Sunday, 2 November 2008
Bibliotherapy: What to read when you feel shut out in the cold
The sad story of ‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen might seem like a perverse recommendation as the temperature drops and heating bills soar; for this is the tale of a child who freezes to death on a winter’s night, after trying to warm herself by lighting matches.
But as is often the case with Anderson, the tale is a subtle one, written as much for an adult audience as children. Like much of his best-known work, it reflects his own unhappy past, and his continuing sense of himself as an ungainly outsider – The Ugly Duckling or The Little Mermaid – locked out from human warmth and love. The only son of a cobbler and a washerwoman, he grew up isolated and bullied in a provincial Danish town. At 14, he set off for Copenhagen, hoping to make a new life for himself; once there, he was as starving and freezing as the Little Match Girl.
His imagination was to be the saving of him, the spark that set alight his story-telling; just like his heroine, who sees marvellous scenes in the tiny flames of the matches that no one would buy from her – a roast goose that walks, a Christmas tree with a thousand candles, rising up into the stars. When she dies, born aloft by her spirit of her dead grandmother to the radiance of heaven, the Little Match Girl escapes a cruel and heartless world: “No one knew what beauty she had seen…”
The world did come to recognise Andersen, yet for all his fame and riches, he remained uncertain of his place within it; and his awkwardness made him unwelcome. “He was certainly something of an ‘oddity’,” recalled Henry Dickens, the novelist’s son, after Andersen had come to stay during a trip to England, “so much so that the small boys of the family rather laughed at him behind his back.” Charles Dickens never wrote to him again, and the invitation was not repeated (the visit ‘seemed to the family AGES,’ said Dickens). So Hans Christian Andersen returned to Copenhagen, where he continued to tell his stories of ice and snow, still seeking to warm cold hearts.