Everything Ends Up in The Rubbish

The conventional view that all fairy tales end ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t hold true even for traditional tales – there are, for instance, Cinderella stories with unhappy endings. In the case of the Danish master of the literary fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen, many of his tales end bleakly and the last line of his last tale Auntie Toothache is, ‘Everything ends up in the rubbish.’

Where do Andersen’s persistent themes of grief, shame, and disillusion come from? Neil Philip makes some suggestions.

To say that H. C. Andersen was not happy in his skin understates the extent of his inner misery, which is shown throughout his diaries, but sanitised in his self-serving autobiography, ‘The Fairy Tale of My Life’. It is in his fairy tales that Andersen tells the true story of his inner life.

If Andersen had read A Divine Looking-Glass by the Muggletonian prophet John Reeve, he would have had great fellow-feeling with the exclamation, ‘O that I had never been born, or that I had been a toad, or any other created being, but a man.’ Andersen had imagined himself as a toad, a duckling, and every kind of inanimate object from a darning needle to a teapot. And almost all these self-incarnations are infused with melancholy—like the Steadfast Tin Soldier, whose paint is worn away, ‘whether from the hardships of his journey or the bitterness of his grief, no one could tell.’

Anyone who has stood in the tiny one-room apartment where he lived with his parents, which was also his father’s cobbler’s workshop, understands the extreme and desperate poverty of Andersen’s upbringing. Images of his pauper childhood flicker through the opening scenes of his jagged masterpiece The Snow Queen. The horror of his washerwoman mother’s alcoholism sears through the little-known story She Was No Good, in which he depicts her standing knee-deep in the freezing river for hours, sustained only by swigs from her bottle. ‘It’s the washerwoman,’ the mayor says. ‘Drunk again! She’s no good. It’s a shame for that lad of hers. I feel sorry for him—his mother is no good.’

Andersen certainly felt that ‘shame’ keenly. He was also bitterly ashamed of his half-sister Karen Marie, who worked as a Copenhagen prostitute, distancing himself from her by calling her ‘my mother’s daughter’. He took his revenge in his most merciless story, The Red Shoes, in which a girl named Karen is punished for her sinful delight in her new shoes by being made to dance till she begs for her feet to be cut off.

Andersen was merciless to himself too, to his vanity, his ridiculous hyper-sensitivity. In the story where he imagines himself as a snail, the snail says, ‘I spit at the world. It’s no good!’ And the last paragraph is simply, ‘Shall we read this story all over again? It’ll never be different.’

But there is more to Andersen’s story than poverty and social shame. Something deeply-hidden and corrosive, something that demands to be both expressed and concealed, in a way for which the indirect, allusive symbolism of the fairy tale is perfectly designed.

In 1835 Andersen published an adult novel, The Improvisatore, a thinly-disguised Bildungsroman set in Italy. He said of it, ‘Every single character is taken from real life, each one, not a single one is made up. I know and have known them all.’

This declaration takes a sinister turn when one reads the book, especially the second chapter. In this, the young Antonio is lured by painter Federigo into a dark cave, in which they become lost. Federigo praises him and gives him money and cakes, then threatens to beat him when he is frightened. ‘Then he […] kissed me vehemently, called me his dear little Antonio.’ In the midst of a passionate clasp, Antonio finds the string which will enable the pair to escape from the cave.

The next passage is the key one. ‘I quite forgot all that had happened; but my mother could not forget it, when she had heard it, and would not again consent that Federigo should take me out with him.’

It’s fairly clear that Antonio, and therefore Andersen, was molested as a small child. Alison Prince in her biography Hans Christian Andersen: The Fan Dancer,

identifies the culprit as the

schoolteacher Fedder Carstens, ‘both for the similarity of the name and for the fact that the affectionate schoolmaster disappeared so abruptly from Odense when Andersen had been in his care for a few months, apparently never to teach again.’

IIlustration by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 – 1859) for The Red Shoes 12 Books for Keeps No.241 March 2020

Other biographers completely ignore this troubling episode in The Improvisatore, but I agree with Prince that it is one of the keys to understanding Andersen’s conflicted sexuality and neurotic personality.

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