Children’s authors are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – the people who inform us at an early age how the world ought to be. Of these, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen is among the most important and original.
Fewer now read his stories than see the Disney bowdlerisations of The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina and, most recently, The Snow Queen. But phrases such as ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ and ‘the ugly duckling’ have long passed into common currency as powerful concepts of self-delusion and self-transformation. To the British reader, Andersen’s intensity, originality, seriousness and intellectual prowess may come as a shock. He continues to inspire contemporary authors – most recently Sally Gardner, whose Tinder (based on ‘The Tinderbox’) was one of the fictional highlights of last year. Yet his trick of animating the inanimate was echoed by Dickens and Scott Fitzgerald and, as this biography shows, he has a claim on adults’ attention too.
Andersen the man is often misconstrued as a distinctly comical figure. His disastrous five-week stay as an agonisingly obtuse guest of the Dickens family has passed into literary anecdote and even became the subject of a play, Andersen’s English,