Wednesday, September 07, 2005

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN exhibition at the British Library

I was supposed to be reading John Gardner’s highly recommended THE ART OF FICTION with its unnecessary subtitle NOTES ON CRAFT FOR YOUNG WRITERS in a crowded British Library yesterday but I couldn’t concentrate. So instead I wandered around the place until I accidentally came upon their exhibition on Hans Christian Andersen.

Paper sculpture has always fascinated me and here was an enormous paper swan, tens of metres long hovering over the exhibition with wings outstretched, suspended by fine cords - the whole structure articulated and moving slightly in the currents of air as people passed by. Underneath this magnificent bird was the story of Hans Christian Andersen laid out in pictures and editions of his books and paper cuts. There is a guide to the exhibition which sounds interesting but didn’t see, and the PDF format text of this - 'Hans Christian Andersen by Jackie Wullschlager' can be downloaded from here.

Like many of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, the story of the Ugly Duckling was autobiographical. He came from a poor family who lived in one room in Odense, Denmark. One day an old woman told the young boy’s future. She said that one day his fame would be such that the city would be lit brightly in his honour and he said that his small family were much cheered by the prospect. Eventually Odense did light up for Hans Christian Anderson but that was only after many years of suffering. When Hans was just twelve his beloved father died, and when he was fourteen he left his despised alcoholic mother in Odense for Copenhagen to try and become a performer on the stage.

It is the small details that are the most poignant. He seems to have been of uncertain or ambiguous sexuality and when offered support by a wealthy family fell in love with both the young son and daughter of his patron. This was unrequited in both cases. When, years later, the ugly duckling asked the brother if he could use the familiar term of address that young swan refused. Social class seems to have been as important to the Danes then as it was to the British. He felt an outsider all of his life, unappreciated by his homeland, and with a compulsion to travel.

He told and retold his life in his fairy stories which were sold first as stories for children before becoming popular with adults too. Some were retelling of traditional tales and others were new - but all seem to have a special poignancy. Those lanterns in Odense must have seemed like a proclamation that the poor son of their city had at last become a beautiful swan - but I wonder if Hans Christian Andersen had ever believed that he was.


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