“When a man is born a coward, and yet combats this of his own accord, then he has done what he ought to have done, and need not be ashamed of the weakness he has been born with.”

–Hans Christian Andersen

For a long time, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to learn more about the life of Hans Christian Andersen. During New Hampshire winters as a child, I closely identified with the heroine of his story “The Little Match Girl,” tearfully imagining that I, too, would one day expire of hunger and cold on a street corner, lips blue with cold, and be carried off to heaven.

Then I learned that when he died, a 40-plus-year-old letter from Riborg Voigt, the first woman he ever loved (of course unrequited), was found in a little leather pouch around his neck. That was when I knew Hans and I were soul-mates.

Biographies abound (he also wrote a couple of memoirs himself). Recently I came across Monica Stirling’s The Wild Swan: The Life and Times of Hans Christian Andersen.

Stirling doesn’t analyze the stories, nor especially connect them to Andersen’s life. But she charts his childhood, lifelong travails, the development of his psyche, his delightfully charming if overwrought personality, his love for travel, his longing for a home and the concomitant failure ever to settle in one place: he spent most of his life in hotels, rented lodgings or the palatial homes of loyal friends, many of whom set aside a special suite of rooms that could be readied at a moment’s notice and in which he was welcome to stay as long as he liked.

Here are a few excerpts. The first describes in incident from his student years:

“He was plunged into misery until, after class, a fellow candidate, Miss Tønder-Lund, gave him a rose, whereupon he became as blissfully sure that he was surrounded by friends as he had a few minutes earlier felt himself a prey to enemies. The diary he kept intermittently for most of his life shows that what would be mere trifles to a person with an average nervous system—if such exists—were thunderbolts to him, with the result that he constantly oscillated between joy and anguish with almost no intermediate stages. The Dean’s condemnation of his artistic exploits meant death, the young girl’s rose meant life, and he responded to both with the same disquietingly whole-hearted emotion.”

“The kind of help Andersen needed did not exist. There was then no psychiatric treatment and his fears were attributed to his liver and his age—although he had suffered from precisely the same type of fears for as long as he could remember, Nowadays a psychiatrist would recognize that he had a psychasthenic constitution, a combination of hyper-sensitive nerves with a need to justify his existence by creative achievement that might have driven him to the madhouse had he been less gifted. As a boy, Andersen was undermined by a well-justified sense of insecurity that produced concomitant feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness and guilt; as a man, his lack of family ties and his failure to experience requited love and thereby found a family of his own made him utterly dependent on his friends for emotional sustenance. He was therefore constantly aware of a need, terrifying in its urgency, to please in both his private and professional life. From this came his hunger for fame. Once a friend accused him of being either a great simpleton or a great rogue, to which he answered unself-consciously that he was a bit of both—‘But that is a good thing too, isn’t it?’ It was good in that it enabled him to maintain his fragile mental equilibrium, but he paid a heavy price for this—as Dag Hammarsklold wrote in his diary for 1955: ‘While performing the part which is truly ours, how exhausting it is to be obliged to play a role which is not ours; the person you must really be in order to fulfil your task, you must not appear to others to be, in order to be allowed by them to fulfil it. How exhausting—but unavoidable, since mankind has laid down once and for all the organized rules for social behaviour.’ ”

“In Andersen’s case early poverty, insecurity, a sense of being awkward and unattractive and an idealization of women that was far more genuine than that often attributed to Dickens’s heroes, made him exaggeratedly humble in love. He idolized, suffered and failed to assert himself as a man. This same idealization, and native fastidiousness, made him recoil with distaste from women attracted by his fame; once, after a young and beautiful woman had declared herself as infatuated with him, he was so distressed by her immodesty that he felt positively relieved to learn that she was mentally unbalanced. Only the common sense and robust physique that he inherited from his mother, together with his capacity for self-criticism and [wonderful sense of] humor…enabled him to maintain his precarious emotional equilibrium and, eventually, resign himself to his celibacy and put all his energy into loving his many true friends and winning the fame for which he had left home at fourteen years old.”

And I especially identify with the following tendency, a fear of abandonment that manifests in collecting, treasuring, ordering, storing and arranging small objects found on sidewalks, paths, woods, city streets:

“The passion for hoarding up little treasures of every kind—pebbles that friends had picked up, leaves that had been plucked on a certain day, odd mementoes of travel and incident, was always strong in Andersen. He hated to destroy anything, and he dragged around with him, from one lodging to another, a constantly increasing store of what irritable friends were apt to consider rubbish. In like manner, he could not endure to tear up paper with writing upon it, even if that writing were derogatory to his dignity”…

–quoting Edmund Gosse, on the autobiography Andersen wrote in 1846-47.

–All from Monica Stirling, The Wild Swan: The Life and Times of Hans Christian Andersen (I bought my copy used on ebay for something like six bucks).

Then again, perhaps I’ve moved forward a bit. If I die with a leather pouch around my neck at this point it will contain a crucifix, i.e. a letter from Christ. And nowadays I collect pebbles, leaves and seedpods not because I’m afraid of being abandoned, but because I find the objects fascinating and beautiful. I can let them go, too! Lo and behold, turns out there are more where they came from.


  1. I love Hans Christian Andersen. I grew up in a town settled by the Danish and every year they celebrated him with a fairytale parade and plays of his stories. The local grocery store even had a mural of The Little Mermaid painted on the wall above the checkout. That was my childhood.😊

  2. Lawrence McDonald says: Reply

    Another jewel, this one particularly precious.

  3. I am so thankful that Anderson has left us the gift of his shared dreams and fears, turned into enchanting stories. Thank you for the article.

  4. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Thanks so much, people; I’m happy know that you, too, are HCA fans! I’m intrigued by his paradoxical psyche: on the one hand bashful, self-doubting, neurotic. On the other, from a very young age he was utterly faithful to his soul. As a child he spent his time making clothes for his puppets and when his father suggested that he become a cobbler, he was absolutely horrified. Not because being a cobbler was beneath him, but because being a cobbler would have been completely antithetical to what he was built for. It’s fantastic that all these years later, he lives–especially in the hearts of children.

  5. I rediscovered HCA some years ago when now-20-year-old British singer Jasmine Thompson wrote a lovely song about his ‘Under the willow tree’:
    What a wonderful and sad story that is… truly heart-breaking:

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Thank you for the story, which I hadn’t known (freezing to death seems to have been a favorite HCA theme…). I esp love this: “Such grief is not for the world; it is not entertaining, even to friends, and poor Knud had no friends; he was a stranger, wandering through strange lands to his home in the north.” Thumbnail description of the human condition…will now listen to the song–glory be to God for willow trees.


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