fairy tales

Odense, Denmark: Hans Christian Andersen Museum


Compared to the blocky ’70s architecture that dominates much of Copenhagen, the part of Odense where the Hans Christian Andersen Museum is located is downright lovely, full of cobblestone streets and low, colourful old homes closely packed together.  I was a great fan of fairy tales as a child, and though my particular favourite was Hansel and Gretel (as told by my grandmother), I also loved the works of Hans Christian Andersen, so I was keen to see his museum and childhood home.  In life, he was fairly peripatetic, and when he wasn’t travelling, tended to base himself in Copenhagen.  However, Odense is where he was born into poverty, and spent the first 14 years of his life, and it is thus home to his museum.

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Admission to the museum is DKK 85, which seemed positively modest after Egeskov (although apparently, if you also visited Egeskov, you can get a discount at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and the toll bridge over from Zealand, which no one bothered to tell us, but I’ll be nice enough to give you the heads up).  The idea is that you follow footprints around the museum, which will take you chronologically through his life story.  The footprints were pretty big, so may have been based on Hans’ actual feet.

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The opening gallery offered a brief overview of Danish and world history during Andersen’s lifetime, which covered most of the 19th century (and the gallery dwelt a fair bit on the American Civil War).  After reading physical descriptions of Andersen given by his contemporaries, which were downright mean, and examining some of his clothes, we progressed into a temporary exhibition about his failures in love.  I was already beginning to feel quite sorry for Hans, what with everyone mocking his big nose and gawky frame (I can certainly relate to the former problem), and the unrequited love gallery only served to intensify my pity.

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In addition to two failed relationships with women in his youth (where each professed love, but ran off to marry another man), Andersen was infatuated in his later years with Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale.  I’d heard of Lind before, as I’ve read quite a bit about PT Barnum and the various acts who worked for him (he hired her to perform concerts in his museum), but I wasn’t aware of her relationship with Andersen.  Apparently, after he declared his love, she publicly announced that she thought of him as a brother.  Kind of harsh, Jenny.  Andersen also had a close friendship with a man (probably platonic, but maybe something more), but even that went awry when the other man refused to let Andersen address him as “du” instead of “de.” As far as I could tell, this is somewhat akin to the use of tu over vous in French, where tu would denote a closer relationship than vous, but the “du” relationship in Danish is even more intimate.  According to the museum, the main problem with Andersen was not so much his looks as his lack of prospects and poor income when he was a young man.  Andersen’s paper cuttings in this section attest to his mood at the time, one of them depicting lovers hanged from a love noose.

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We next carried on through an attractive rotunda full of mosaic scenes on Andersen’s life, and then to the biographical gallery that surrounds it.  Here, I learned more about his childhood with a cobbler father who died young and an alcoholic mother, and how he moved to Copenhagen on the strength of his singing voice.  After his voice broke, he turned to acting, and then ultimately, to writing, surviving some pretty horrible experiences along the way, like an abusive schoolmaster, who was also his landlord, and having to attend school in his 20s with a bunch of children, as he was too poor to receive a proper education as a child.  This section also talked more about his writing and adult life, right up until his death from liver cancer, which was all surprisingly interesting, though the museum did assume a working knowledge of most of his fairy tales on the part of the visitor (fair enough I suppose, as why else would you want to visit it in the first place?).  My favourite objects in all of this were the aforementioned paper cuttings, which he was incredibly skilled at, and frequently included in notes to friends.

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It was then time to head into the replica of his childhood home, which is inside a small yellow cottage that you pass on your way into the museum (I believe his actual childhood home is several blocks away, though I’m actually quite confused about this.  His home is listed as a separate museum with its own admission fee, but inside the replica, there was a plaque saying Andersen was born in that room, so I have no idea what was going on).  It was full of tools and simple furniture, as would befit the family of a cobbler.  Back in the museum, there was a re-creation of Andersen’s sitting room in Copenhagen, which was much nicer and packed with Victorian knickknacks.

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When I saw a sign directing me downstairs to the Cabinet of Curiosities, I HAD to venture in.  It was primarily a collection of Andersen’s possessions, ranging from his shaving set and hat to a rope he carried everywhere with him in case he had to escape from a fire via a hotel room window.  Now, that’s the kind of paranoia I can relate to!  Like Jane Carlyle, and pretty much every other Victorian with time on their hands, Andersen also made a decoupage screen, which was displayed here.  I really must take up decoupaging one of these days…

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Throughout the museum, we found anecdotes from people who knew him, most of which were pretty harsh.  Dickens hated him after Andersen came for a month-long visit, and one of Dickens’ daughters referred to him “that bony bore.” Someone else remarked that he was almost impossible to shave in his latter years as he’d lost all his teeth, and his mouth never stopped making chewing motions.  I just spent the whole time feeling sorrier and sorrier for Andersen, though I guess at least children liked him, which is probably more than I’ve got going for myself.

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The museum also housed a library full of his titles published in over a hundred different languages, many of which I’d never even heard of (the languages, that is).  The final hallway held a collection of illustrations to his fairy tales done by modern artists, some of which were quite good, though I was disappointed no one had tried their hand at the dog with eyes as big as tea cups (or the dog with eyes as big as towers, for that matter!).

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Aside from his fairy tales, and that terribly inaccurate film from the 1950s (with Danny Kaye,”I’m Hans Christian Andersen, Andersen that’s who,” which I still get stuck in my head now and again), I didn’t know much about Hans Christian Andersen prior to visiting his museum. I have to admit that I didn’t go in expecting much, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality, and definitely recommend it to anyone passing through Odense.  I’m glad I got the chance to learn about Andersen’s fascinating life, as I now see him as a very sympathetic character who even seemed to share some of my quirks (which will perhaps give a new dimension to his fairy tales). 4.5/5