[This is the first of three edited and updated excerpts from an essay entitled "Hans Christian Andersen and the Victorians," which appeared in translation in Literature, Culture and History in Victorian England: A Festschrift for Professor Matsumura (Tokyo: Eiho-sha, 1999. 68-89).]

Towards the end of the twentieth century, critical theorists unexpectedly trained their sights on Victorian children's literature. The fiction of the so-called golden age seemed particularly vulnerable to deconstruction. Peter Pan, for example, was found to be "one of the most fragmented and troubled works in the history of children's fiction to date" (Rose 10). Other targets were The Water Babies, lambasted for "constantly contradicting its own premises" (Nelson 151), and Alice in Wonderland, exposed as a repository of "bitter exasperation" and "failed magic" (Kincaid 294-5). Hans Christian Andersen's whimsical and bitter-sweet tales, once seen to herald a new dawn of fantasy for children, did not escape either. Humphrey Carpenter, for example, claimed that Andersen's "particular form of introspection does not seem to have struck a chord in the British literary imagination" (4). Speaking more bluntly, a later critic found the Danish writer's work to be the product of a "boastful, anxious, vain, demanding, sulky, weepy, and accusatory" personality, and full of "sentimental religiosity" (Goldthwaite 64).

Left: Homage to Hans Christian Andersen from the 1857 Punch. Two twentieth-century illustrations of Andersen's stories by Honor Appleton — Middle: The swallow flew up high into the air. Right: Early in the morning a peasant came that way.

At first sight, Carpenter's claim seems preposterous. After all, W. M. Thackeray once wrote to a correspondent: "And Hans Xtian Andersen have you read him? I am wild about him having only just discovered that delightful delicate fanciful creature" (Letters 2: 263). Charles Dickens's friendship with Andersen is better known — as is his eventual exasperation with his Danish guest for overstaying his welcome. In the same year as this visit (1857), and almost exactly ten years after that enraptured comment by Thackeray, a cartoon captioned "Homage to Hans Christian Andersen" appeared in Punch along with a letter purporting to come from a "Young Lady" called Nelly: "We love him for his betiful stores do you know the tinder box and tommelise and charley like the wild Swans best but I Hope you will Excuse bad riting." The misspelt and ungrammatical tongue-in-cheek message, referring to one of Andersen's earliest and most diminutive heroines (Tommelise, or Thumbelina) clearly satirised a craze which was still current. Such was Andersen's popularity that when G. K. Chesterton looked back more seriously and respectfully over the author's work in 1916 he expressed almost the opposite sentiment to Carpenter's, maintaining that Andersen's stories were so popular as to have "become English" (342).

Yet Carpenter, a fine critic of children's literature, with no particular theoretical axe to grind, was absolutely right. Just as the Dane's self-absorbed personality palled on Dickens, so it did on his adult audience in England generally. In the last few decades of the nineteenth century his work was, as his principal biographer Elias Bredsdorff admits, more or less consigned to the nursery (Hans Christian Andersen 9). Now only those adults with a particular interest in fairy tales, like Oscar Wilde, or a particular capacity for wide-eyed wonder, like Chesterton, were still inclined to read him. Why should this have happened? The clue here lies in Chesterton's wording. Andersen indeed became English, insofar as his reputation in this country was inevitably based on the English translations of his tales; and these translations were generally the work of children's writers determined to adapt him to the home market. That is to say, tales taken from the larger corpus were subtly edited and, worse still, given a moral overlay to make them more acceptable to child readers in this country. This eventually did much more harm to Andersen's reputation in Britain than the translators' linguistic incompetence. It ensured not simply that he was now considered only suitable for the young, but that when people at last realised as C. S. Lewis did that "children read only to enjoy" and that "juvenile taste is simply human taste" (40-41), his writing would seem out of step with newer trends in children's literature.

The first of Andersen's translators was Mary Howitt, a prolific children's writer. When she came to her new task, she had only just published My Own Story or The Autobiography of a Child (1845), an account of her own strict upbringing. She and her sister had had a "stern, grave" grandfather (10), had been "threatened with confinement" in the "dark and dismal" cellars under their house (11), and had had "not one single boy acquaintance." Boys, she adds, seemed to them a strange species, "with which it was hardly creditable, and by no means desirable, to have anything to do" (21). The strict standards by which Howitt had been brought up went straight into her own writing for children. For example, her short story, "Industry and Honesty Rewarded" (1861), is just what its title implies: a piece of old-fashioned Penny Tract indoctrination. The heroine, a poor widow whose only child disappears, is instructed by a priest to endure her sufferings as a means to acquiring virtue and "everlasting joy" (81). Then, however, a more materialistic success story unfolds. The widow is "rewarded" right here on earth when her son, now a wealthy baron, is restored to her. This highly didactic tale, with its obligatory happy ending and its message already fully contained in its title, is quite different in spirit from anything Andersen ever produced.

Howitt has been called "doubly distinguished" because of her authorship of well-known children's poem "The Spider and the Fly" as well as her introduction of Andersen to the British (Briggs 179). Yet the moralistic little poem was parodied in the Mock Turtle's song in Alice in Wonderland as early as 1865, and her collection of Andersen's Wonderful Stories for Children, published in 1846, has been severely criticized. She had learned just a little Danish during a stay in Heidelberg, but, despite the claim on the title page that the tales are translated directly from the Danish, she most probably worked mainly with the German translations. Worse than the unintentional and sometimes quite forgivable errors of translation were her deliberate alterations, calculated to bring the stories into Britain in the bland, inoffensive, didactic form of which she herself was such a staunch exponent. Among the simple errors picked out by the linguist Kirsten Malmkjær (see 66-69) is one from "The Constant Tin Soldier," when the little soldier is blown out of the window and his bayonet falls among the cobbles. Howitt, apparently led astray by her confusion between similar nouns in Danish and German, mistakenly and ridiculously shows the bayonet falling "among the stones of a sink" (127) instead of onto the cobbles. One of her obviously deliberate alterations is the shortening of Andersen's description of beautiful female forms in "The Garden of Paradise": where Andersen describes the dancing girls rather voyeuristically as "floating and slim, dressed in waving gauze, so one saw the lovely limbs," Howitt has only, "The most beautiful maidens floated in the dance" (97). In the last story of the collection, "The Storks," Howitt's changes warp the plot itself. A group of naughty boys has been teasing some fledgling storks, and the young birds wish to take revenge on them. Andersen's mother-bird agrees, but Howitt's mother-bird directs them to focus instead on the one child who had refused to join in. "Let us reward him, that is better than taking revenge," she tells the young storks soothingly (141). This child, we are told, duly receives "a beautiful little sister" in the following year (142), and there is no talk here (as there is in the original) of dead babies being delivered as a punishment for bad behaviour.

The distance between Howitt and Andersen can be measured by comparing Howitt's "Industry and Honesty Rewarded" to Andersen's "A Good for Nothing" (1853). Both feature a single parent. But in Andersen's story the mother is an abandoned mistress, whose son is therefore illegitimate. Struggling to support him, the industrious woman has taken in not only washing but alcohol. If the "virtue" in this story is not clear-cut, neither is the "reward": hard work, and news of her former lover's death, send the mother to a premature death, and burial in a pauper's grave. As for the son, his fortunes do not rise sharply when his father's identity becomes known; he is simply handed over to a respectable family, to train as a mechanic. Reunion of parent and child takes the subtle form of a friend's reassuring the son that his dead mother was not, after all, a good-for-nothing. On the contrary, says the friend, God knows her goodness, which only the wicked world had failed to recognize. Thus the title of the story turns out to be ironic, and Andersen's piety is spiked with bitter social satire. Andersen may well have been thinking here of his own mother and his own struggles, though he himself claimed that he had had another child in mind (Notes for My Fairy Tales and Stories, 1079). Much more important, however, are the unflinching realism and moral complexity of the tale, which make it far more impressive than Howitt's.

Fortunately, Howitt was not called upon to translate this story. She was free to write her own simplistic and moralistic version under her own name, because by now she had fallen out with Andersen. "A Good for Nothing" was among a group of tales first translated by Anne S. Bushby, whose single book of poetry (Poems, 1876) was brought out later by the same publisher, Richard Bentley. Judging by the quality of Bushby's verse, any improvement in translation is likely to have been slight; according to Bredsdorff, Dickens himself criticized Bushby's translation of one of Andersen's full-length works (Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens 113). But Bushby's and other translators' failings seem to have been overshadowed by those of another, more influential translator. As early as 1846, Caroline Peachey had prepared an English translation entitled Danish Fairy Legends and Tales for yet another publisher, William Pickering. Again, Peachey's failing was not simply a matter of poor translation skills, but of the ideological background which predisposed her to adapt Andersen's work to Victorian standards of writing for children. In a memoir of the author which Peachey wrote at Christmas 1851 for the second edition, she romanticizes both Andersen's own early hardships and his later success, and insists that his tales "chime in harmoniously both with our Christmas hymns and our Christmas games," and have "for the most part, a healthful, religious feeling, which may well accord with the more serious thoughts of our holy day" (xxxi). In short, there is the same mix of moral and religious superiority here which distinguishes not just Howitt but almost the whole children's book industry in early Victorian Britain.

As time went by, Andersen was being served even more badly by his English translators. Unlike Howitt, who together with her husband produced 180 or so works for children, Peachey was not even a well-established children's writer. Her style is wordy and awkward. For example, where Howitt writes that little Tommelise tells the swallow "how unwilling she was to marry the rich old mole" (59), Peachey says that "she told him how that she had been obliged to accept the disagreeable Mole as a husband" (200). As for the Ugly Duckling, Peachey writes pompously, "The good creature felt himself really elevated by all the trouble and adversity he had experienced" (25), where (to turn with some relief to a much better, more recent translator) Reginald Spink writes simply that he "felt really happy about all the trouble and hardship he had been through" (213). Moreover, like Howitt, Peachey silently censors anything in the original which fails to accord with the "more serious thoughts of our holy-day." Her version of "The Flying Trunk," for instance, has the merchant's son kissing not the sleeping princess, but her hand, and at end of the couple's short wooing scene, Andersen's coy but still suggestive reference to "the stork, which brings sweet little babies" (as Spink renders it, 139) is replaced by Peachey's dull and purposely vague "many other such-like things he told her" (310). These are small examples of her concerted effort to naturalise the tales, and make them suitably "improving" for Victorian children. The cumulative effect is to take the freshness and edge off a whole oeuvre.

Peachey went on to produce two full-length children's works of her own, Casimir: The Little Exile (1867) and Kirstin's Adventures (1871). By then she had managed to achieve more of the "colloquial and pleasant style" which was at last being demanded of children's writers (qtd. in Catalogue 23), particularly in her dialogue. But the exoticism of these works barely disguises their dullness, and they are long out of print. Unfortunately, her laborious and heavy-handed translations of Andersen have been the chief form in which both she and Andersen have come down to the British public. Collections of Andersen's tales based on Peachey's translations were still being published in the 1970s; incredibly, her version of "The Snow Queen" (1845) was produced as a separate title by the Andersen Press as recently as 1993.

In this way, Andersen's literary reputation in the English-speaking world has continued to be undermined by translators who were both incapable of being faithful to the letter of his original work, and (even worse) unwilling to be faithful to its spirit. John Goldthwaite, having turned his eyes from everything of value in the tales, and concentrated instead the author's own personality and that "sentimental religiosity" enhanced by his translators, has come to an even harsher conclusion than Carpenter's. "In the end," he says dismissively, Andersen's "gift of fairy tales must be read as a cautionary fable on how not to write them" (64). Perhaps the strangest story of all, then, is not that of Andersen's own life, as sketched so picturesquely by Peachey in her "Memoir of the Author," or even that of his influence on major Victorian authors (see the third part of this discussion), but that of his continuing presence on twenty-first century bookshelves. For despite everything, including even the Disneyfication of a handful of his most famous tales, his work has survived. Fortunately, modern translations like Spink's now allow us to read them as they were intended to be read, and to appreciate elements in them once deliberately withheld.

Related Material

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. Danish Fairy Legends and Tales. Trans. Caroline Peachey. London: George Bell & Sons, 1907.

———. Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales. Trans. Reginald Spink. London: David Campbell (Everyman), 1992.

———. Wonderful Stories for Children. Trans. Mary Howitt. New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1846.

———. Notes for My Fairy Tales and Stories. Haugaard 1071-96.

Bredsdorff, Elias. Hans Andersen and Charles Dickens: A Friendship and Its Dissolution. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons, 1956.

———. Hans Christian Andersen. The Story of His Life and Work, 1805-75. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Briggs, Katherine. Fairies in the English Tradition and Literature. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

A Catalogue of New and Popular Works, Principally for the Young. London: Griffith and Farran, 1867.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children's Literature from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Winnie-the-Pooh. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1995.

Chesterton, G. K. "Hamlet and the Danes." The Crimes of England. Collected Works, Vol. V. Ed. Michael Novak and John McCarthy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987. 336-44.

Goldthwaite, John. The Natural History of Make-Believe: A Guide to the Principal Works of Britain, Europe and America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Haugaard, Erik Christian, trans. The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. New York: Anchor, 1983.

Howitt, Mary. "Industry and Honesty Rewarded." The Favourite Scholar and Other Tales, by Mary Howitt and Miss S.C. Hall. London: Henry Lea, 1861. 80-83.

———. My Own Story or The Autobiography of a Child. London: Thomas Tegg, 1845.

Kincaid, James. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lewis, C. S. "On Juvenile Tastes" (1958). Rpt. in Of Other Worlds: Esaays and Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1975. 39-41.

Malmkjær, Kirsten. Linguistics and the Language of Translation. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Nelson, Claudia. Boys Will Be Girls: The Feminine Ethic and British Children's Fiction, 1857-1917. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Peachey, Caroline. Introduction to Andersen's Danish Fairy Legends and Tales, trans. Peachey. London: George Bell and Sons, 1907. ix-xxxi.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Spink, Reginald. Hans Christian Andersen and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray. Ed. Gordon N. Ray. 4 Vols. Vol. 2. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1946.


Victorian Web Overview Genre, Technique, and Style Children's Literature

Last modified 24 November 2008