The story of Hans Christian Andersen's life begins in Odense, capital of Fyn, an island of central Denmark, where he was born on April 2, 1805. Hans lives with his mother, Anne Marie, and his father, a young but disgruntled shoemaker also named Hans, in a one room home in the poorest part of town. Although they are poor, Anne Marie fills her humble home with love, and young Hans knows a joy there never paralleled later in life. After his father dies prematurely and his mother remarries, Hans, age fourteen, sets off alone to seek fame in the theater in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Copenhagen remains Hans's home until his death, yet he travels to Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Turkey, England, and America.
Denmark is portrayed in this book as a somewhat magical land, pastoral and practical: a country where castles and cobbled streets coexist with good schools and factories that "make beautiful things china, silverware, glass." The Danish people are courteous, cooperative, peace-loving, and playful; they are also fiercely proud to be of Viking descent.
Perhaps no other aspect of the Danish landscape, though, has influenced more imaginative expression from Norse mythology to Andersen's tales and beyond than the haunting, eerie quality of Denmark's never-dark summer nights. This twilight habitat fairies, trolls, and spirits seems a likely place to meet a muse, or spawn a story. It is, as Godden says, "fitting that the most...
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The outstanding quality of this book is that it is both comprehensive and brief. The tone is conversational though not colloquial, and the story is engaging. Godden frames her biography with Andersen's own words, and she further augments her narrative with carefully selected excerpts from his tales and poetry. Her writing style is marked by rhythmic, lyrical prose rich in images that transport the reader instantly to another time and place. Because Godden was herself a practiced writer of fiction for children when she undertook this biography, she shares a sensibility with her subject: a deep appreciation for acts of imagination and the cognitive capabilities of the young. Readers of all ages will find Hans Christian Andersen: A Great Life in Brief both entertaining and informative.
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In Hans Christian Andersen: A Great Life in Brief, Godden captures poignantly the affection Hans feels for his native land as well as his arduous struggle to win the reciprocal affection of his fellow Danes. Godden does not romanticize Hans's childhood or the plight of the poor in general, nor does she overstate Hans's achievements. She is, at all times, mindful of Hans's manic-depressive nature, and she leaves the distinction between his pathology and genius deliberately blurred. An undercurrent throughout this book is Godden's tacit approval of the cooperative spirit of the Danes. Their unwavering support for education and the arts is matter-of-fact and laudable. Hans's own character exemplifies the virtue of this policy: even when fortune befalls him, he lives simply and does not become avaricious, always taking what he needs and no more. Godden's appreciation for the social sensitivity implicit in Andersen's own work is evident. Conflicts in Andersen's tales are often between the established society and its outcasts—a story Hans knew only too well.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Consider how Anne Marie's decision to let Hans leave home at age fourteen may have been either wise or foolish. What would you do if you were in her position? Why?
2. Hans Andersen has often been compared to the ugly duckling in his tale by the same name. Why is this comparison appropriate?
3. Andersen claimed that he did not write his tales just for children. What qualities of his works make them so well known and beloved by people of all ages?
4. Hans is a lonely child. Why? How might this childhood isolation have fueled his desire for fame?
5. The Collin family is described as "smug" and more limited in vision than Hans. Why do they adopt him if they believe he deludes himself with visions of grandeur?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Denmark is both benevolent and severe with Hans. Find incidents in Godden's book to support this statement.
2. Hans's father is an unsuccessful shoemaker and dies at a young age. Godden suggests that he may have died, in part, from a "broken spirit." How are Hans and his father similar? Why do their lives take different directions?
3. Prophecy, superstition, and folklore play a role in Hans Andersen's life. The wise woman who predicts his success is but one example. What other prophecies, superstitions, or folk stories influence Hans's life and work? How so?
4. Hans can be hypersensitive at times, as when a critic's unkind words provoke a flood of tears. Other times he is immune to the reactions of people, as illustrated by his persistent belief that his legacy will be his novels and plays, not his tales. What illustrations does Godden use to underscore Hans's emotional ambivalence? Are mental illness and genius reconciled in this text? Discuss.
5. Denmark's "never-dark summer nights" are cited as a source of literary inspiration. Why is this so? What other authors can you find who are somehow indebted to this natural phenomenon?
6. Discuss the significance of the quotation Godden uses to close this book. Why is it relevant? How does this relate to the fact that more people visit Andersen's birthplace than his grave?
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For Further Reference
Commager, H. S. "Among the World- Seekers and World-Forsakers." New York Times (February 13, 1955): 3. A review of Hans Christian Andersen: A Great Life in Brief.
Fisher, Emma, and Justin Wintle. "Rumer Godden." In The Pied Pipers. New York: Paddington Press, 1975. A critical account of Godden's life, work, and beliefs about writing.
Godden, Rumer, and Jon Godden. Two Under the Indian Sun. New York: Knopf, 1966. An autobiographical reminiscence of early childhood in India.
Moore, Anne Carroll. 'The Three Owls Notebook. "Horn Book 31 (April 1955): 103. A laudatory review of Hans Christian Andersen: A Great Life in Brief.
Wheeler, Opal. Hans Andersen: Son of Denmark. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1951. A biography written for younger readers, ages 8-14.
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