Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller
Although before him Charles Perrault in France and the Brothers Gimm in Germany had collected and retold folk-tales in ways which found wide popular ... Show synopsis Although before him Charles Perrault in France and the Brothers Gimm in Germany had collected and retold folk-tales in ways which found wide popular audiences, it was only with the appearance of Hans Christian Andersen's "Eventyr" (Fairy Tales) in 1835 that a writer emerged capable of creating new tales equal to those which existed in the folk memory. The grace and simplicity with which Andersen wrote, and his penetrating insight into the human condition, soon won him a wide following, and by the 1840s he was the most famous writer in Europe. Today, tales such as "The Ugly Ducking" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" are part of our inherited cultural consciousness, as familiar to us as any stories outside the Bible. Yet the saccharine picture we have of Andersen himself as a childlike storyteller is wholly at odds with what Jackie Wullschlager shows to be the true nature of his life. The outline is well known: the son of a dirt-poor cobbler and illiterate washerwoman who fought his way to fame and fortune. But Andersen was not at all what he seemed: wonderfully entertaining when he chose to be, he was also lonely, sexually confused and frustrated, vain yet anxious, manipulative yet vulnerable. "My name is gradually starting to shine, and that is the only thing I live for. I covet honour as a miser covets gold; both are said to be empty, but one has to have something to get excited about in this world, otherwise one would break down and rot," he wrote in 1837. Both the determination and the sadness in these sentences could be written over the whole of Andersen's life. Jackie Wullschlager's achievement is to show in detail how his art much darker and more diverse than has been previously appreciated - emerged from this complex personality. Wullschlager is the first English biographer to return to original Danish sources and to have revisited the principal places where Andersen lived, and her sense of his landscapes - not only Golden Age Denmark but the princely courts of Germany and the warm climate of Italy which unlocked his creativity - is acute. Wullschlager also documents for the first time how, although Andersen had emotional involvements with women, his greatest passions were for men - the aesthetic student Ludwig Muller; Baron Henrik Stampe, patron of the arts; the flamboyant dancer Harald Scharff - all of whom in the end let Andersen down. Wullschlager does not sensationalised this, but shows how Andersen consciously substituted artistic creativity for sexual and other forms of happiness. "He is not really pretty", said Elizabeth Barrett Browning's son Pen, "he is rather like his own ugly duck, but his mind has developed into a swan". In this portrait, Andersen appears to us more multi-faceted and more flawed, but also more convincing, and his achievement more impressive, than ever before. A giant of European Romantic literature comes to life.