Wednesday Book: Lies and loves of an ugly duckling

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FICTION WRITTEN by children's writers often stretches into accounts of their lives as well. AA Milne and Enid Blyton were both far more remote as parents than could ever be guessed from their writing, and WE Johns, creator of that ace pilot Biggles, later developed a fear of flying.

Hans Christian Andersen is another whose public image was at odds with private reality. A rich man for the last half of his life, he was nevertheless sent money by young American admirers appalled at the impression of poverty he continued to give through his habitual meanness and complaining. Nor was he quite the unfailing friend of children he was cracked up to be. His statue, funded by public subscription, was originally to show Andersen reading to a crowd of eager young admirers. He angrily vetoed the idea: he would "never read aloud if anyone was sitting behind me or leaning up towards me, and even less so if I had children sitting on my lap or my back, or a young Copenhagen boy leaning between my legs".

Alison Prince, in this well researched and readable biography, believes that the particular objection to the young Copenhagen boy derived from Andersen's sensitivity about his rumoured homosexuality. She subtitles her study "The Fan Dancer", seeing him as someone who liked to show off while also keeping his most closely guarded secrets to himself. But although he was always deeply in love with his best friend, Edvard Collin, there is no indication of any physical relationship.

Confused himself, and confusing to others, Andersen seems to have spent his sexually active years masturbating to the extent of doing himself an injury - so proving that those 19th-century medical blasts about the dangers of unrestrained self-abuse occasionally had a point. There were also visits to brothels, where the exceptionally tall, long-nosed and odd-looking author passed the time merely talking to the young women he met.

Prince believes that some of this ambiguity was the result of sexual abuse in childhood. There is no hard evidence for this, or for her more sustained claim that Andersen was an illegitimate son of the Danish Crown Prince, put out to foster parents as a baby (very much as in a fairy tale). This is not a new theory, but it here offers more distraction than illumination. It is just as convincing to explain Andersen's genius, in terms of his childhood, as an unusual, effeminate, possibly dyslexic, almost autistic child, loved to bits by his parents and with the knowledge that he had something great to offer.

His struggle for recognition continued through his life, turning him into an inveterate snob on his travels from one great house to another in search of the approval he so needed. The sense of loneliness, depression and cruelty in his tales all had echoes in his childhood.

His mad grandfather, decked in green like Ophelia, was the butt of the village boys. Terrible schooldays, where Andersen was the chief target of a sadistic teacher, were alleviated only by incongruous treats, such as a class visit to a public execution in 1825. There, he saw three young adults decapitated. The next moment, some superstitious parents hustled "their half-paralysed son, the victim of a stroke, up to the scaffold and forced him to drink a bowlful of blood that ran from their bodies".

At a time when other collections of fairy tales extolled the virtues of self-reliance and ingenuity exemplified by the successful hero or, less often, heroine, Andersen sounded a different note. He spoke of blighted hopes, loss and melancholy. His great story, "The Ugly Duckling", is interpreted by Prince as in allegory about a homosexual who finds nothing in common with surrounding male society. It could also be read as a story about anyone who does not fit in, for whatever reason. Most children know about this experience at some stage. Andersen put young readers in touch with their despair.

This message was usually balanced by passages of great good humour, and there are other scenes in his stories where a general yearning for perfection finds - for a short time - its ultimate realisation. Even so, Andersen was far more a Buster Keaton than the Danny Kaye who appears in the dreadful film about him. Yet it is still difficult not to feel for this lachrymose, self-pitying but ultimately decent man, trapped in a ridiculous body while producing the best fairy tales ever written by one person.