The darkest storyteller of all was self-centred and a poor guest yet his grisly visions still thrill, says Julia Briggs
When I was six, my father gave me a volume of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales with illustrations by Rex Whistler - scrolloping rococo decorations utterly unlike the plain postwar utility design we were used to. The pictures delighted and scared me by turns. I loved the little mermaid in the dark waves, looking up at the prince's galleon silhouetted against a cloud-wracked sky, and the Emperor parading in a full-bottomed 18th-century wig, his medals pinned to his vest, beneath a tasselled canopy. On the other hand, I was terrified of one page where a skeletal Death stood over the dying Chinese Emperor, and another where John unrolls the cloth containing the troll's head in The Travelling Companion .
Powerful though these pictures were, a number of scenes without pictures were even more deeply etched into my memory: the executioner chopping off Karen's feet in The Red Shoes ; the cannibalism of the microscopic organisms in A Drop of Water ; Kay in the ice palace in The Snow Queen , struggling to make the ice splinters spell "eternity" in a hopeless effort to win the world and a pair of skates.
Andersen was well aware of his extraordinary picture-making capacity - What the Moon Saw was originally titled A Picture Book without Pictures - and though he was untrained, he often drew scenes he wanted to remember in a spiky, almost expressionist style. He also cut out paper figures of such favourite motifs as hearts, swans, ballet dancers and hanged men. Perhaps his drawing and writing stimulated one another, as they did for other 19th-century writers such as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.
In this year of Andersen's bicentenary (he lived from 1805 to 1875), his work is being celebrated all over the world. But he has not always had a good press, either as a writer or as an individual. Jack Zipes, editor of The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales , sees Andersen's career as a process of degeneration, the result of a failure of courage or nerve. Even during his lifetime, Andersen was criticised for being a solipsist and a social climber. After having Andersen as a guest, Charles Dickens pinned a note on the door of the bedroom in which his visitor had stayed - "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks, which seemed to the family AGES!".
Andersen's English was poor, and he had annoyed Dickens by idealising his host's domestic life at Gadshill just as Dickens was trying to escape from his marriage.
Despite Dickens's annoyance, the two had more in common than he acknowledged. Both of them were compulsive storytellers, and both gained many of their best effects from the use of the innocent eye, or the child's angle on things; both remembered vividly what it felt like to be a child and both were childishly self-centred. Dickens had clambered his way to success from wretchedness, but Andersen had climbed further. Dickens's father was a bankrupt and had sunk down in the world, whereas Andersen was the son of a poor cobbler and a washerwoman, and grew up in a single room in Odense, on the island of Funen, in grinding poverty.
His father, a country boy who had longed in vain for an education, enlisted as a soldier and died when Andersen was 11. When his mother remarried, there was scarcely space for the adolescent Hans Christian, and at the age of 14 he set off for Copenhagen to seek his fortune, taking no more than a bundle of clothes. For a while he worked in the theatre, singing and dancing, but he was lanky and large-boned, and they did not keep him for long. One of the theatre directors, Jonas Collin, took him under his wing and for the next five years Andersen was sent to a grammar school where he struggled humiliatingly with Latin, Greek and mathematics in classes of younger boys. Then he began to write, in the fantastic style that E. T. A. Hoffmann had made popular, and his work was soon widely read in Denmark and translated into German. At the age of 30, he found his natural form, publishing The Tinderbox , Little Claus and Big Claus , The Princess and the Pea , Thumbelina and The Travelling Companion , and following them up two years later with The Little Mermaid and The Emperor's New Clothes .
Andersen's sexuality has prompted a great deal of speculation. His diaries and letters show that he was inclined to fall in love with young people, both women and men, yet, according to his own account, he never lost his virginity. Given his personal history, this was not entirely surprising.
The single room he had shared with his parents offered no privacy, and his early poverty had made him familiar with the reality of brothels. He was anxious about his health and would have recognised the danger of catching syphilis, with its incurable effects. Under such circumstances, his preference for masturbation is quite understandable (his diary is full of crosses recording the event).
Another factor explaining his abstinence could have been his overactive imagination - he had an almost Keatsian power of identifying with whatever he saw around him: men, women and children, but also animals, birds and even inanimate objects. Imagining what a 13-year-old prostitute might have felt when required to offer sexual services to strange men would have been the greatest turn-off.
Given his humble origins, it was inevitable that Andersen would be excited by the patronage of the rich, famous and aristocratic. But he remained sceptical of them, and many of his stories make fun of social ambition. In addition to the toadies in The Emperor's New Clothes , there is the snobbery of the ball who refuses the top in The Top and Ball because she is made of morocco leather, and believes a swallow has proposed to her. Darkest is the story of The Shadow who uses the scholar (whose shadow he is) to gain access to high society and then edges him out of his own life. The shadow marries the princess and the scholar is quietly executed.
For Andersen, the capacity to imagine or dream extends all the way down the scale of existence, so that the fantasies of The Shirt Collar , like those of The Steadfast Tin Soldier , The Snowman and The Little Fir Tree are, paradoxically, what makes these objects human. They belong to a complex society, equipped with rules and social protocols exactly like our own.
Though the ball turns her nose up at the ill-bred top, the top survives and is still being played with when the ball has rotted in the gutter. Children have no difficulty in attributing their own feelings to toys and Andersen's writings reflect their animistic projection of feeling, while retaining the detachment of the adult, the artist.
The power of the familiar is one of the great sources of Andersen's appeal, and he created a forceful, direct and idiomatic language that matched the domesticity (as it often was) of his vision. This communicative impact has its counterpart in his ability to convey feelings through symbolism, an ability he recognised in the German romantic fantasists such as Novalis, Ludwig Tieck and Hoffmann. The Snow Queen begins when the devil's distorting mirror is shattered as it is carried to heaven, and splinters from it are blown about the world into human eyes and hearts. The splinters make those whom they pierce alienated, cynical and cold - an arresting image for the loss of feeling that accompanies certain forms of depression.
Andersen's power springs from his insight into emotions, and his ability to find imagery and narrative to dramatise them.
Andersen's earliest stories - The Tinderbox , Thumbelina and The Travelling Companion - were inspired by tales he had heard as a child, but thereafter he began to invent stories of his own such as The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid , stories that suggest traditional tales and fables because of their universal application, yet were his own creation. They were swiftly absorbed into the category of international nursery tales, where they rubbed shoulders with stories as old as Aladdin , Bluebeard and Little Red Riding Hood . While a writer such as J. K. Rowling creates new narratives by assimilating material from predecessors as different as Anthony Horowitz and Diane Wynne-Jones, Andersen's obliging crow, the wild little robber girl, the Lapland woman and the Finmark woman, and even the Snow Queen herself seem to be all his own, though children's writers have been borrowing from him ever since. The talking tiger lilies and roses in Alice Through the Looking Glass , C. S. Lewis's White Witch who carries Edmund off in her sleigh in the Narnia books, and even Philip Pullman's Lyra travelling towards the Northern Lights in search of her friend Roger, abducted by the icy-hearted Mrs Coulter, all look back to The Snow Queen .
And, as in all the best stories for children, Kay and Gerda are left at the end of The Snow Queen , safely and happily singing among the flowers on their tiny roof garden - a reminder of the pleasures of security, of being at home and of "nothing happening" after their great adventure. The joy brought by the roses on the roof garden was one of Andersen's memories from childhood, recorded in his autobiography, where he noted: "In my story of the Snow Queen, that garden still blooms."
Julia Briggs is professor of English and women's studies, De Montfort University, and author of Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life .