Hans Christian Andersen, Original Literary Softboi
Bookish Ambition! Awkward Gentleness! Goth Sexiness! He Had It All
The year is 1819 and a lonely teenage boy is making his way by coach to the city of Copenhagen. From the top of a high hill its moats and ramparts glitter in the morning sunlight like a fairy-tale palace. Although the stench of refuse is thick, the boy isn’t bothered by it. He has only ten rixdollars in his pocket but harbors a quiet ambition to make his name among the city’s aristocratic families. More than that—a longing he hasn’t put into words yet—he wishes to be remembered forever. Hans Christian Andersen—14 years old, friendless, virtually penniless—wishes to become immortal.
Circumstances are not in his favor. Born of a peasant family, he has only a rudimentary education. At present, his only discernible talent is an angelic singing voice, which he hopes will attract the attention of a wealthy patron. Yet in the way of all fairy-tale heroes he has something else, too, something inherited from his mother, a hardy, barely literate woman who drinks schnapps and tells stories of trolls and ghosts, and from his late father, a dreamy, impractical soul who read to him from One Thousand and One Nights: a love of all things fantastical, an imagination peopled with mermaids and jinn and magic carpets.
As Andersen descends the hill into the city, near the spot where they will one day erect a statue in his honor, he’s no longer mindful of the obstacles in front of him. Like Aladdin, with whom he feels an intense affinity, he is descending into a cave of wonders.
Andersen would go on to win the immortality he was so desperately seeking, though only up to a point. The rough edges of his stories—at their best they are eerie and disturbing, full of hallucinatory imagery and suppressed longings—have been smoothed over in the popular imagination by a century of retellings, and Danny Kaye’s performance in the 1952 musical bearing his name cemented his image as a whimsical teller of tales, distracting children with song and dance.
But Andersen is due for a reassessment. The true story of his life—his incurable social awkwardness; his passionate, unrequited longings for both men and women; his casual defiance of gender norms; his prickly, sensitive and (to his contemporaries) often insufferable personality—make him a figure of continuing relevance. The world needs this Andersen: the Romantic, lonely striver, effeminate and shy, defender of the humanities and friend of the marginalized.If Andersen’s effeminacy feels strikingly modern, his sexuality feels even more so.
In his memoirs Andersen tells of a childhood flirtation with a Jewish girl, Sara. Wanting to impress her, he explained that he secretly came from a noble family and would one day inherit a castle. He offered her a job there as a dairy maid. Indignant, Sara told her other friends, “He’s mad, just like his grandfather.”
The story is peak Andersen: the accidental rudeness, the fairy-tale embellishments, a certain cluelessness in love, the sting of rejection—traits that would recur throughout his life, for Andersen retained a touch of childish naiveté even in adulthood which annoyed some and endeared him to others. (English writer Elizabeth Rigby described him as “a long, thin, fleshless, boneless man”—fleshless and boneless!—“bending and wriggling like a lizard with a lantern-jawed, cadaverous appearance.”) Something of his personality seems to have seeped into Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts films—lank, sensitive, foppish, more at home in the company of women than men, averse to conflict, a lover of animals, forever on the brink of tears.
As a boy Andersen was more than once mistaken for a girl—he was beaten up for it—and routinely referred to himself as womanly or “woman-soft” in private correspondence. He never forgave the stern schoolteacher who accused him of being effeminate and forbade him from writing fiction. His sensitivity to injury concealed a vindictive edge—decades later he was still writing stories in which villainous figures try to prevent children from reading fairy-tales—but Andersen’s empathy and complete lack of concern with conforming to conventional gender norms is refreshing now, in a world littered with red-pilled grifters and toxic pick-up artists peddling flimsy or violent ideals of masculinity.
If Andersen’s effeminacy feels strikingly modern, his sexuality feels even more so. Like Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, and some other queer writers of that era, he developed powerful romantic attachments that were never returned with the same intensity, expressed his affections through long, florid letters, was compromised by his intense shyness and inability to pass as normal in his culture, and was ultimately disappointed in love. Andersen never married, though it isn’t clear whether he really wanted to. He was committed to his vocation above all else and seemed to relish the emotional high of an unrequited attraction; on the rare occasions when a crush surprised him by returning his affections, he took pains to talk them out of it. Andersen lived for his crushes; in his prime he often nursed two at once, toward a man and a woman, both of whom were usually safely inaccessible. What he seemed to crave more than sex was the ecstatic spark of a passionate kinship between someone of like mind.
It may have been this platonic intellectual kinship that Andersen was seeking when he famously visited Charles Dickens at Gad’s Hill in 1857, a stay of five weeks which the Dickens family experienced as a prolonged torture: Andersen, oblivious to the marital tensions—Dickens was preparing to leave his wife in favor of a young actress—spent the trip histrionically weeping on the front lawn, overcome with both joy and grief, and making whimsical paper cutouts for the entertainment of the younger children. Dickens has generally come off as more sympathetic than Andersen in this episode, though not entirely: as a sophisticated, powerful, socially adept man of the world, Dickens was accustomed to using charm and flattery to put other people at ease. When he disingenuously welcomed Andersen to stay as long as he liked, Andersen naively took him at his word.
The extended visit irretrievably ruined Andersen’s friendship with Dickens, who eventually stopped responding to his letters. Overly trusting, perpetually overwhelmed, gifted with a Romantic’s sense of the world’s horror and beauty, Andersen was tremendously flawed, but even those flaws had a way of working to his credit. Certain critics have noted the postmodern flavor of his later fairy-tales, but Andersen himself seems uniquely modern in a way that many of his contemporaries, more willing to adhere to the social conventions of their time, no longer do. Messy, depressive, nakedly emotional, and sweetly clueless, he’s both reassuringly relatable and deeply sympathetic. The exquisite sensitivity he embodied is a powerful antidote to the coarseness and cruelty that, more and more, seem to be infecting our public life.