Hans Andersen: Poet, Novelist, Storyteller
A recent writing commission for a private client involved researching the life and work of Hans Christian Andersen, author of the world famous fairy tales. I was delighted to be paid to revisit his stories and learn a little more of his biography. As I re-read the fairy stories and learned more about my subject, it struck me there are many valuable lessons writers of all kinds can learn from his life and work. Never one to keep a good thing to myself, I’ll share those lessons with you here.
There’s an intimacy between the personal life of Hans Andersen and many of his tales. While the casual reader with no knowledge of their author would never guess it, many of the most well-known and best-loved of his stories are autobiographical.
In the story of The Little Sea Maid he tells us about his feeling of discomfort in “Society” and the cost to himself of trying to participate in it. In The Butterfly he gives a detailed account of his romantic life and sadness that he never married. And in the most famous tale of them all, The Ugly Duckling, he tells us his own true story.
You remember the story?
Is it possible to read that tale without a lump swelling in your throat and your eyes glassing with tears when the ugly little duckling, derided by all the other creatures in the barnyard, emerges transformed into an elegant swan?
But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s start at the beginning, as any good storyteller should.
The Beginning of a Fairy Tale
Hans Christian Andersen was born in 1805 to an impoverished cobbler and his washerwoman wife. They lived together in a humble cottage in Odense, Denmark. But even at an early age, Hans was a boy with higher ambitions. He was once heard to pray, “O God, please do let me get a black frock coat sometime, and become somebody worthwhile!”
Like the ugly duckling, he was an ungainly child; a little clumsy, with over-long limbs, a big nose, and a shy manner. He found it hard to get along with the other village children and was often the brunt of their cruel jokes. He was hurt by their mockery and felt the pain of rejection deeply.
But despite social rejection, Hans Christian maintained a sunny disposition and was a more-or-less happy child. Excluded from the games of other children, he turned his attention to creative work and delighted in making a puppet show. He would spend hours alone, perfectly content, creating the characters and sewing their costumes with great diligence and skill. The product of all this endeavor was so impressive his mother entertained hopes for him as an apprentice tailor. He might have earned a decent living that way.
But the young Hans, schooled only in day-dreams and solitary adventures, had other ideas.
The local success of his puppet show had seeded in his heart an ambition to make something of himself in the theater. Everyone said what a sweet and tuneful singing voice he possessed; he could dance well enough, he thought; and he’d shown his skills as an actor in his puppet performances.
Either Hans was very persuasive, or his poor parents were more indulgent than most, because when he reached his 14th birthday, his father and mother gave him a sum of money they’d saved and sent him off to Copenhagen, there to seek his fortune.
Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen!
You can imagine him, that young lad, his few possessions in a pack on his pack, a spring in his step and a head full of dreams, whistling his way along the road to the big city; as if he’d just stepped off a page from of a book of tales!
When he arrived in Copenhagen he went straight to the Royal Danish Theater and asked for an audition.
What happened next is hard to pin down with certainty. Different sources offer different accounts of events, although all agree on the outcome.
He was a tall boy for his age, and lanky, too. He bounced onto the stage, limbs akimbo, grinning like a possum, and began to sing a well-known folk song he’d picked up back home. On completion of his musical number, he began to recite.
Some sources say his piece was cut short. The proprietors of the theater found it hard to refrain from outright laughter. They told the young lad he was ridiculous and sent him packing. He later returned and by means of his natural charm and dogged persistence, was taken on for minor, non-speaking roles.
Others say that while they found him strange, the proprietors recognized the beauty of his sure and sweet soprano singing voice, and took him on as a singer.
Still other sources suggest he went not to the theater, but to the house of Anna Margrethe Schall, the famed ballerina, and begged for an audience. One report says that having watched his unlikely display, she had him thrown out. Another that it was she who recommended him to try his luck at the theater.
In any case, we do know he worked at the Royal Danish Theater as a singer for a while. But in time, his voice broke and so his suitability for the work came to an end. In the meantime the theater’s director, Jonas Collin, had developed a sincere affection for the young man and suggested he might try his hand at poetry.
From the Footlights to the Folio
Andersen took him at his word and began to write. Collin also arranged for him to complete his formal education at a series of grammar schools. In one of which he was horribly abused by the schoolmaster and later recounted how those days were the darkest and most painful of his life.
At the behest of Collin, part of his education was paid for by the King, Frederick VI. This fact and the King’s fondness for Andersen, who continued to support his writing, travel and livelihood with a personal allowance, have fueled speculation that Andersen may have been the King’s love-child. However, despite exhaustive research, this idea has never been confirmed.
His early theatrical hopes dashed, he traveled widely and wrote. His earliest works were a series of travelogues, a few short stories, a collection of mediocre poems, and a stage play. None of these met with the success Hans Christian had hoped for. But he continued to travel and he continued to write, eventually publishing the first of his works which would achieve widespread critical acclaim, a semi-autobiographical novel set in Italy.
Andersen continued to travel, write and publish with moderate success, although none of these works have endured.
A Slender Volume of Tales
Indeed, we might never have heard of him had it not been for a slender volume, little more than a pamphlet, which slipped quietly into print in 1835, titled simply, Fairy Tales.
It went largely ignored by critics and the public alike. Nevertheless, in these simple tales simply told, Andersen had found his artistic oeuvre. Another pamphlet and another followed, finally gathered together and published in his first fairy tale collection. The collection included the now well-loved tales The Emperor’s New Clothes, Thumbelina, The Princess and the Pea, and The Little Mermaid among others.
Those few critics who gave the stories any attention at all were rather sneering, calling them crude and undignified because of the simplicity of the language and the lack of clear moral messages.
But Hans Christian Andersen continued to write fairy stories. Two years later, he published several collections of tales, both retelling traditional stories and original creations. These were Fairy Tales Told for Children, Wonderful Stories for Children, A Danish Story Book, Danish Fairy Tales and Legends, and Wonderful Stories.
By this time the critics had tired of dismissing the collections and the public was growing to love them. But sales were still moderate and circulation small.
A Critical Breakthrough
Then, in 1845, his books of tales were translated into English. The critical reception of his work in the United Kingdom, and then America, couldn’t have been more different, and the public embraced his stories instantly. A contemporary review in The Athenæum reads,
This is a book full of life and fancy; a book for grandfathers no less than grandchildren, not a word of which will be skipped by those who have it once in hand.
From that moment on, Hans Christian Andersen’s reputation and status abroad and in his native Denmark was firmly established and assured. His fairy tales are now among the best known works of western literature and have inspired writers, artists, poets, choreographers, composers and film-makers for almost 200 years.
There are many other stories to tell about him, and mostly about his personal life: his tragic, unrequited love affairs with both women and men; his life-long chastity; his extraordinary diaries; his religious fervor; his relationship with the Royal House; his friendship with Charles Dickens; and the circumstances of his death.
But those stories are well treated elsewhere and not pertinent to what we can learn from him as a writer. It is sufficient to know in broad outline of his personal suffering and resilience in the face of it.
What lessons can we, as writers, learn from him?
What Can Writers Learn from Hans Christian Andersen?
- Persevere, Be Resilient, and Adapt
Hans Christian Andersen was born poor with little prospect of advancement in economic or social terms. But his inner spark of creativity was restless. It wouldn’t settle for life as a cobbler or tailor.The curtain fell on his dream of acting before the end of the first act. However, he didn’t pack his bags, mumbling he’d given it a shot, and head for home. He took the next opportunity presenting itself – Jonas Collin’s comment that he might write poetry – and seized it with full vigor.
Even then, his early works didn’t take him far. He experimented across a range of genres, from travelogues, to romantic novels, to autobiographies, plays and poetry before he discovered the kind of writing which made him wealthy and famous. Between first setting out to write in 1822, and finally achieving financial and critical recognition in 1845, 23 years passed.
During that time he had a turbulent personal life, marked by impossible love affairs, scathing critics, the death of his parents, the aftermath of abuse, and loneliness.
All writers would do well to reflect on his resilience in the face of adversity; his willingness to adapt and problem-solve in the face of obstacles in his path; his readiness to experiment; and his determination to pursue his dream despite a difficult life.
He never blamed anyone else for his hardship or his failures. He never railed against fate. He cheerfully and doggedly persevered, putting down word after word, learning his craft and taking advantage of every opportunity which came his way. Had he not achieved success, he would have died trying.
- Write What You Know
The injunction to write what you know is often made and rarely understood. It doesn’t mean if you’re a police officer, you should write about police officers; or if you’re a city-dwelling, single “career girl,” you can’t write about a mother of six who lives in the Welsh mountains. With a little research, anyone can find out what it’s like to live in a city, or on a mountainside, to be single, or a police officer. But there’s only one person who has ever lived your life, and that’s you. Your “take” on the human condition is what will imbue your work with universal appeal and yet be fresh, unique, and new.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote about mermaids, girls the size of a thumb, talking animals and fairies. But he wrote about what he knew. He wrote about the struggle of the underdog; about suffering rejection and soldiering on; about unrequited love; and the triumph of goodwill and hard work.
His most honest works, the works that draw most heavily on his intimate and personal experience of being alive, are his fairy tales. And it is for those that he will always be remembered.
- Never Write for Children
I’ve written in more depth about this here but it’s a clear lesson from Andersen. He wrote fairy tales. Since the Victorian period they have largely been considered exclusively children’s fare. But Andersen didn’t write the stilted, condescending prose which is so often the result of “writing for children.”
He wrote for himself, for the world, for anyone who would listen.
His fairy tales are not tainted with condescension or over-wrought simplicity. They are subtle, complex, poetic, sometimes morally ambiguous, personal, and searingly honest. He didn’t “write for children.” He wrote the truth as he knew it.
In an age when children’s literature comprised “improving stories” of “moral worth,” his work was revolutionary. And it’s as popular today, with children and adults alike, as it was almost 200 years ago.
- Write in Your Own Voice
Because he wrote honestly, Andersen also wrote in a voice as unique and distinct as the man himself. He wrote as he felt, as he spoke; he wrote as his stories demanded, in the voice which could best tell them: his voice.
It’s difficult for modern readers to realize what an impact his use of the vernacular, his simple and direct approach to language, had in his day. It’s fair to say he invented modern children’s literature and paved the way for every writer who has followed.
It’s perfectly normal for new writers to imitate their heroes and it’s good practice. There’s a great deal to learn by trying on another person’s shoes. But in the end, success will only come once you allow yourself, as a writer, to be you; and that means telling your stories in your own, unique voice.
It’s interesting to me that Hans Christian Andersen never set out to teach other writers any of these lessons. He was simply living and writing.
A Final Word…
There’s a story that late in his life, once he was famous and loved by all, a young boy recognized him in the street, removed his cap, and bowed low in respect. Andersen removed his own cap and bowed back. Then he crouched down to the boy’s level and exchanged a few friendly words. After the boy ran off, Andersen couldn’t help but look back over his shoulder, smiling with delight, until the lad was out of sight.
And with that image of the great man, I’ll let you get back to your writing.
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Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels and the photo of me) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.