The Little Prince
Hans Christian Andersen won literary immortality with his stories of an outcast boy made good. But were his timeless fairytales thinly veiled parables of his own life as the illegitimate son of a future king? Hans Christian Andersen spent most of 1848 feeling sorry for himself. It was not an unusual state for this hypersensitive hypochondriac, with his conflicted sexuality and his tortured awareness of his own genius. He had been flung into a gloom that January by the death of King Christian VIII of Denmark, “whom I loved unspeakably”, and had been unable to shake himself out of the depression.
His closest confidante, Henriette Wulff, sent him a letter on November 18 to try to cheer him up. “You have discovered that you are that prince’s child we talked about the other day,” she wrote, “and you are feeling it too much! But I wish you wouldn’t, because if you were descended from all the world’s kings, I could not be any more fond of you.”
“You have discovered that you are that prince’s child . . .” What does she mean? Is it a private joke, or a reference to a story? Or an inexplicable aberration, like the time in 1830 when Bishop Blok wrote to Andersen as “Your Majesty”? The whole world knows that Hans Christian Andersen was the son of a poor shoemaker and a washerwoman, who through his own efforts and the kindness of strangers raised himself from the gutter to become a great poet.
Andersen himself called this rags-to-riches story “the fairytale of my life”. But fairytale characters are not always what they seem. At the end of Adam Oehlenschläger’s play Aladdin, a favourite of Andersen’s, it turns out that Aladdin is not the son of a poor tailor, but instead the son of an emir. Andersen’s childish imagination cast himself in the same scenario; he was, he told his first schoolfriend, a switched child of noble birth.
It is not an uncommon fantasy; just the sort of thing to expect from a solitary and dreamy boy such as Hans Christian Andersen. But in Andersen’s case it is just possible that behind the consoling fantasy lies the naked truth.
Rumours about Andersen’s true parentage have swirled around Denmark for a century or more. The most persistent, championed in books published there by Jens Jørgensen and Rolf Dorset, is that he was the illegitimate son of Countess Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig by Crown Prince Christian Frederik, the future King Christian VIII. If true, it was not just Andersen’s king who died that January, but also his father.
Many Andersen experts dismiss this theory as preposterous. It relies on circumstantial evidence, gossip and guesswork. Royal patronage does not prove royal parentage, and without a DNA test it remains pure supposition. But it does raise some intriguing questions about the accepted “fairytale” of Andersen’s life.
Prince Christian Frederik and Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig's love affair was ignited in the summer of 1804. Gossip spoke of a baby, and even of a clandestine marriage, forbidden by the king. In 1807 Elise had a second child, Adolphine, who in old age claimed that Christian Frederik was her father.
Andersen was born in 1805. At this time, Denmark was still an absolute monarchy. Society was rigidly stratified, and there was little social mobility. A few managed, by hard work or exceptional talent, to climb the social ladder. One such was Andersen’s friend, the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. But a pauper boy stood little chance of escaping his class. As the heedless aristocratic children say in his story Kids’ Talk (given a sprightly new translation in the Franks ’ The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen): “Those people whose names end with sen, they can never, ever become anything in the world!”
Andersen’s father, Hans Andersen, who died when the boy was 11, was a shoemaker with few or no clients. His mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter, was an alcoholic washerwoman. His aunt ran a brothel in Copenhagen; his half-sister Karen Marie (always referred to as “my mother’s daughter”) was probably also a prostitute. Yet the young Hans Christian was coddled like a nobleman’s child.
His family, despite having few sources of income, wanted for nothing. There was no pressure on the boy to work. In fact, before the days of free universal education, he was sent to school. His mother even felt able to insist on an extraordinary proviso: in no circumstance was the boy to be beaten. When a teacher forgot this and birched him, Hans Christian was withdrawn and sent to another establishment.
In those days, corporal punishment, ranging from the birch to a clip around the ear, was the rule for all pupils save the children of royalty and the upper nobility — and Hans Christian Andersen. At his grammar school in Slagelse the same rule applied. His Latin master, Mr Snitker, was so frustrated by it that he kept his own son Georg handy, so that he could thwack him whenever Andersen made a mistake. “He is my own flesh and blood, so I am allowed to punish him.”
Andersen was miserable at Slagelse. He was dyslexic, his basic education was woefully deficient, and he was six years older than his fellow pupils. Worse, he was forbidden to write stories, plays or poetry. He was convinced that Simon Meisling, the principal, was trying “to destroy my soul”. Andersen had been sent to school after three wasted years spent hanging around the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Nobody seems to have seriously thought he showed great promise as a singer, dancer, actor or writer. Nevertheless he was indulged and financially maintained by a number of high-born people with close relations to the royal family.
The general view of Andersen in these years was that he was a figure of fun. The aim of sending him to school was not to fulfil his artistic ambition but to stamp it out. But why should this gawky boy, with his hopelessly misdirected enthusiasms, have seemed a suitable candidate to turn from a guttersnipe into a gentleman? His fees — twice those paid for other pupils — came directly from a royal fund. The Crown Princess sent him pocket money; all kinds of important people, most notably the State Councillor Jonas Collin, kept a careful eye on him. Andersen was to become Denmark’s greatest writer, the supreme master of the literary fairytale, but few would have predicted it then. They were more likely to agree with Simon Meisling’s furious description of his lanky pupil: “an insufferable skittle, a mad person, a stupid numskull!”
Could it be that Andersen really was the Crown Prince’s son? Contemporary rumour and oral tradition have it that such a child existed, and was given “into the hands of good people”. Was Andersen foisted on Hans and Anne Marie to raise as their own, like the unwanted baby in Andersen’s story Anne Lisbeth, who is given to the ditch digger’s wife because she asks the smallest payment?
Anne Marie and Hans had been married in St Knud’s Church two months before Andersen’s birth. She was in her late thirties, and already had one illegitimate daughter, who was raised by her parents; Hans was 22. Both were servants — Hans on the estate of the Ahlefeldt-Laurvigs, and Anne Marie with a family closely tied to Broholm Castle, where Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig’s baby is said to have been born.
The boy lived a life of extraordinary social isolation. But the young Hans Christian nevertheless received favourable attention from some of the Odense gentry, who had been asked by Rural Dean Gutfeldt (called by Andersen “my benefactor”) to keep their eyes on “a certain little boy”.
In 1816 the Crown Prince and his family moved to Odense Castle, as Christian Frederik had been made governor of Funen. In his early memoirs, privately written for a friend, Andersen describes how his mother used to take him to play at the castle with Prince Frits (later King Frederik VII), who was three years his junior. This pauper boy had no playmates on the street; only a royal prince in a castle.
When Andersen came to write his autobiography for publication he made no mention of this story, an odd omission for someone as vain as he was. But the closeness with Frits continued into adulthood. After he became king, Frits treated Hans Christian as an old friend. He liked to hear Andersen tell his fairytales, and once asked him: “How can you think up all these things? How does it all come to you? Have you got it all inside your head?” When Frits died, Andersen was the only non-family member allowed a private visit to the king’s body in its coffin.
Andersen looks back on this unlikely childhood friendship in one of his most finely crafted fairytales, The Bell, which is included in Tiina Nunnally’s meticulous translation of 30 of his best stories, Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales. The story tells of two boys who search for the source of a great bell that sounds through the forest. One is a pauper, the other is a king’s son. Although they take different routes, one in sunshine and one in shadow, in the end they arrive at the same place and embrace like brothers: “The two boys ran to each other and held hands in the great cathedral of nature and poetry. Above them rang the invisible sacred bell, and blessed spirits hovered and danced around them to a jubilant ‘Hallelujah!’ ”
If it is true that Andersen himself had come to believe that he was the older son of King Christian VIII, the story becomes a parable of destiny in which both boys represent Andersen himself. If he were a king’s son or a pauper, it did not matter, for he would still achieve his goal.
It is possible that, despite his relentless hobnobbing with royalty, Andersen even felt some relief to have been allotted the role of the poor boy rather than the king’s son. His diary records a meeting with King Maximilian II of Bavaria in 1851: “I sat alone with the king on a bench. He spoke about everything God had given me, about the fates of men, and I said I would not like to be a king, it was such a great responsibility, I would be incapable of fulfilling the task; he said that God must give one power, and through him one did what one was capable of.”
The Bell was written in 1842. Prince Christian Frederik had become King Christian VIII in 1839, and it may be that Andersen was subsequently made aware of his true parentage. He was certainly from this time included in the intimate circle of the royal family. For instance, in 1844 he was invited to join them for a 12-day holiday on the island of Føhr; a fellow guest was the king’s illegitimate daughter, Franziska Enger, known as Fanny. She was born at Castle Ludwigslust in Schleswig four months after Andersen, and given away to a castle servant to raise.
Another of Andersen’s best-known stories, The Ugly Duckling, dates from this same period. It is usually seen as a fable of a disadvantaged child overcoming all obstacles to rise from obscurity to fame. But read in the context of the king’s-son theory, the tale’s conclusion has a slightly different ring. It becomes a story about an adopted child who rejects and is rejected by his adoptive milieu, but finds true happiness when he meets his own kind, the “regal” swans. Its moral is simple: It’s no wonder you don’t feel at home in the duckyard if you’ve been hatched from a swan’s egg.
Andersen was first formally introduced to Christian Frederik, his putative father, at Odense Castle in 1819. Advised to tell the prince that he wanted to go to the grammar school, Andersen blurted out that he longed to be a singer or a dancer. The answer did not please the prince.
In 1832, when Andersen had been published but had not yet made his name, Christian Frederik sought out Anne Marie Andersdatter in the almshouse where she was spending her last years in an alcoholic haze, especially to tell her that Hans Christian was a credit to her.
Elise Ahlefeldt-Laurvig lived out her life in Germany. Although they shared a passionate interest in the theatre, music, and literature, it does not seem that Hans Christian Andersen ever met her. In his later years he was once seen picking up a picture and sighing, “If only you were still alive”; it was a portrait of Elise.
Andersen’s cagey diaries are little help in solving the mystery of his parentage. But on January 3, 1875, the last year of his life, he does allow himself one bone-dry joke. Noting how many letters he has received asking for autographs, he writes: “One has my name and address: King Christian the Ninth.”
It does not really matter; whoever his parents were, Andersen remains one of literature’s great originals. And as the old baroness says in his 1848 novel The Two Baronesses: “We are all of one piece — all made from the same clod of earth; one came in a newspaper wrapping, another in gold paper, but the clod should not be proud of that. There is nobility in every class; but it lies in the mind, not in the blood, for we are also of one blood, whatever they may say.”
Read here about Hans Christian Andersen's other body of work: paper cuttings...
Hans Christian Andersen