He was born at Odense, Denmark, on the 2nd of April 1805. He was the son of a sickly young shoemaker of twenty-two and his several years older wife: the whole family lived and slept in one little room.
Hans Christian showed imagination early, which was fostered by the indulgence of his parents and by his mother's superstition. In 1816 the shoemaker died and the child was left entirely to his own devices. He ceased to go to school; he built himself a little toy-theatre and sat at home making clothes for his puppets, and reading all the plays that he could borrow; among them were those of Ludvig Holberg and William Shakespeare.
At Easter 1819 he was confirmed at the Church of Sct. Knud, Odense, and began to turn his thoughts to the future. Andersen wished to be an opera-singer and so went to Copenhagen in September 1819. There he was taken for a lunatic, snubbed at the theatres, and nearly reduced to starvation, but he was befriended by the musicians Christoph Weyse and Siboni, and afterwards by the poet Frederik Hoegh Guldberg (1771-1852). His voice failed, but he was admitted as a dancing pupil at the Royal Theatre. He grew idle, and lost the favour of Guldberg, but a new patron appeared in the person of Jonas Collin, the director of the Royal Theatre, who became Andersen's life-long friend.
King Frederick VI was interested in the strange boy and sent him for some years, free of charge, to the grammar-school at Slagelse. Before he started for school he published his first volume, The Ghost at Palnatoke's Grave (1822). Andersen, a very backward and unwilling pupil, actually remained at Slagelse and at another school in Elsinore until 1827; these years, he says, were the darkest and bitterest in his life. Collin at length consented to consider him educated, and Andersen came to Copenhagen.
In 1829 he made a considerable success with a fantastic volume entitled A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager, and he published in the same season a farce and a book of poems. He thus suddenly came into request at the moment when his friends had decided that no good thing would ever come out of his early eccentricity and vivacity. He made little further progress, however, until 1833, when he received a small travelling stipend from the king, and made the first of his long European journeys. At Le Locle, in the Jura, he wrote Agnete and the Merman; and in October 1834 he arrived in Rome.
Early in 1835 Andersen's first novel, The Improvisatore, appeared, and achieved a real success; the poet's troubles were at an end at last. In the same year, 1835, the earliest instalment of Andersen's immortal Fairy Tales (Danish: Eventyr) was published in Copenhagen. Other parts, completing the first volume, appeared in 1836 and 1837. The value of these stories was not at first perceived, and they sold slowly. Andersen was more successful for the time being with a novel, O.T. (1836), and a volume of sketches, In Sweden; in 1837 he produced the best of his novels, Only a Fiddler.
He now turned his attention, with but ephemeral success, to the theatre, but was recalled to his true genius in the charming miscellany of 1840, the Picture-Book without Pictures.
Andersen was a great traveller. The longest of his travels, in 1840-1841, took him through Germany (where he made his first railway trip), Italy, Malta, and Greece to Constantinople. The return journey was via the Black Sea and the river Danube. His account of this experience is A Poet's Bazaar (1842), usually considered the best of his travel books.
Andersen was now celebrated throughout Europe, although in Denmark itself there was still some resistance to his pretensions. In June 1847 he paid his first visit to England, and enjoyed a triumphal social success; when he left, Charles Dickens saw him off from Ramsgate pier. (Shortly thereafter Dickens published David Copperfield, in which the character Uriah Heep is said to have been modelled on Andersen—a left-handed compliment, to say the least). After this Andersen continued to publish much; he still desired to excel as a novelist and a dramatist, which he could not do, and he still disdained the enchanting Fairy Tales, in the composition of which his unique genius lay. Nevertheless he continued to write them, and in 1847 and 1848 two fresh volumes appeared. After a long silence Andersen published in 1857 another novel, To be or not to be. In 1863, after a very interesting journey, he issued another of his travel-books, In Spain.
His Fairy Tales continued to appear, in instalments, until 1872, when, at Christmas, the last stories were published. In the spring of that year, Andersen fell out of bed and severely hurt himself. He was never again quite well, but he lived till the 4th of August 1875, when he died very peacefully in the house called Rolighed, near Copenhagen. He is interred in the Assistens Cemetery, in Copenhagen, Denmark.
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Most English (and German and French) sources use the name "Hans Christian Andersen", but in Denmark and Scandinavia his name is "H. C. Andersen". It is an accepted convention in Denmark to use only the initials instead of the full name of some persons, just as strong as the American "middle initial" tradition. There is no general rule for this, but you have to know the correct use for each individual. Thus, the canonical (correct) name form in Denmark would be H. C. Andersen, H. C. Ørsted and N. F. S. Grundtvig, but Søren Kierkegaard, Tor Nørretranders and Lars von Trier.
His best-known fairy tales include: