|Riborg Voigt, the love of Andersen's youth
Hans Christian Andersen was a grown man of twenty five when he met the one he called his first love. He reacted like a young boy, with blushes, tears and absolute confusion. There are indications that he felt like an old bachelor even then.
He was both too mature and too immature for the situation. Only four years before, he had sat, a grown-up among boys, in Slagelse Grammar School, where, if anything, he was treated even more condescendingly than the rest, being shrewd and knowledgeable but backward in writing and such-like accomplishments. He was to grow at record speed, leaving a lot lying fallow.
In his diary he wrote, under March 1826:
"Got reprimanded for Greek. 'You're a dullard! You don't read, either.' He was angry with us all; it was a bad showing."
And the next day: "Reprimanded for Latin . . . " etc., etc.
|Sophie Ørsted, daughter of Andersen's friend, the renowned Danish physicists H. C. Ørsted.
He at length became a young student in Copenhagen. Now he might write again, something his benefactors had forbidden him while at school. And he did not need telling twice. His first efforts included the poem "The Dying Child", which almost made him famous, and the eccentric little book A journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the Eastern Tip of Amager, an account of a short walk which early revealed his talent for getting a lot out of little.
In 1830 the grand traveller-to-be at last obtained the wherewithal for a rather longer journey, among other places to the towns of his native island of Funen. At Fåborg there was a fellow-student, Voigt, he wanted to visit. He put up at the town's inn and the next morning was received by the eldest daughter of the house, the twenty-year-old Riborg.
|For some years Andersen was secretly infatuated with Louise, the youngest daughter of his benefactor Jonas Collin.
At tea, she voiced her enthusiasm for the Journey on Foot and the poems. She blushed, was pretty and, "What means more to me, natural".
Returning to the inn, he asked the maid, casually as it were, whom the Voigt girls were engaged to.
They were not engaged; that is to say, the eldest, Riborg, had a sweetheart her parents were set against, a chemist's son they thought was not up to much - which of course was bound to make the young couple all the keener.
|Collin's house in Copenhagen.
His normal egoistic self must have told him that here was a good chance. But as always he hushed it and listened to the good heart, the innocent brotherly thought, which whispered to him: "Poor girl! So she's hopelessly in love!"
Thus, in a way, they were in the same boat. Sympathy deepened in a tragic and delicious fashion. He was in the house a good deal, and they talked freely and pleasantly together; but in the first place he tried to take it all as an experience.
That autumn, Riborg accompanied a sick friend to Copenhagen, and took care to inform Andersen of her arrival. He was in such a flurry that when he opened the door to her he asked after the sick lady, a complete stranger to him. She blushed for him, as one may well understand. He was involved in a serious comedy he was unable to perform. Courting also has its spelling, of which he knew little, and what little he did know did not whet his appetite. Like orthography, it was something any student could cope with, and actually beneath his dignity to take seriously.
Nevertheless he made an effort, and talked the matter over with the girl's brother. Encouraged by him, he fell into a swoon, trembling, blushing, weeping, on to his bed.
Just before Riborg's departure, he gave her his strange letter of proposal, couched in terms at once bold and cautious. It has been said that it was not calculated to convince a young, uncertain and almost engaged girl.
|Jenny Lind, "The Swedish Nightingale". Andersen met her for the first time in 1840.
It is true indeed that the letter contained no hasty promise; nothing to suggest that he would carry her off on a white charger, which, for that matter, he would have had to steal from the nearest country house. It is a very realistic and very high-flown letter. "I can become anything through you," he wrote; "anything that you and (important addition) your parents might wish." On the other hand, provided she was not sure she loved the other man, "as dearly as God and eternal salvation," he begged her not to make him unhappy. Big offers, but also big demands. What her parents might want was undoubtedly something as forbidding as endless new studies and the life of a deserving civil servant. But he, too, wanted to be loved "as dearly as God and eternal salvation." That is implicit in his inquiry about her feelings for the other. Otherwise, it did not matter.
|Andersen reading fairy tales to a female audience at Frijsenborg Manor in 1863.
It has been said that Andersen should have "taken her by storm", have "displayed more firmness". The fact that he did not seems to suggest that he really wanted a refusal. This, in my view, is not hindsight, but hind-blindness. It was characteristic of Andersen to be able to keep a cool head even under the utmost emotional stress. There is, for example, a story of how he happened to see the bare breasts of a young artist's model, and nearly fainted; yet he was able to describe the girl's appearance afterwards in most accurate detail. Likewise when he was wooing. To see this characteristic as a sign that his feelings were not whole and indivisible is to pull the entire man apart. But why was it such a terribly serious matter to propose to a girl who seemed to be attracted by him; why this exaltation?
'Now I shall never get married. No young girl grows for me any more'
How it all began
But before we hear how the story ends we must have the beginning.
During his journey in Funen, on those August days shortly before meeting Riborg, he had been studying churches and church art. In St Nicholas Church in Svendborg, for instance, he had seen a painting that he describes in his diary under August 5. It was painted by a clergyman and depicts a clergyman and his wife with their many children. Besides the living children, he had also painted the family's three dead babies; an odd feature, like the other that all the children are good-looking except one of the boys. The ugly boy, however, had been painted holding a rose, "as if to give him with that at least something beautiful," he says of the picture in his novel Only a Fiddler. The boy with the rose is the image of the boy violinist Christian. What the rose is for the boy in the painting, the violin is meant to be for the poor boy in the novel.
Hans Brix, whose thesis on Andersen of 1907 has been reissued as a paperback in 1970, did some detective work on this picture, which he thinks Andersen must have seen while still a boy, on a journey to a sacred spring near Svendborg that he carefully conceals. Brix thinks he did so because he was anxious to keep secret any feature that would indicate the neurasthenia which tormented him even as a boy. (Why he conceals this is not discussed by the professor. The reason may be the simple one that he rightly feared that to reveal this "secret" would, in certain eyes, brand his entire production as overstrained and peculiar.)
This journey, therefore, recalled for Andersen memories of a journey twelve years before, memories which also include a magnificent wedding procession through Svendborg; and one can imagine the mood this fresh encounter must have evoked in him. A mood of having been away, on the ocean bed, while life was going on and other people were having both brides and children. In this respect, his own life was like a static painting. The entry in the diary describing the family portrait ends thus:
"On either side, old tombstones, and, on the left, a black one which looks like the plate of an iron stove. Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!"
Attention has been drawn to another painting, which he saw on the same day; a picture of a woman, whose blooming beauty had such a powerful effect because he was forcibly reminded that now she was dust. The painting of the clergyman's living and dead children probably contributed to this sombre mood also. And in the singular tombstone "which looks like the plate of an iron stove" we indeed have the whole mood concentrated. It will be no accident that it leads straight to the plea for a bride and a livelihood.
The stove is one of his constant symbols of domestic love and warmth, as in a further sense is the stork: the home bird that is also allowed to travel a little away from home. Andersen's prudishness with regard to the erotic was not an external convention. Love, longing for a bride, in him were deeply associated with the dream of the home that he had to leave so early, and that was so quickly broken up.
There are plenty of elements in this "old curiosity shop" of pictures to explain the exaltation, the dilemma in the subsequent love situation. Everything about him must have cried out to him: "Life is running out! Hasten! Take care! You have only your little rose to hold on to."
Nevertheless he wrote his letter of proposal that autumn.
Riborg was moved, and tears flowed; the young pair seem to have nearly drowned each other in a flood of tears. To add to the story, Riborg's parents had at last consented to the chemist's son; he is there waiting for her when she returns home with the fervent letter of proposal. Evidently, anything is better than this odd poet with the popping eyes and elephant feet who would be capable of declaiming and trampling any decent home to bits if he got into it.
Riborg's answer was a tear-stained No.
Hopelessly over- and under-mature for the job.
'You wouldn't have an honest prince but the swineherd you could kiss for a music-box'
This first love affair was of great significance to Andersen as a writer. The usual irony of fate would have it that he was accused of a tendency to witticism and mockery when his next book appeared; just when he had become a quite different person.
Now he has got started, he can the more easily flare up.
Two years later, he gave his fine Life Story to Louise Collin, the young daughter of the house that had so early opened its doors to him and kept them open. This early autobiography has been found and published in fairly recent years. It gives a fullish account of the affair with Riborg. (In The Fairy Tate of My Life, the long autobiography that he published himself, it is reduced almost to nothing.) When he wrote the Life Story, the experience was still fresh, and he describes it for the young Louise as something very central. But there is nothing about Louise herself except that he had never noticed her as a child. The Life Story is generally regarded as a sort of extended proposal to Louise. As such, it is, if anything, even less tactical or seductive than the letter to Riborg. Yet it was definitely meant to win her, testifying to a pride usually associated with other ages and indicating that, in a way, he was the courting bachelor right from the first. Helplessly over- and under-mature for the job!
Louise hardly knew what answer to give to so great an honour; and so gave no answer. It distressed Andersen, of course, who felt he had given her his whole soul and mind in this self-portrait - and yet not even an answer!
Soon after, Louise became engaged, and they became friends for life.
Something like the same pattern emerges in his love for the young daughter, Sophie, of his friend H. C. Ørsted. Except that now he is even more hesitant. "A bride - a livelihood" have become ideas that are still more inseparably identified. He writes serio-comically somewhere: "I must have 1,000 a year before I dare fall in love, and 1,500 before I dare marry; and before the semi-impossible occurs, the girl is gone, captured by another, and I am an old wizened bachelor. They are sorry prospects!"
On the evening Sophie became engaged (evidently they set aside special evenings for that in those days) he wrote in his diary:
"This Christmas I think I told her what could never be good for her! Now I shall never get married; no young girl grows for me any more, day by day I become more of an old bachelor! Oh, even yesterday I was among young people! tonight I am old! God bless you, dear beloved Sophie; you will never know how happy I could have been, affluent and with you!",
But now at any rate the rest of us know. In a writer's love stories one should never underrate the element known as "publication of intimate emotions". When he wrote to Riborg, she had the tact to return his letter (he had asked her either to destroy it or return it), but Louise was unfeeling enough to keep the one to her. Thus he could use his first letter of proposal as part of his autobiographical wooing of Louise, but the love for her had to be transformed into poetic fairy tales and novels. And we can probably thank Sophie for the little bitter-sweet tale about the butterfly that could not decide on any of the flowers until it was too late. With the years, he grew more careful about frittering his golden prose on wooing. Later, people knew they had to look after the precious letters; and he based his memoirs for a large part on letters he "borrowed back". He used his friends like a diary!
Many friends, male and female
His male and female friends. He had lots of the latter. Clearly, he was neither shy nor afraid of the sex; it was not there that the bachelordom lay. He called his own temperament "half feminine": which, especially in 1975, proclaimed as "international women's year", must be seen against the general sex-role patterns of the time. There was no particular underlying hormonal disposition. The fact that he found it so easy to associate with and understand women was no doubt connected with the circumstance that his own social situation in many respects resembled the classical woman's role: he was a treasure, and a treasure must be seen and not heard. He was deeply dependent on other people's assessment, appreciation and favour; exactly like contemporary women, whose only social potentiality lay mostly in the ability to get accepted by the sex in power. If there was no suggestion of discrimination in him, the reasons were neither ideological nor moral: his whole psychological method was so alien to generalizations and systematizations that anything of the sort was excluded. To him, all were unique. Today we would consider these characteristics, which he calls "half feminine", something very advanced. What his contemporaries regarded as weakness, we can now begin to envisage as strength.
And precisely this natural feeling of equality was a hindrance to him when he went wooing. In the courting situation one had to be, as it were, unequal; one had to go down on one's knees. And his intuition told him that it was as degrading a situation for the one knelt to as for the one kneeling. He tried feverishly to dodge the issue: he always preferred to be absent while the girl was thinking over his little proposal.
His last great love is said to have been the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who had a little of his own background of poverty, and the same naturalness and warmheartedness at the centre of her art. At one point he handed her a letter, "which she could not fail to understand", at some juncture that prevented him from seeing the reaction. She did not reply; but neither did she get engaged all at once. Apparently, she was quite unaffected.
The relationship grew into a close and enduring friendship. In The Fairy Tate of My Life he tells of a little event at Christmas 1845, when both were in Berlin. He complains about not having heard from her; he had been so sure of being with her that he had refused every other invitation (though he writes that he is only telling her this). This is greatly exaggerated, but she takes it literally, pats him on the cheek, and says "Child!" Whereafter she decorates a Christmas tree for the New Year, where all the presents are for him, but where there is also a lady friend present, to avoid any misunderstanding. I do not think one needs to have any other details about Andersen and Jenny Lind in order to appreciate how beautifully she knew how to transform undesired passions into a sisterly-motherly poetry, which he drank from in full draughts.
Andersen so arranged it that a leather pouch was found round his neck when he died, a pouch containing a letter from Riborg. The letter was to be burnt unread. He could not possibly have worn this all his life: as the matter-of-fact Professor Brix observed, it would have fallen to pieces. So it was arranged. And what then? Attitudinizing can in some cases be the last resort in getting things said, also (or especially) in the case of great artists.
Attitudinizing can be most genuine; can, as art, be the point where a person lives full out, more genuine and more wide-ranging than in reality.
|Anderesen's pouch and the note about it by Jonas Collin J.: "This leather pouch was found on the chest of Hans Christian Andersen after his death. It contained a long letter from the love of his youth, Riborg Voigt. I burned the letter without reading it. J. Collin."
In Andersen's heart there was more than the ugly duckling that became a swan, or the happy witless Clodpoll. His life was a fine fairy tale: not an almanac story about how all turns out as it should and the best man wins. In his heart there were also the Little Mermaid, who was drawn to an element in which she had to die; the Mother, who was good for something, though she ended up in drink; the Snowman that with unerring tragedy fell in love with a stove; and, Apropos wooing, the Prince who had to humble himself, disguising himself as a swineherd and pop artist, in order to have any chance at all with the stupid princess. "You wouldn't have an honest prince ... but the swineherd you kiss for a musical-box!"
That was Andersen's judgement on the world when he was in a baleful mood. But it is seldom that his knowledge of the wasted, the rejected, the failed devolves into severity. You would not have the best, nor the next-best in me: or what everyone else can imitate!
The old bachelor found his quiet home in the end, in his own good company. He is said to have remarked as an old man: "Now I only go out once a week, so they can please themselves!"
But he did want to be found wearing that leather pouch. Perhaps because it testified to his inmost pride: fidelity to all that was lost. Like the clergyman's painting that wanted to include the reality of death on equal terms with that of life. A testimony to everything that never came to anything - though it was good for something.
Taken from the Danish Journal.