Hans Christian Andersen

Posted: January 8, 2016 in Chat

There is in the tales of Hans Christian Andersen a very short tale, called Heartache. The Danish title is Hjertesorg. In other translations it has other related titles, such as The Great Grief for instance.

The story itself is barely a page and a half in length.
The narrator addresses the reader as part of a company throughout: ‘we have a story for you’. There is a name for this usage, but I wish to keep this post friendly, accessible; an open invitation for all to reread Hans Christian Andersen’s work.
The story the narrator tells is in two parts; indeed, he says, the first part can be left out altogether.
He relates the two parts together, though.

Whilst staying at a grand house a lady arrived one day, with her small dog. She was wanting to sell shares in her tannery.
She was asked to write her request down, as the house’s owner was away. The narrator asked her to address her request to…  and he read her the title. She asked him to repeat it while she wrote, then asked again for a repeat because she said “I’m only a woman!” The title was indeed , long-winded: General War Commissary, Knight etc.
Her little dog, Moppsie, we are told, died.

The second part of the tale saw the narrator and company staying in the town at an inn. Their window overlooked the tannery. Moppsie the dog had died, and children were burying it in their tannery yard, in a spot away from the skins, hides, equipment. The lady was a widow, and those were her grandchildren.
They had made such an elaborate grave that they invited other children in to view it. Each was charged entry fee of one trouser button. On the road outside the yard a young poor girl wept – she had no buttons, so could not gain entry. She so wanted to view the grave. She wept with ‘the kind of heartache that usually is experienced only by adults.’
The narrator watched all this from above. He said: ‘How many a grief of our own and of others can make us smile.’ Then the last line, a cracker: ‘That’s the story, and whoever doesn’t understand it should go buy a share in the widow’s tannery.’

A simple, sentimental story?
The centre of the story is the tannery. People of the tannery create something wonderful (out of filth comes forth … ) then charge for viewing. This is business, industry, in the raw. The next linkage we see is between that something wonderful and the street girl. The time spent on her description, her curls, pretty face, the gentle feelings  she inspires, connect with the marvel that the grandchildren made. This linkage is essential to the meaning, it gives us the aesthetic dimension. That the street girl is the most legitimate recipient of the marvel is pointed up here. Then to deny her this is, to the Romantic idealist, the chief sin of an uncaring world.

Like all ’s Hans Christian Andersen’s writing it is all in the telling. One of his greatest innovations was to write orally, as the storyteller speaks. Of course, in King Christian VIII’s locked-down Denmark, this was just not on. His time was one of classicism, and only classicism. It took years and years for Hans Christian Andersen to win the recognition at home that he was given everywhere else.

As an orally written piece the tale depends a lot on tone of voice, phrasing, audience recognition of motifs from his earlier work, from society, from the times. He can put in what looks like a throw-away line on the page, and in a reading it can take on sudden implications.
What are we to make of the story?
The tale has so many switch-backs: are we to empathise with the girl on the street? The narrator spends a lot of time on her. Then what of that penultimate line, the smiling at misfortunes?
We read this in light of his earlier depictions of the plights and fates of street children.
The far majority of Hans Christian Andersen’s street tales were written in the plush surroundings of big houses. It was as though he needed that distance, or that his surroundings acted on his never absent sense of undeservingness.
There is always a degree of his own autobiography in his tales, more so in these street tales.

He grew up in the large but left-behind town of Odense. His mother was illiterate, his father a poor tailor. He died early. As did his step father. His mother worked to keep them alive as a washer-woman. That was not a scullery occupation, but  open air all winter and summer. It was also at times a river occupation. Winter, and summer.
She took to gin to keep herself going.  Like the Little Match Girl, she had had to sell on the street  as a child – she could not return home until all were sold. If she had, she would have been beaten.
Hans Christian Andersen has a tale, She Was Good for Nothing, based on this theme of the drinking woman who died without her story being told, recognised or appreciated.

He left home aged fourteen, alone, and moved to Copenhagen, to make his name. It is significant that at fourteen alone in a city he was at no time accosted, abused, raped or mugged. Not that he was unaware of these sorts of things. He constantly wrote how cruel other children could be; and how thoughtless to the point of malicious, adults.
Those first three years were terrible, full of knock-backs, mockery and being ignored.
Poverty at that time was a locked-in relentless round. That Hans Christian Andersen, with hardly anything going for him beyond his own self-belief…  could break through and out of this, was nothing short of stupendous. Others had managed it, but they were few, and once they recognised one another, stuck together. No one else could possibly understand what they had gone through; certainly no one in the upper class worlds.

Hans Christian Andersen constantly juggled his public persona, carefully and painstakingly nurtured; his personal story; and his nature. He took great pains to foster connections with wealthy families; but could never fit in. Poverty leaves its mark on one – forever.
He wrote in his diary around the time of the story, ‘Tears  came into my eyes, I thought that I , the poor shoemaker and washerwoman’s son, was being kissed by the Czar of Russia’s grandson. How the extremes are meeting.’
His great Danish friends, the Collins family ‘…understood at last Andersen’s fame… regretted that (they) had ever been less than respectful to him.'(Hans Christian Andersen, The Story of a Storyteller, Jackie Wullschlager)

Another of his innovations was the depiction of the real-life living conditions of the poor in Denmark.
It was this Hans Christian Andersen also recognised in Dickens, and why he clung to him as ‘some one who could understand’. Dickens, in true English manner, that is, generous to a fault, ahem, was appalled at H C A overstaying his welcome; at his need for attention.

This story, Heartache, was part of the sudden writing fervor after 1853. That date is significant. Denmark had just been through the catastrophic wars with Prussia over Schleswig-Holstein. The 1848 tumult had shaken Europe. H C A’s patriotic commitments were torn apart by these: his reception in Germany was his greatest achievement at that time, whilst that of Denmark was lacklustre.
And then King Christian VIII died. The King has been generous to him; he depended on the royal stipend.
Denmark began to open up, censorship was relaxed. And the plight of the common man became more and more the topic of the time.

From this time Hans Christian Andersen’s writing changed; he phased out the magical elements as stark realism came to the fore, but ameliorated by the telling, as in this tale.

Many people have had problems with The Little Match Girl – that he presents a seemingly calm and forensic picture to the reader of a dead beggar girl on the street. And so as we see here: what do we smile at when he invites us to, in that penultimate line?
Ourselves. Our own sense of grandiosity.
Hans Christian Andersen was adept at flipping the focus on a phrase, half a line. He often whipped away the scene presented – he had an excellent  pictorial eye – only to show there was a mirror there all the time. Think of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Also, is he suggesting, that human nature being what it is, there will always be that little beggar girl on the street? Always the unrelenting round of poverty in the world?

How well do you know the world?
Think about that inn overlooking the tannery. The stench; the seething maggots. And in an urban centre, too.
Think of that ‘I am only a woman!’ and then think of the gender divide, of the education divide; think of the chasm of expectations between men and women, and its implications for issues of equality, for all social intercourse. Andersen was acutely aware of these levels and sub-levels of the social scale.
And think of how death was so much a part of daily life, there. That a grave could be so decorated, and that therefore all would want to come. To do what? Pay homage? No, but just to view it. This is children not understanding why adults visit graves, and thinking it to do with their decorativeness. This is how well Hans Christian Andersen could articulate the child’ s world, and not by explaining, judging, but by presenting it to us it in action.

There is the characteristic Hans Christian Andersen humour here too. The boys paid with trouser buttons, and so went around thereafter with their braces half-fastened. No doubt their parents would have had something to say about that also.

This is Hans Christian Andersen’s greatest strength, that he could look on the most heart-breaking realities, ‘The Great Grief’s, and present them to us. His attempts at engaging the more uplifting parts of our natures required the magical elements, the fairy tale elements.
He does not explain, nor excuse, in his stories. In his public life he clung to decency and good manners, respect. In his shadow life he dragged Denmark into the modern world.
It is significant that from 1853 he titled his collections Historier, stories, rather than the earlier Eventyr, tales. He made the shift from children’s tales emphatic by this.
He would revive the tales again, but deepened.

And so, with that last line: do we now ‘understand’ his story? Can we read it as fully as he wanted us to? Or are we still buying those shares?


Is it possible that there was implied criticism in his last statement of the story?
The tannery shares were presented to the owner of the grand house the narrator was staying in. Did this make the grand house owner implicated in the continuation of social deprivation? Or at least in the artistic impoverishment of ordinary people?
Hans Christian Andersen was a constant guest and had found much support for his work among the grand house owners. Many were his patrons over time, a bit wrong-footed at times, but….
Even so, his experience of the neglect and dismissal of his work in Denmark among the literati and those dependent upon the  literati for guidance, had been long and relentless.
Was this also a critique of capitalism in its infancy, as he found it in his wide travels throughout Europe?

I do not myself believe these; these themes were the vehicles for exploring his own, closer to home issues.
I am sure that he played with this ideas, though, in such formats as these tales and stories.
Yes, I can have it both ways.

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