Ugly duckling

Hans Christian Andersen: the life of a storyteller

Jackie Wullschlager <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin

Hans Christian Andersen was obsessed with the story of his own life. In a series of autobiographies, published every decade from the age of 27, Andersen recounted his remarkable ascent from the uneducated son of a shoemaker and washerwoman to the esteemed friend of princes and Dickens's equal. It was a transformation reminiscent of one of his own fairy tales.

Yet, despite this obsessive need to explain himself, Andersen remains misunderstood: much of his writing was a projection of the man he wanted to be, and later accounts of his life have been inadequate and sentimental. Using letters, diaries and previously untranslated contemporary accounts, Jackie Wullschlager has written a meticulous and entertaining account of this compulsive storyteller, for whom the self was perhaps the greatest invention.

Born in 1805 in one of the poorest parts of Odense, Denmark's second city, Andersen was, from an early age, one of literature's first great self-promoters. Convinced that he was destined for immortality, he travelled alone to Copenhagen when he was just 14, introducing himself to upper-middle-class households, where his ambition and determination overcame the somewhat ridiculous figure he cut in his efforts to secure patronage first as a singer, dancer and actor, then as a writer. Ever the tireless publicist, he embarked on a lifelong grand tour of Europe and became one of the most famous figures of his age.

Wullschlager argues astutely that Andersen was in the right place at the right time. The increasing importance of the artist; Romanticism's idealisation of the child; Dickens's influence in broadening literary horizons - all created the perfect environment for his combination of fantasy, comedy and art. It seemed that fate opened the way for him in each country. Andersen was always quick to capitalise on his good fortune.

A prolific author who wrote novels, poems, plays, memoirs and travel books, he eventually found the miniature format that best suited his talents. One of Wullschlager's main achievements is to make clear the extent of Andersen's legacy: unlike his predecessors - the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Charles Perrault in France - Andersen was not content to collect folklore, but insisted on creating new fairy tales. He was the first to turn them into an inventive and revealing art form; the first to write in a direct, colloquial language; the first to balance humour with the grotesque in a modernist style that appealed to both adults and children. Wullschlager recreates the excitement with which each new volume of tales was welcomed by a readership that had always associated literature for children with instruction rather than enjoyment - no mean feat in an age where Andersen's stories are part of the collective consciousness, and where the imaginative flights of Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter are taken for granted.

This expansive biography is a fine portrait of Andersen. It illuminates his work and offers perceptive sketches of those who surrounded him: the famous singer Jenny Lind, with whom he fell instantly in love; Charles Dickens, whose friendship he pushed too far; and the royal families of Europe, with whom he successfully ingratiated himself. Yet Andersen was invariably disappointed or used by the women and, in particular, the men to whom he became attached. For all his assiduous socialising, he remained the archetypal outsider, forever his own ugly duckling. Mocked in his home country, sexually frustrated, lonely, continually craving approval, he spent his life caught between the artistic radicalism of his stories and the socially comfortable bourgeoisie into which he had clawed his way.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image