Immediately after writing The Improvisatore, Andersen wrote his first fairy tales, as if putting this childhood experience down on paper, even in a guarded way, had freed his imagination. He wrote to Henriette Wulff, ‘I have also written some fairy tales for children, and Ørsted says that if The Improvisatore will make me famous, the fairy tales will make me immortal.’

One of the fairy tales that would come to make Anderson immortal is The Ugly Duckling, in which the unhappy title character turns out to have been a majestic swan all along. The moral is, ‘It’s no wonder you don’t feel at home in the farmyard, if you’ve been hatched from a swan’s egg.’ The Bell concerns a ‘king’s son’ and a ‘poor boy’ who separately search for a mystical bell in the forest. Despite their different paths, they achieve transcendence at the same moment.

Both of these tales play with a childhood fantasy of Andersen’s. He told his earliest friend, at Fedder Carsten’s school, that he was ‘a changed child of high birth.’

Two Danish authors, Jens Jørgensen and Rolf Dorset, have argued that in Hans Christian Andersen’s case this was literally true, and that he was the illegitimate son of Crown Prince Christian Frederik and Countess Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, whose affair started in 1804. This isn’t quite as barmy as it sounds. Farming out aristocratic by-blows to poor couples was common in Denmark, Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig’s father Count Ahlefeldt left 99 illegitimate children in Langeland alone. Hans Christian’s father was a servant on the Ahlefedlt estate; his mother a servant with a family with close links to Broholm Castle, where Elise’s baby was rumoured to have been born.

Throughout his life Andersen benefitted from significant financial and other support from royal funds and noble patrons, at a time when there was very little social mobility. In his earliest unpublished autobiography, Levnedsbog, Andersen describes how, when Crown Prince Christian Frederik moved to Odense Castle in 1816, he was often taken by his mother to play with Prince Frits, his putative half-brother. And even stranger than that the misfit child of an alcoholic washerwoman should be chosen as a prince’s playmate,

when the vain social-climbing Andersen rewrote his autobiography for publication, he omitted all mention of this. Yet he and Frits were close. When Frits was king, he treated Andersen like an old friend, loving to hear him tell fairy tales, and asking him, ‘How can you think up all these things? How does it all come to you? Have you got it all inside your head?’ When Frits died, Andersen was the only non- family member allowed to visit the king’s body in its coffin.

Andersen was plunged into a year of gloom at the death of Frits’s father King Christian VIII. His closest confidant Henriette Wulff wrote to him, ‘You have discovered that you are that prince’s child we talked about the other day, and you are feeling it too much! But I wish you wouldn’t, because if you were descended from all the world’s kings, I could not be any more fond of you.’

‘You are that prince’s child…’ Could it be true? It seems Hans Christian Andersen himself came to believe it. His diary entry for 3 January 1875, the last year of his life, contains a bone-dry joke. Noting how many letters he has received, he writes, ‘One has my name and address: King Christian the Ninth.’

Neil Philip is a writer and folklorist. illustration by Theo van Hoytema (1863 - 1917) for The Ugly Duckling Books for Keeps No.241 March 2020 13

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