Enrolling the Ugly Duckling

October 26: On this day in 1822, seventeen-year-old Hans Christian Andersen enrolled in school, taking his place in a second form classroom of eleven-year-olds. As recalled by Andersen and analyzed by his biographers, the agony of this event and those surrounding it were to resurface later in those folk tales describing the misfit hero, the dream of sudden transformation, the punishment/reward anxiety which lurked at every turn of the twisting path, even the Emperor's fear of being stripped naked in public.

 

Andersen was born in the slums of Odense, Denmark, and his parents were too poor and protective to provide their only child with much education. He did spend some time in school, but he was odd-looking and a loner, interested mostly in reading stories and sewing clothes for the characters in his toy theater. When his father died in 1816, Andersen dropped out of school entirely with the idea of earning money or learning a trade. All efforts at these goals having ended in failure or humiliation—a group of men at one factory where Andersen worked not only teased him about his effeminacy but pulled down his pants to check his sex—he headed to Copenhagen.

 

He was fourteen, penniless, semi-literate, and with no connections or plan other than turning his interest in acting and singing into some sort of stage career. Three years of hand-outs and hard knocks later found him rejected as a singer, dancer, actor, and playwright, and ready to accept the help of a wealthy arts patron willing to finance his return to school. This second go was eventually a success, but Andersen's autobiographies describe five years of further torment, failure, and suicidal depression, much of it caused by the alternating moods of care and contempt displayed by his headmaster, with whom he boarded.

 

Andersen's diaries show that he was tormented by "nasty dreams" of his school days throughout his life—of looming tests, mocking laughter, and headmaster Meisling, "in front of whom I stood miserable and awkward."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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