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.

12 comments:

Moannie said...

The Little Match Girl was one of my favourite stories as a child and I agree, had Hans Christian not had such an unhappy childhood his stories would have been so different.
I wonder...would I have enjoyed it less had I known then that he was expressing his own demons?

Sarah said...

Dear Justine,

Sorry this comment isn't directly related to your post, but I was trying to figure out a way of contacting you and this seemed the best option... I am a first year PhD student (much like the protagonist of Daphne, but without the cold husband!) about to give a paper comparing A.S.Byatt's Possession and Daphne. The focus is on 'literary evidence' and I am most interested in your research at Exeter University, which I used to attend for my undergraduate degree. It would be great to ask you further questions - if you could contact me on my email addres or leave a message here - my email is orlando_lives@hotmail.com

Thank you and all best wishes,
Sarah

Justine Picardie said...

Moannie, thanks for your comment. I didn't know about Andersen's childhood when I first read his stories -- way back when, in my own childhood -- and they had a powerful impact on me. But as an adult, having learnt more about his background, the stories remain just as resonant for me; and there's something so intriguing about the overlap between his fiction and his biography (even though I'm aware that's dangerous territory).
Sarah, I'm happy to answer questions, and will email you...

oxford-reader said...

Surprisingly I've never read any of Anderson's tales - although quite a few of them seem to have been ingrained on my psyche from an early age. I've got a copy of his biography which I've been meaning to read for ages, so perhaps I should read that alongside his tales...?

Lou said...

I love the story of The Little Match Girl,Justine.My twelve year old daughter was in a ballet performance of the story.It was beautiful and mesmerising.My daughter had two roles.The first one was as a pudding that the little match girl sees in one of her visions.The second one was as an angel that guides the Little Match Girl to heaven to be reunited with her grandmother.The whole audience was in tears.It is such a sad story.

Gondal-girl said...

There is a really good chapter or section in Women who run with the Wolves, a Jungian interpretation of this story, about replenishing the creative spirit. Sounds new agey, but is really quite good and helps to explain the strange effect this story has on women, moving in an explicable way

Justine Picardie said...

Gondal girl -- that makes sense, because the story is about creativity, I think -- about breaking free of a cold and heartless world, and taking flight.
Lou -- how lovely that you daughter was both a pudding and an angel. That is so sweet...
Oxford Reader -- which biography do you have? There's one by Jackie W [can't spell surname] that's supposed to be good. I've got a lovely edition of the stories with Andersen's original paper illustrations.

oxford-reader said...

The one I have is written by Allison Prince and is called 'The Fan Dancer'. I wonder if Folio has a collection of his stories?

Primrose said...

I loved Hans Christian Anderson as a child and still have my much treasure big white edition of his tales with all my childish drawings and the wonderful spooky, morbid illustrations which used to fascinate me! My favourite story of his was always, 'The Little Mermaid' which was so unbearably sad but so beautiful. Even as a child, I appreciated him for his lack of fear when it came to death. I think there is a good essay on him from memory on The Endicott Studio website which is run by Terri Windling.
Such a sad, complex, fascinating man! I think we can all relate to his outsider feelings at times!

Justine Picardie said...

Primrose -- thanks for your comment. I have read that essay you mention, and like you say, it's a very interesting one. And I'm also fascinated by the Little Mermaid -- I wrote about it in my previous book, "My Mother's Wedding Dress". I might post a bit of that on the blog later today...

diana said...

Dear Justine, this has nothing to do with your blog, but is a 'thank you' from those of us who live and work in Corfu. Your Telegraph article comletely captured the Corfu we know and love, unlike one in the Sunday Times (forgotten her name) which portrays it as a Greek version of Rock in Cornwall, perish the thought.
Anyway thanks, you definitely set people right with your article.
Diana Giannoulis, Susan Daltas, Sarah Prifti and Helga Bouter, Corfuhomefinders
Corfu

Justine Picardie said...

Diana -- thank you so much, what a lovely message. I'm a huge fan of Corfu -- have been ever since I read Lawrence Durrell's 'Prospero's Cell' and Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals". I'm really hoping to return to Corfu next summer, but if the Euro continues to soar against the pound, that might be difficult. Anyway, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Where do you live on the island?