The urges that drove the writer

While the English literature scholar Jackie Wullschlager was working on her biography of Hans Christian Andersen, she was constantly surprised at the chasm between Andersen's greatness and the little bit to be found about him in English. At the same time, she realised that Andersen's repressed homosexuality is a key to his writings.

By Else Cornelius, Berlingske Tidende - - 02 April 2002

Today, on the 197th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, Jackie Wullschlager is in Odense to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Prize, worth 50,000 Euro.  With that money (approximately DKK 375,000), she will be working to produce a new anthology of his works in a proper translation in time for the writers 200th birthday in 2005.  Such a work has been sorely missed.

Why Jackie Wullschlager in collaboration with Andersen researcher John de Mylius  was entrusted with this task should be clear to anyone who has read her big, heavy biography of Hans Christian Andersen, which comes out today from the author's own publishing house, Hans Reitzel.

The Life of a Storyteller, published in English last year, received much attention in England and the United States.

Visit with Dickens
In England, people were most absorbed, of course, by the chapter on Hans Christian Andersen's visit to his admired fellow writer, Charles Dickens.  When Andersen returned home, Dickens put up a placard at his country house in Kent:

Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks  which seemed to the family AGES.

You understand why, when you read about the visit.  Hans Christian Andersen arrived in June, planning to stay a week or two. Dickens' marriage was on the verge of collapse and he had many other things on his mind.  Mrs. Dickens ended up bearing most of the burden of the Danish guest, who spoke an almost incomprehensible English (In English, he was the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, Dickens wrote to a friend.)

At Dickens' house in the country, Andersen made paper cutouts for the children and picked flowers, but he demanded constant care and attention.  Particularly the day he received a letter containing a bad review and lay sobbing on the lawn.

In London, where Dickens also had a house, Andersen was bewildered.  One day, he complained about some acute corns that had developed in the space of a few hours.  It turned out that, from fear of being robbed by a coachman, he had put his pocket watch, his money, his timetable, his wallet, a pair of scissors, a pocket knife, a couple of books and some letters of introduction into his boots.

Whining and consolation
It would be funny, if it were not so sad.  That is how Jackie Wullschlager often felt during the years she worked on the biography.  She had plenty of evidence as to what a strange man Hans Christian Andersen was, self-absorbed and irritating, ugly and awkward, but she gradually grew more and more fond of the poor boy who struggled all his life for recognition.

It ended up being a consolation for me, she says, that his life became better and better, even though he continued to whine and complain.  Now, I am working on a biography of the painter Marc Chagall, who was driven from his country, survived the Holocaust, lost his wife, met with so many misfortunes.  The fact is that nothing really bad happened in Andersens life, except for the death of his father, when he was a boy.  He was really quite robust.  It must be a trait he got from his mother.

I am willing to bear with all his mood swings.  Andersen was neurotic, but I feel for him. He was a great hypochondriac: a thorn in his finger was a huge drama that lasted for days, but I am a bit of a hypochondriac myself and one of my daughters can also make quite a fuss about a splinter.  I see great artists as a magnification of all of us, and they are entitled to be extreme examples of humanity.  Freud was absolutely right.  It is not happy people who become great artists, Jackie Wullschlager says.

On the other hand, I am sure Andersen was nice to everyone, high or low. Of course, he was proud of being invited to meet the Queen and with his background, who wouldnt be?  But he was also kind to the servants.

However, one episode in the book is difficult to forget.  His friend Edvard Collin and his wife lost a child, and Hans Christian Andersen could only complain about not getting a letter from Edvard.  Not even a sympathetic word?

It is true.  That was the only time I thought:  Do I really like Andersen? It was terrible to see such a lack of understanding for what it meant for the parents. There, Andersen was only thinking of himself and that was pretty bad.

Jackie Wullschlager is lively and quick on the uptake.  She just turned 40 and is the mother of three children between two and eight.  Her parents are German, but she grew up in England and was educated at Oxford in English and Literature.

She became a book reviewer for the Financial Times, as soon as she received her degree, but she knew she wanted to write biographies.  In 1995, her book Inventing Wonderland about the five classic childrens' authors, Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), James Barrie (Peter Pan), A. A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh), Edward Lear (Nonsense Rhymes) and Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows) was published.

Why was it authors of childrens' books?
Because it has always interested me to find out how culture is spread throughout a population.  Why is it you only need to say the names Piglet or Tigger or Tinkerbell and everyone knows what you are referring to?  The names and ideas in childrens' books are like a common language for people who otherwise do not read books.  It was not the five male writers I loved most as a child.  I liked their books, but I was more taken by Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Edith Nesbitt's The Railway Children and especially by Johanna Spyri's Heidi.

I am reading Heidi to my girls right now and I just break down into tears. The children do not cry, but they ask questions. Great children's literature makes children think. The five authors I wrote about had in common the fact that they were revolutionaries and had imagination.

But while I was working on them, I realized that it was Hans Christian Andersen it all came from.  He was the one who started it all.  We had no children's literature, when he began to write.  He put the whole trend into motion, when he began writing fairy tales for children. The nineteenth century was a sentimental century.  Dickens wrote about many children who died, but he wrote for adult readers.  Andersen focussed on the child as a child. For him, the child is not just a would-be adult.

Research in Denmark
Jackie Wullschlager set about reading what was awailable on Hans Christian Andersen and was completely amazed, she says.  A chasm opened up between the greatness of his works and the little written about him in English.  In this country, we still know him mostly through Danny Kaye!

I only read about his ridiculous sides and his naivete and thought:  This cant be right! You cant write a fairy tale like The Shadow if you are that naviie.  I had to find out more and, when I received a grant, I went to Denmark for two months in 1997. I was very humble, because I met with researchers who had worked with Andersen all their lives.

Please, would you mind talking to me a little?  Everyone was very kind to me.  I dont think they were very optimistic about my chances.  I was a bit young. As a rule, they asked me whether I thought I could find a publisher for the book.

She had only been in Denmark for a short time when she realized that she had to learn Danish and read Hans Christian Andersen in his own language.  So, she taught herself.  She never mastered pronunciation, but she sat with a dictionary and worked her way through the mountain of texts by and about Hans Christian Andersen.

Of course, I found nothing that no one had read before Andersen research is thorough in Denmark, but I found a lot that English readers knew nothing about.  I read his diaries and his letters, which I was familiar with only from the ridiculously few excerpts in English.  I wanted to see the man from the inside. It became my most ardent desire.

Jackie Wullschlager was even more amazed, as she gradually realized that Danish Andersen research had not focused very much on Andersen's sexuality.  She believed anyone could see that Andersen's letters to the women with whom he was somewhat captivated are full of empty clich├ęs.  His letters to men, for example Edvard Collin with whom the young Andersen was deeply taken,  were very, very different.

Of course, it was made clear that the crosses he put in his diary entries meant masturbation.  I can also understand that people did not talk much about homosexuality in the past, but as late at 1990, an excerpt from his diaries was published in which everything I think is important was left out.

For me, what I can read about the 55-year old Andersen's love for the young ballet dancer Harald Scharff and the relationship they later developed provides the key to his sexuality.  All of Copenhagen talked about the two. Letters and diaries speak of their deep intimacy and closeness.  It is complete nonsense to say simply that Andersen met Scharff, who later became a very close friend. We are talking about an obsession!

But you do not go into details about their relationship either?
No, because we do not know them.  I do not think much really happened. Andersen was quite aroused, but more went on in his head than in reality.  If he had been alive today, it would have been different.  Without the enormous repression of his time, he could have declared himself to be a homosexual. Many people have asked me what would have become of him today.  He might have taken anti-depressants and been happier, but he would not have written his fairy tales.

Jackie Wullschlager grew up with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which frightened her.  She remembers best from her childhood "The Brave Tin Soldier", "The Princess and the Pea", and "The Ugly Duckling". Today, she has three other favorites:

The most monumental is The Snow Queen, which for me is a fairy tale of inconceivable greatness. It reaches an artistic level I cannot even grasp.  The Shadow is not for children, but when I read it, I cannot conceive that it was written in 1856.  It is 100 years before its time, so witty, modern, autobiographical.  And I also love The Fir Tree, which I read as a human story about not being able to live in the moment, so tragic, so funny.

I am not burdened with having struggled with Hans Christian Andersen in school.  Some people have been kind enough to say that they can tell.  I could never have written a biography of Shakespeare.  I became so tired of him at school.  Still, the nicest thing anyone has said to me was that my biography made them want to read Hans Christian Andersen again.  It makes all the years of work worthwhile, if I send people back to him.  I hope it is true.