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Bosom Brothers and Female Corpses

2005 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, the world famous Danish writer of fairy tales. The vain, sensitive and artistic Andersen was often infatuated by other men and described himself as "half feminine". His fairy tales and work are filled with women, who conveniently die so that romantic friendship between men can blossom. According to Danish scholar Dag Heede, time is ripe to take a closer look at the misogyny and gender ideologies at play in Andersen's work
FORUM/January 2005
Hans Christian Andersen's his fairy tales are read all over the world and his books are among the most published. People the world over encounter his fairy tales at a tender age. Thus, millions grow up with Hans Christian Andersen's stories - all the more reason to examine the ideologies behind his writing, not least the gender ideologies. However, this has never been done.

One of the great paradoxes of Andersen's writing is that pressing themes such as sexuality and gender have never been examined, although there has been a growing interest in Andersen's sexuality. There is a blatant lack of feminist, post-feminist and queer readings of this strange body of work. What actually happens to girls and boys and men and women, and what happens between men and women and between men in Hans Christian Andersen's work?

A national trauma

Danish Andersen scholars have carefully avoided the femininity and lacking heterosexuality of the national icon for more than 100 years. In a fundamentally patriarchal, nationalist and homophobic culture such as modern Denmark it is taboo to inquire into Andersen's many infatuations with men and queer gender identity; his "half femininity" ("halve Qvindelighed") as he himself expresses it.

Gender experimentation and male love are central themes in Andersen's work and biography and hit a sore spot for an amputated country, that after its "castration" subsequent to the war of 1864 (where Denmark was forced to relinquish Schleswig-Holstein to Germany) created a lilliputian identity with the fairy tale writer as world famous national bard. After the loss of Norway (l814) and Schleswig-Holstein Denmark was already rather "de-masculinised". To question the national writer's masculinity and heterosexuality is more or less tantamount to treason.

The national fairy heterosexualised

If Hans Christian Andersen had been less famous and less talented, his male spinster characteristics and many infatuations with men would have been less of a taboo; so would his many traits that a later sexual diagnosis would have deemed obvious features of homosexuality. The childish, self-absorbed, highly artistic, hypersensitive, gossipy, vain, nervous and snobbish Andersen, who was plagued by strange obsessions and phobias, exhibits a cornucopia of "symptoms" that point towards a modern conception of "the homosexual".

When contemporary Danish youth see photographs of the national poet with his characteristic loose wrists, they do not doubt he is gay. And this despite the fact that all official information on the writer still doggedly contends that Andersen could never have been homosexual.

Modern constructions

Andersen scholars and PR people may be right in so far as the category "homosexual" emerged only during the writer's later years and became widespread after his death - in Denmark during the 1890s. However, these same scholars do not doubt Andersen's "heterosexuality", although this term is even more anachronistic and misleading in relation to the fairy tale writer.

The term "heterosexuality" first emerged in the beginning of the 20th century as a description of sexual attraction between men and women. Certainly, this does not describe the misogynist Andersen's few and fabricated distance-infatuations with young women, which the Andersen industry still fabricates and promotes to a grotesque degree.

Today who can seriously imagine that Andersen was actually in love with the Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale? Yet you can buy an Andersen and Lind deck of playing cards, so tourists happily can mix the two together, who never enjoyed a union of the flesh when they were alive.

An angel

Let us for the moment leave the discussion as to whether Hans Christian Andersen was homosexual or heterosexual and cast an eye on his construction of gender. If we look at the writer's own understanding of himself it is not certain that the category homosexual adequately covers Andersen. He described his "sexual drive" as "poor" - despite all the mysterious crosses in his diary, that - if Andersen scholarship is to be believed - points to a rather lively autoerotic activity.

Andersen rather understood himself to be an androgynous or hermaphroditic creature, a kind of sexless angel, who was above sexuality. Perhaps "transgender" would be more descriptive of Andersen than homosexual. In Andersen's lengthy and strange autobiography The Fairy Tale of My Life (Mit Livs Eventyr, 1855) he constructs an identity by a pronounced marginalisation particularly from proletarian masculinity. In his own story, his climb up the social ladder is determined by not only being radically different than proletarian men, but also being different than proletarian women, particularly female prostitutes.

Andersen's fairly tale virtue

The Fairy Tale of My Life was written by the mature Andersen and is about how he was born the ugly duckling and ends a world famous swan. As a romantic Aladdin-tale however, his autobiography is far from typical, not least because of its pervasive gender confusion.

The Fairy Tale of My Life is not just your typical heroic male story about how a brilliant youth from the proletariat overcomes all odds and fulfills himself as man and artist. Quite the contrary, the autobiography is also a story about how a moral paragon of virtue is plucked out of the muck and makes miraculous breaks into the upper bourgeoisie with his virtue intact. Innocent and good are Andersen's standard expressions, when he proudly parades his virtue - not unlike a self-conscious old maid. Andersen strategically uses gender-reversal and morality as engines of social climbing. In both of the scenes where he is confronted by the threat of working class life gender and virtue are used as lines of demarcation.

As a boy he was sent off to work in a cloth factory in Odense by his unschooled mother, and the workmen made him sing for them instead of work. When they tauntingly tried to find out whether he might be a girl, Hans Christian Andersen runs off in tears. Indirectly, he shares the workmen's view of himself because he states that he ran away "shy as a girl". In any event they were right in seeing him as a creature radically different from them.

The boy's next encounter with the threat of working class life happens when the 14 year old has run off to Copenhagen without a penny to his pocket and has not yet ingratiated himself into the upper classes. In desperation he looks up a carpenter, who employs him as an apprentice. After a few days he yet again leaves the job in tears, when the workmen's rough and vulgar tone makes it impossible for him to stay.

Andersen again emphasises his innocence when a benefactor in Copenhagen arranges for him to rent a room on one of the city's prostitute streets. The pension is in fact a discrete brothel, but this goes unnoticed by the young boy. Instead he sews doll's clothing and plays with his toy theatre, while everyone else around him has sex. He proudly displays his sexual innocence as a trophy or perhaps as proof of God's grace.

Female Corpses
There are other dangers beside male proletarians. The prostitute, particularly the low class prostitute, is a type from which Andersen also has to distance himself. However, she is not the only dangerous woman. One of the most interesting things about a figure such as Hans Christian Andersen - who embodies a gender construct we could characterise as male femininity - is that femininity and misogyny in no way cancel each other out. In Andersen's case quite the opposite.

In his writing the femininity of the male protagonist often has fatal consequences for women. When women come between the protagonist and his bosom brother, danger is in the air and the woman rarely survives. One might be tempted to say that for Andersen a good woman is a dead woman. Her death is often remarkably untragic and usually solves a myriad of problems.


In Andersen's writing, some of the women best at dying are the mothers. His own mother died in 1833, while Andersen was in Italy agonizing over the harsh reception of his debut as a playwright Agnete and the Merman (Agnete og Havmanden, 1843), where the snivelling protagonist Hemming also called forth the rage of Andersen's friends.

In The Fairy Tale of My Life Andersen describes how after his mother's death people suddenly were kinder to the now motherless writer, and several ladies of the bourgeoisie offered themselves to him as surrogate mothers. In the novel O.T. from 1836 the angelic proletarian mother considerately dies during the birth of her son Otto, who then is adopted by his wealthy grandfather. And in Improvisatoren (The Improvisor), Andersen's 1835 novel which takes place in Italy, the protagonist Antonio's mother is run over by a rich Roman, who subsequently becomes the boy's mentor and father figure. Here, the death of the mother is also a kind of blessing bestowed upon the boy.


The role of younger women in his writing is more complex. In his autobiography as well as in other writing Andersen had a preference for triangles of desire, where typically two male best friends - dare we call them bosom brothers? - fall in love with the same girl and rival through life and death. The typical solution to the problem, however, is the death of the girl. Generally speaking one might say that in Andersen's writing women who disturb romantic male friendship live very dangerously. He has a rather tiresome habit of killing them off. It is intriguing and quite frightening that this explicit misogyny and the many dead women are not at all addressed in Andersen scholarship.

In Improvisatoren Antonio is in love with Bernardo, until Bernardo falls in love with Annunziata. Then Antonio also falls in love with Annunziata. Antonio and Bernardo fight a duel, Bernardo is injured and Antonio runs away - but without Annunziata. Later Bernardo leaves her and she pines away with grief. After years of disease and poverty she dies but not before writing a letter declaring Antonio as her true love. This suits both Antonio and the narrator very well as both are better equipped to handle female love from beyond the grave.

In O.T. Otto loves Vilhelm, but also loves Vilhelm's two sisters - Sophie and Louise one after the other. Vilhelm on the other hand loves Otto's twin sister, Eva, a poor servant girl. Eva also loves Vilhelm, but tells him otherwise because of social barriers. Otto is therefore able to convince his best friend to go to Italy with him, where they stay for two years. Eva suffers and silently takes her love to the grave. The novel implies a rather unpleasant connection, however, because Eva dies at exactly the same time that the two romantic friends pass through the Alps and enter the magic realm. Eva's death seems to be a prerequisite for the queer masculine honeymoon.

Female corpses as bridges between men

Andersen himself preferred to fall in love with the daughters or sisters of the men he was infatuated with: Charlotte Øhlenschlæger, Riborg Voigt and Louise Collin. He even tried to propose to Riborg, but had made sure beforehand that she was secretly engaged to someone else, whom she indeed married. Instead Andersen was consoled by Riborg's brother Christian Voight.

Hans Christian Andersen writes about this episode in the poem Life is a Dream (Livet er en drøm, 1831) where interestingly the woman who joins the two men does not marry as Riborg did. She dies. Just as Eva's death is conducive to Otto and Vilhelm's romantic journey to Italy, another dead woman functions as a link between two loving friends. Perhaps the female corpse is the shortest distance from one man's heart to another.

Superfluous women

Misogyny is not only to be found in Andersen's poetry, novels and autobiography. It is also explicit in fairy tales such as The Red Shoes (1845), The Travelling Companion (1835), The Bell (1845), A Story from the Sand Dunes (1859) to name but a few. Perhaps it is typical of a patriarchal culture such as ours that male femininity makes women superfluous.

Large sections of Hans Christian Andersen's writing can be interpreted as a fundamentally male homosocial utopian vision of combining masculinity as well as femininity in one single sex thus eliminating the other. What do we need women for? Men in Hans Christian Andersen's writing get on very well without them.

Dag Heede, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark.

Dag Heede's book "Hjertebrødre. Krigen om H.C. Andersens seksualitet" (Bosom Brothers. The Controversy over Hans Christian Andersens Sexuality), will be out in February 2005, Syddansk Universitetsforlag.

Translation: Annette Nielsen, Editor

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