Enrolling the Ugly Duckling

October 26: Onthis day in 1822, seventeen-year-old Hans Christian Andersen enrolled inschool, taking his place in a second form classroom of eleven-year-olds. Asrecalled by Andersen and analyzed by his biographers, the agony of this eventand those surrounding it were to resurface later in those folk tales describingthe misfit hero, the dream of sudden transformation, the punishment/rewardanxiety which lurked at every turn of the twisting path, even the Emperor’sfear of being stripped naked in public.

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

He was fourteen, penniless, semi-literate, and with noconnections or plan other than turning his interest in acting and singing intosome sort of stage career. Three years of hand-outs and hard knocks later foundhim rejected as a singer, dancer, actor, and playwright, and ready to acceptthe help of a wealthy arts patron willing to finance his return to school. Thissecond go was eventually a success, but Andersen’s autobiographies describefive years of further torment, failure, and suicidal depression, much of itcaused by the alternating moods of care and contempt displayed by hisheadmaster, with whom he boarded.

Andersen’s diaries show that he was tormented by “nastydreams” of his school days throughout his life—of looming tests, mockinglaughter, and headmaster Meisling, “in front of whom I stood miserable andawkward.”

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.