—Titular Councillor Koch even carried his baggage!—but people from Copenhagen, the Drewsens and the Collins, “who are supposed to be my closest friends,” sent no word. Whenever he is honored he must note who wasn’t there, who didn’t call on his birthday.

Along with this touchiness goes a blithe disregard for others’ feelings and a determination to prove himself always in the right. He records how once, invited to a party, he didn’t go and didn’t send apologies. The host afterward told him he’d been very rude. Andersen replied that he’d thought nothing of it—“I do it so often to my friends!”—but did apologize. Then at once put the host in the wrong. “I didn’t give it a thought, and you’ve certainly distressed me greatly, so that if I’ve offended you, you have now wounded me, and so let the one balance the other out!”—and then off he went to write it all up.

Andersen, with his special relationship with Providence, is always concerned about his soul—“I was a little dissatisfied with myself, but put my trust in God”; but no less about his body. Corns, pimples, bowel movements are logged; toothache is a persistent enemy—but when he acquires false teeth they torment him. Worst of all are the torments of sex. In Paris one evening, when he was in his sixties, it was touch and go if he could keep his purity. After dinner with a young friend “who told about new adventures with the ladies”

I paced back and forth in a sexual frenzy. Then went suddenly up into a meat market—one of them was covered with powder; a second, common; a third, quite the lady. I talked with her, paid twelve francs and left without having sinned in deed, though I dare say I did in my thoughts. She asked me to come back, said I was indeed very innocent for a man. I felt so happy and light when I left that house.

Touching and funny! Yet sometimes a shaft of self-knowledge—“My need to be noticed is so great,” “Strange that I can’t combat this pathological self-righteousness”—puts the reader in sympathy with this so often ludicrous person.

Of particular interest to readers of this translation will be his two accounts, given in full, of his visits to England in 1847 and 1857. As he sailed up the Thames for the first time he reflected how “Once, in our age of greatness, Denmark’s king was England’s; but it’s just as well things turned out as they did.” Certainly they turned out well for this Dane: Hans the Conqueror quite captured literary and fashionable London. His publisher, Bentley, took care of all his arrangements; his translator, Mrs. Mary Howitt, was hospitable; and though he had been told that “the aristocracy in England excludes all artists from their circle,” he found “the friendliest people, the heartiest reception.” He was taken up by Lady Blessington (“somewhat corpulent”) and invited everywhere. Titled ladies gushed over him and begged him to give them “The Ugly Duckling”—one of the most popular of his tales (we all want to be swans) and one that he always liked to read: “I was fussed over a lot.” He was told he was more famous than the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen; there were pictures of him in the bookshops. he was invited to join the Athenaeum Club and even dared to eat there. When he visited Scotland he was constantly being recognized: on a steamer on Loch Lomond, at table d’hôte in an Edinburgh hotel when all the diners toasted him, by the porter at Heriot’s Hospital, by the poet James Hogg, friend of Walter Scott, whom Andersen revered.

Of course there were flaws. Train journeys frightened him; laundry went missing; Verdi’s new opera The Brigands (I Masnadieri) was “bad music, tedious,” even though his beloved Jenny Lind was singing the heroine. Sundays in London were terribly boring and in Scotland there was “a fearful silence…. They are reading the Bible or getting drunk.” But there is less grumbling than on other trips.

The high point was meeting Dickens one evening at Lady Blessington’s (where “the servants, as in other grand houses, were wearing powder in their own hair”). Then a parcel arrived at Andersen’s hotel, containing all Dickens’s books, “beautifully bound and inscribed inside: ‘To H.C.A. from his friend and admirer C.D.’ I was ecstatic!” Before leaving England, Andersen dined with the Dickens family, who were on holiday at Broadstairs; and the great man himself “in a green Scottish dress-coat and colorful shirt—exceedingly, elegantly English” (it sounds a bit loud to me) walked over to Ramsgate to bid him farewell.

Over the next years many letters passed between the writers. They had much in common: a straitened childhood, an astonishing rise to fame, and the entrée to houses where the servants powdered their hair—but they seem to have talked little of such experiences.

With his eye for an oddity, Dickens would appreciate the oddities of this antic Dane, but it was the teller of tales that he prized. He had claimed, in an article, that

in a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of great importance that Fairy tales should be respected. In their simplicity and purity and innocent extravagance [they teach] forebearance, courtesy, consideration for the poor and aged, kind treatment of animals….

He damned the odious Smallweeds of Bleak House because Judy had never heard of Cinderella and her twin brother knew nothing of Jack the Giant Killer. Peter Ackroyd in his long Dickens has pointed out the fairy-tale element in the novels: how for instance Florence Dombey is like a princess imprisoned in the Dombey house, who escapes to wander with the good monster Captain Cuttle, and finally marries the handsome Prince Walter Gay. Dickens and Andersen were allies, fighters for imagination in a utilitarian age.

It was with delight that in 1857 Andersen accepted Dickens’s invitation (“He implores me to come and stay”) to Gad’s Hill, his country house in Kent. For this second English visit we can supplement Andersen’s diary with Elias Bredsdorff’s compilation, Hans Andersen and Charles Dickens (1956), which, in letters from Dickens and other reports, gives us a view from the other side.

All began well. Andersen managed the trip on the North Kent railroad; the stationmaster at Higham carried his trunk on his back the mile and a half to Gad’s Hill, where Dickens welcomed him heartily. (Next morning, though, “no one came to pick up my clothes.”) There were excursions to London: to walk arm-in-arm with Dickens to the office of Household Words; to hear the Messiah at the Crystal Palace; to spend the night at the Piccadilly mansion of the heiress Angela Burdett-Coutts (“the best bedroom I’ve ever had with a bathroom…. Happy and grateful to God”); to be shown round Parliament. At Gad’s Hill there were walks and talks with his host. Dickens urged Andersen—thrown into such despair by a bad review of his novel To Be or Not To Be? that he flung himself down on the lawn in tears—to pay no attention to such petty matters:

“I haven’t read criticism of me in twenty-four years!”…. And when we were walking on the road, he wrote with his foot in the sand. “That’s criticism,” he said and rubbed it out, “and it’s gone just like that!”

Hurtful in a different way was the blow from a hard ball when Andersen had been persuaded to join a game of cricket on the lawn; the skin was broken and his finger turned blue.

Dickens had much on his mind during Andersen’s visit: the impending breakup of his marriage (unsuspected by his guest) and preparations for The Frozen Deep, the melodrama by Wilkie Collins in which he was to perform for charity. Andersen was there when the audience included Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the King of the Belgians, et al., and burst into tears when Dickens, as the unhappy lover, expired. But in spite of the champagne supper afterward, his entry for the day concludes: “Not really in a good mood at all the entire evening.” The trouble of course was that too much attention had been paid to Dickens, too little to Andersen.

Dickens was always courteous and considerate to his guest, but when he was away from home the same could not be said of his family. Told to escort their guest to London, young Charles was rude; Walter let him carry his own bag from the station; little Kate was cutting; Dickens’s sister-in-law, Miss Hogarth, was not at all attentive; and there was too little sugar in the tea. What a contrast were Bentley’s children—“more approachable and sympathetic.” But Andersen only paid them a brief visit.

A letter from Dickens to another Danish friend gives some reasons for his children’s bad behavior; imitating their eccentric visitor and laughing behind his back:

Whenever he got to London, he got into wild entanglements of cabs and Sherry, and never seemed to get out of them again until he came back here, and cut out paper into all sorts of patterns, and gathered the strangest little nosegays in the woods. His unintelligible vocabulary was marvellous. In French or Italian, he was Peter the Wild Boy; in English, the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. My eldest boy swears that the ear of man cannot recognise his German, and his translatress declares to Bentley that he can’t speak Danish!

One day he came home to Tavistock House [Dickens’s London house] apparently suffering from corns that had ripened in two hours. It turned out that a cab driver had brought him from the City, by way of the new unfinished thoroughfare through Clerkenwell. Satisfied that the cabman was bent on robbery and murder, he had put his watch and money into his boots—together with a Bradshaw, a pocket-book, a pair of scissors, a penknife, a book or two, a few letters of introduction, and some other miscellaneous property….

He received a good many letters, lost (I should say) a good many more, and was for the most part utterly conglomerated—with a general impression that everything was going to clear itself up tomorrow.

After this Micawber-cum-White Knight was safely back across the Channel, there was some exchange of letters, then Dickens stopped answering, and the friendship petered out. Dickens was no doubt annoyed by the publication in Bentley’s Miscellany of 1860 of Andersen’s less than enthusiastic memories of his 1857 visit; but the main reason for the cooling-off was surely one experienced by many less famous hosts and their guests—when a host overestimates his tolerance and a guest his acceptability, and there is a certain vagueness about the length of stay. Before his arrival on June 11, Andersen mentioned first a week, then a fortnight, as the likely duration; after he had been ten days in England, Dickens (rashly) asked him stay on for The Frozen Deep on July 4; he left on July 15. Many years later Kate Dickens, that cutting child, summed up the visit: “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.”

Yet the bony bore lives on and on, and flourishes in the north of California, as Wolfgang Lederer testifies. The Kiss of the Snow Queen started with a discussion group among the psychiatrists at a mental hospital north of San Francisco. They decided that “instead of discussing cases in our usual manner, why not try to analyze a work of fiction, a fairy tale perhaps, as if it were a psychiatric case?” So they chose Andersen’s “Snow Queen”: the story of the icy enchantress who put an icy splinter in the heart of little Kay and took him to her icy palace; and of Kay’s friend little Gerda who went round the world in search of him and saved him by shedding tears that melted the splinter in his heart. It must have been more fun to unravel the psyches of Kay and Gerda than those of the real people for whom they were responsible. “The Snow Queen” gave them a high old time, so stuffed is it with “symbols, relationships and veiled meanings.” Lederer then dived into Andersen’s life and other writings to find how much of himself had gone into the tales. Unfortunately the Diaries were not available in English when his book was published in hardback in 1986.

The conclusion about “The Snow Queen” is that it’s “an account of adolescence and its vicissitudes”—though we must always remember that it’s also a “poetic tale of adventure and of faith, of love and of loyalty, and of all the wonder and magic of childhood.” Lederer relates his psychological discoveries in simple language, at times bordering on an Andersen-talking-to-the-children tone: “Now that [homosexuality] is a difficult topic to discuss, and we had better clarify our terms.” This is in relation to Andersen’s suggested tendency, about which Lederer remains skeptical. He builds up a convincing picture of “an outsider who desperately wanted to be ‘in”‘; the traveler escaping “the hurts he suffered—or imagined—at home”; the lover who “if love were offered him, lacked the courage to meet it.”

The text of “The Snow Queen” is given in an appendix. Rereading the tale brought me back to Dickens. At the climax, the heartless Snow Queen sits on a frozen lake which she calls her “Mirror of Reason”; the captive Kay is “cleverly arranging his pieces in the game of ice-cold reason”; and it is Gerda’s tears of love that melt the ice in Kay’s heart. Andersen published his tale in 1844. Ten years later Dickens published his tale of Reason and Calculation versus Feeling and Imagination, Gradgrind versus the circus riders. He called it Hard Times.

This Issue

June 27, 1991