Tomorrow, 2nd April, marks the birthday of one of our most famous children’s writers, Hans Christian Andersen. Without him, you may well never have heard of characters such as The Little Mermaid or tales such as The Emperor’s New Clothes. The chances are he will have made some kind of an impression on your childhood, then. But where did he come from?
Hans was born in 1805, in Odense, Denmark. His father died in 1816, when he was only 11 years old, and, although his mother wasn’t wealthy, she sent her only child to be educated at boarding school.
Only three years later, Hans moved to Copenhagen to find work as an actor. He returned to school after a short time, supported by a patron named Jonas Collin, who encouraged Hans to write. However, this urge to write stories was discouraged by his teachers.
It was 1829 before Andersen’s writing first gained recognition, when his short story A Journey on Foot from Holmen’s Canal to the East Point of Amager, was published. He followed this tale with the publication of a play, a collection of poetry and a travelogue. Having impressed the King of Denmark, Hans won a royal grant which allowed him to travel across Europe and further develop his work. A novel based on his time in Italy, The Improvisatore, was published in 1835. It was after he’d written this that Hans Christian Andersen first began to write fairy tales.
Andersen continued to write for both adults and children over the next ten years, but it was his adult novels, such as O.T. and Only a Fiddler that became favourites, not his fairy tales.
It wasn’t until 1845, when Andersen’s now-classic stories, such as aforementioned The Little Mermaid, were translated into English that they began to gain the attention of foreign audiences. Hans’s work increased in popularity further due to his friendship with novelist Charles Dickens, whom he visited in England in 1847 and again in 1857, and by 1860 his fairy tales had become English-language classics, destined to have a strong influence on later British children’s authors, including A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter.
It took some time before his native Scandinavian audiences discovered his stories, but once they had, the word spread, and Andersen’s work gained readers in the United States, Asia and the rest of the world.
In 1872 Hans was seriously injured after falling from his bed in Copenhagen. Soon after his accident, Andersen’s final publication, a collection of stories, was released. However, later that year, Andersen developed liver cancer, which was to take his life in 1875.
Having finally recognised the brilliance of Hans Christian Andersen’s life and work, the Danish government began commemorating his life and work just before his death, declaring him a “national treasure.”
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.