Hans Christian Andersen
The Life of a Storyteller
By Jackie Wullschlager
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780679455080, 512pp.)
Publication Date: April 24, 2001
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Others before him collected and retold folk stories and fairy tales, but Hans Christian Andersen was the first to create them himself. The universal familiarity of such stories as “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” shows how successful he was. By the time he reached middle age in the 1840s, in fact, he was probably the most famous writer in Europe, on familiar terms with kings and princes and eagerly read by a huge audience.
Yet the image of Andersen that has come down to us—that of the amiable, childlike storyteller—is bitterly at odds with the reality. In this groundbreaking biography, the first serious and comprehensive study of Andersen and his work to be undertaken in English, Jackie Wullschlager brings out the true nature of his life. Born the son of a dirt-poor cobbler and an illiterate washerwoman in a provincial Danish city, he indeed fought his way to fame in spite of his circumstances. But if his rise was astonishing, it was rarely happy. Lonely, sexually confused, vain, anxious and hypochondriacal, Andersen was driven by ambitions that, despite the power and brilliance of his work, prevented his ever being satisfied. A signal achievement of Wullschlager’s account is to show with great clarity how Andersen’s art—darker and more diverse than previously recognized—emerged directly from the complexities of his life.
Jackie Wullschlager has returned to all the original sources in Danish and German, and has followed Andersen’s footsteps across Europe. Her evocation of his world—Golden Age Copenhagen, the princely courts of Germany and the country villas of the Danish aristocracy, the languid warmth of southern Italy, which released his creativity—is unforgettable. She has recovered censored passages from his letters and journals that make plain how his deepest personal relationships, though often frustrated, were with other men. In her words, Andersen emerges in all his fascinating, cross-grained charm and gawkishness, his desperation and his occasional joy, as a writer—and a man—quite unlike any other.
Jackie Wullschlager is a literary critic and European arts correspondent for the Financial Times. Her biography of Victorian and Edwardian children’s writers, Inventing Wonderland, was published to acclaim in 1996. She lives in London with her husband and three small children.
"In my view it is the best book ever written about Hans Christian Andersen. If someone had asked me a couple of months ago which biography of Andersen was the best I would immodestly have said my own work, but today I would answer that the best book is the one written by Jackie Wullschlager. Not only is is a fuller and more comprehensive biography, but it is the first book ever to place Andersen in a contemporary European tradition and to measure him with a European yardstick." —Elias Bredsdorff, Emeritus Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Cambridge
"[T]his spring, Knopf will publish a biography by Jackie Wullschlager, a writer for the London Financial Times, which may add to the few reliable studies available in English, the most notable of which is Elias Bredsdorff's . . ." —Diana and Jeffrey Frank, The New Yorker
"Finely documented and insightful . . . Jackie Wullschlager's account . . . is a delight . . . her work gives off a classic sparkle. It will bring joy . . . "
-George Steiner, Observer
"Splendid . . . authoritative . . . gracefully written [and] meticulously referenced . . . will encourage many readers to revisit an author who undoubtedly deserves serious critical attention."
-Christina Hardyment, Financial Times
"Intensively researched and elegantly written."
-Humphrey Carpenter, Sunday Times
"Deals brilliantly with the whole man."
-Melanie McDonagh, Daily Telegraph
"Told with thoroughness and sympathy . . . [a life] as peculiar, fascinating and painful as any of his celebrated fairy tales."
-Rosemary Ashton, Sunday Telegraph
"An extraordinarily accomplished biography, both intellectually rigorous and emotionally wise . . . fascinating . . . Wullschlager wears her learning lightly but still we are left feeling we are in the hands of an expert guide."
-Kathryn Hughes, Literary Review