Hans Christian Andersen was born in the slums of Odense. His father, Hans Andersen, was a poor shoemaker and literate, who believed he was of aristocratic origin. Andersen's mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter, worked as washerwoman. Although she was uneducated and superstitious, she opened for his son the world of folklore. Later Andersen depicted her in his novels and in the story 'Hun duede ikke'. Anne Marie declined into alcoholism and died in 1833 in a charitable old people's home. Andersen's half-sister Karen Marie may have worked as a prostitute for a time; she contacted her famous brother only a few times before dying in 1846.
Andersen received little education. As a child he was highly emotional, suffering all kinds of fears and humiliations because of his tallness and effeminate interests. Andersen's hysterical attacks of cramps were falsely diagnosed as epileptic fits. Encouraged by his parents he composed his own fairy tales and arrange puppet theatre shows. His father loved literatuire and took Andersen often to the playhouse. "My father gratified me in all my wishes," wrote Andersen in The True Story of My Life (1846). "I possessed his whole heart; he lived for me. On Sundays, he made me perspective glasses, theatres, and pictures which could be changed; he read to me from Holberg's plays and the Arabian Tales; it was only in such moments as these that I can remember to have seen him really cheerful, for he never felt himself happy in his life and as a handicrafts-man."
In 1816 his father died and Andersen was forced to go to work. He was for a short time apprenticed to a weaver and tailor, and he also worked at a tobacco factory. Once his trousers were pulled down when other workers suspected that he was a girl. At the age of 14 Andersen moved to Copenhagen to start a career as a singer, dancer or an actor - he had a beautiful soprano voice. The following three years were full of hardships although he found supporters who paved his way to the theatre. Andersen succeeded in becoming associated with the Royal Theater, but he had to leave it when his voice began to change. When he was casually referred as a poet it changed his plans: "It went through me, body and soul, and tears filled my eyes. I knew that, from this very moment, my mind was awake to writing and poetry." He then began to write plays, all of which were rejected.
In 1822 Jonas Collin, one of the directors of the Royal Theatre and an influential government official, gave Andersen a grant to enter the grammar school at Slagelse. He lived in the home of the school headmaster Meisling, who was annoyed at the oversensitive student and tried to harden his character. Other pupils were much younger, 11-year-olds, among whom six years older Andersen was definitely overgrown. His appearance drew also unvanted attention - he had a long nose and close-set eyes.
Collin arranged in 1827 a private tuition for Andersen. He gained admission to Copenhagen University, where he completed his education. In 1828 Andersen wrote a travel sketch, Fodreise fra Holmens Kanal Til Østpynten af Amager, a fantastic tale in the style of the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Children's and Household Tales had appeared between 1812 and 1815, but they were based on original folktales. Andersen's poem 'The Dying Child', was published in a Copenhagen journal and the Royal Theatre produced in 1829 his musical drama. PHANTASIER OG SKISSER, a collection of poems, was born when Andersen fell in love with Riborg Voigt, who was secretly engaged to the local chemist's son. "She has a lovely, pious face, quite child-like, but her eyes looker clever and thoughtful, they were brown and very vivid," Andersen remembered in The Book of My Life. Riborg married the chemists's son, Poul Bøving, in 1831. A leather pouch containing a letter from Riborg was found round Andersen's neck when he died. Also Edvard, Jonas Collin's son, and Henrik Stempe in the 1840s were for Andersen other objects of unfulfilled dreams.
"I do wish that I were dead," Andersen said to one of his friends in 1831, expressing not his feelings about his failed love for Riborg but also echoing the melancholy of Goethe's Werther from The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Andersen never met Goethe, who was still alive when Andersen made his first journey to Germany. The visit inspired the first of his many travel sketches. From 1831 onwards he travelled widely in Europe, and remained a passionate traveller all his life. Andersen wrote sketches about Sweden, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and the Middle East. During his journeys Andersen met in Paris among others Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Balzac, and Alexandre Dumas. A Poet's Day Dreams (1853) Andersen dedicated to Charles Dickens, whom he met in London in 1847. And in Rome he met the young Norwegian writer Björnson.
As a novelist Andersen made his breakthrough with The Improvisatore (1835), using Italy as the setting. The story was autobiographical and depicted a poor boy's integration into society, an Ugly Duckling theme of self-discovery in which Andersen returned in several of his works. The book gained international success and during his life it remained the most widely read of all his works. E.B. Browning wrote warmly to her future husband of the novel and her last poem was written for Andersen in 1861, shortly before her death. Only a Fiddler (1837), Andersen's novel, was attacked by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his book Af En endnu Levendes Papirer (1838, From the Papers of a Person Still Alive, Published Against his Will). "The joyless struggle that is Andersen's in real life now repeats itself in his writing," he wrote. Kierkegaard, the 'Ugly Duckling' of Danish philosophy, used a number of pseudonyms, none of whom 'agreed' with one another. A little later, Andersen took his revenge with the play En Comedie i det Grønne (1840), which included an unpractical philosopher.
Andersen's fame rests on his Fairy Tales and Stories, written between 1835 and 1872. Tales, Told for Children, appeared in a small, cheap booklet in 1835. In this and following early collections, which were published in every Christmas, Andersen returned to the stories which he had heard as a child, but gradually he started to create his own tales. The third volume, published in 1837, contained 'The Little Mermaid' and 'The Emperor's New Clothes.' Among Andersen's other best known tales are 'Little Ugly Duckling,' 'The Tinderbox,' 'Little Claus and Big Claus,' 'Princess and the Pea,' 'The Snow Queen,' The Nightingale,' and 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier.' With these collections, inspired by the great tradition of the Arabian Nights on the other hand, and Household Tales, collected by the brothers Grimm, Andersen became known as the father of the modern fairytale. Moreover, Andersen's works were original. Only 12 of his 156 know fairy stories drew on folktales.
Andersen broke new ground in both style and content, and employed the idioms and constructions of spoken language in a way that was new in Danish writing. When fairy tales at his time were didactic, he brought into them ambiguity. Children and misfits often speak truth; they serve as Andersen's mouthpiece in moral questions: ""But he has nothing on at all," said a little child at last. "Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child," said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. "But he has nothing on at all," cried at last the whole people. That made a deep impression upon the emperor, for it seemed to him that they were right; but he thought to himself, "Now I must bear up to the end." And the chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they carried train which did not exist." (from 'The Emperor's New Suit,' 1837) Ugliness of the hero or heroine often conceals great beauty, which is revealed after misfortunes. In psychoanalysis this kind of figure is sometimes interpreted as a symbol of the inner self of soul, which has to be released from its prison.
Andersen's identification with the unfortunate and outcast made his tales very compelling. Some of Andersen's tales revealed an optimistic belief in the triumph of the good, among them 'The Snow Queen' and 'Little Ugly Duckling', and some ended unhappily, like 'The Little Match Girl.' In 'The Little Mermaid' the author expressed a longing for ordinary life - he never had such. In the story the youngest of six mermaid precesses longs after the land above the sea, but the fulfillment of the dream causes her much pain. "She knew this was the last evening she would ever see him for whom she had forsaken her kindred and her home, given up her lovely voice, and daily suffered unending torment - and he had no idea of it. This was the last night she would breathe the same air as he, or look upon the deep sea and the starry blue sky; an everlasting night without thoughts or dreams waited her, for she had no soul and could not gain one." (trans. L.W. Kingsland) Andersen's tales were translated throughout Europe, with four editions appearing in the UK in 1846 alone. His works influenced among others Charles Dickens ('A Christmas Carol in Prose,' 'The Chimes,' 'The Cricket on the Hearth.' 'The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain'), Willam Thackeray and Oscar Wilde ('The Happy Prince,' 'The Nightingale and the Rose,' 'The Fisherman and His Soul'), C.S. Lewis, Isak Dinesen, P.O. Enquist, whose play, Rainsnakes, was about Andersen, Cees Noteboom, and a number of other writers. Elias Bredsdorff has complained in his book Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work (1975), that Andersen's tales have been bowdlerized and sweetened by Victorian British translators.
Andersen's last unfilled love was the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, whom he met first time in 1840. Jenny was the illegitimate daughter of a schoolmistress. According to her own words, she was at the age of nine "a small, ugly, broad-nosed, shy, gauche, altogether undergrown girl". At eighteen, she had made her breakthrough as a singer with her powerful soprano. 'The Ugly Duckling' become Jenny's favorite among Andersen's stories. However, 'Andersen's 'The Nightingale' is considered a tribute to Jenny, or "the Swedish Nightingale" as she was called. "Farewell," she wrote him in 1844, "God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny." Andersen never married.
Between the years 1840 and 1857 Andersen made journeys throughout Europa, Asia Minor, and Africa, recording his impressions and adventures in a number of travel books. He wrote and rewrote his memoirs, The Fairy Tale of My Life, but the standard edition is generally considered the 1855 edition. During his travels abroad, Andersen was able to be more relaxed and take more liberties than in Copenhagen, where everybody knew him. At the age of sixty-two Andersen went to Paris, where he visited a brothel - it was not his first visit or last. "Then went suddenly up into a meat market - one of them was covered with powder; a second, common; a third, quite the lady. I talked with her, paid twelve francs and left, without having sinned in deed, though I dare say I did in my thoughts. She asked me to come back, said I was indeed very innocent for a man." (from Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager, 2001) Andersen died in his home in Rolighed on August 4, 1875. Edvard Collin and his wife were later buried with Andersen. However, their family members moved the Collins' bodies after some years to the family plot in another cemetery.