‘I am not dead’

Christopher Prendergast

  • Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager
    Allen Lane, 506 pp, £20.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 7139 9325 1

Can it be, as Jackie Wullschlager maintains, that in the 1840s and 1850s Hans Christian Andersen was ‘the most famous writer in Europe’, and that ‘two centuries after his birth Andersen is still not appreciated as the world-class author that he undoubtedly was, as representative of the European Romantic spirit as Balzac or Victor Hugo’? These are grand claims and, if they’re true, we might well use this lively and informative biography to acquaint ourselves further with Andersen’s life and work. On the face of it, however, the claims strain credulity. I imagine that, for most people outside Denmark, the author of ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Snow Queen’ and the like is strictly for children.

Until recently, he was certainly that for me, although in a somewhat ambivalently memorable fashion. Some fifty years ago, on my seventh birthday, I was given an illustrated edition of Andersen’s fairytales, and swanned off to school excited by the prospect of displaying it to my classmates. But the would-be swan rapidly found himself reverting to the role of ugly duckling. On my way to school I had an embarrassing accident (I spare you the details) and on arrival was immediately sent home, deprived of my moment in the literary sun. The story is one that Andersen, who was deeply versed in the agonies of humiliation (in this respect, though in no others, he resembles Dostoevsky), would have appreciated, and the experience did nothing to damage my enthusiasm for the fairytales: I read the book over and over until it fell apart. That was the end of that, until much later, when I read Andersen to my two daughters. As there is now a third daughter, there will doubtless be a reprise in due course, only this time with a difference. My youngest daughter is Danish and I currently live in Denmark, where, quite against the grain of my preconceptions, I have learnt that Andersen (HC, as the Danes refer to him) is not just a children’s writer, but, in the standard literary histories, a central figure in the 19th-century Danish canon and something of a national icon – the arterial road through central Copenhagen is HC Andersen Boulevard.

The question is whether we can plausibly get from these cultural facts all the way out to Wullschlager’s comparatives and superlatives. For one thing, the 19th-century Danish ‘canon’, when viewed from the European perspective Wullschlager consistently invites us to adopt, may seem small beer. This is in part the consequence of a linguistically imposed isolation. The incentives, and indeed the capacity, to translate from Danish were not very great in the 19th century – even Andersen’s works, the one exception, were normally translated, badly, into English from previous German translations. Denmark suffered moreover from a provincialism that had been consciously assumed. World-historically speaking, the cards fell rather badly in the early 1800s when, from being one of the great trading powers of Europe, it rapidly experienced a series of traumatic misfortunes, in large measure from having allied itself with Napoleon: a drubbing by the English (first in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen, then in the 1807 bombardment of the city, which completely disabled the Danish Navy); a collapse of the public finances resulting in the national bankruptcy of 1813; the loss of Norway in 1814.

These calamities produced a turning inwards on the part of the educated classes, away from the turmoil of politics (King Frederik VI, a firm believer in absolutism, suppressed all political discussion) towards the cultivation of literature and the arts. Thus was born Denmark’s so-called Golden Age. But with controversy and dissent strictly off limits, it was a parochial affair, centred on the values of tranquillity, domesticity and harmony (‘vicarage culture’ is how two Danish historians have represented it). It is often seen as the Danish equivalent of Biedermeier, the gemütlich qualities of the latter lexically reflected in the key term hygge, connoting a stress-free mix of cosiness and comfort – it remains in active use in Danish today.

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