Know your past live your future

Hans Christian Andersen by Sacha Coward

Hans Christian Andersen by Sacha Coward

Illustration by Sam Russell Walker

Sacha is a freelance museum worker, he has worked at the National Maritime Museum, The Natural History Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He is a passionate armchair queer historian, tour guide and mermaid fanatic!

“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”

I have always adored mythical creatures. Since I can remember I have had books on Greek myths, dragons and folklore. This was only briefly supplanted by an obsession with dinosaurs, which some might argue are the ultimate mythical creatures because they’re actually real!. This went on throughout childhood and even into my teens. After spending 4 years working at the National Maritime Museum in London I found myself again surrounded by harpies, sea serpents, krakens and, most importantly to this story, mermaids.

It was over the past two years these two sides of myself, the kid that geeked out about Ariel and the adult who has begun to explore queer history and identity, came together. I have discovered that myths and legends, and in particular mermaids have a deep deep queer soul. The man who really precipitated this eureka moment was Hans Christian Andersen. A man I think most people think they know through his charming stories and fairytales, but they probably don’t know the other side: a biromantic and sexually frustrated artist, tortured by rejection, which he poured into his writing.

Hans was born in Odense, Denmark in 1805. His parents were very poor; his mother was illiterate and although his father had an elementary education and loved literature, he passed away when Hans was only 11. After this time Hans showed an obsession with storytelling that he had picked up from his father. Hans’ mother did not approve of this and shortly after his father’s death, Hans was sent to find work as a weaver, as a tobacco factory worker and later as a tailor’s apprentice. Hans was also sent off to a school for poor children although he hated it and rarely went. He preferred instead to entertain others with stories he had memorised; often performing them alongside elaborate ballet performances.

Hans left home for Copenhagen to seek a better life. Sadly things did not go to plan. Briefly he was part of a boy’s choir until his voice broke and he was kicked out. He then attempted to find work as a ballet dancer but his gawky build and bad coordination meant this simply wasn’t for him. As a young man, still in his teens, this was an incredibly hard time and he lived for 3 years in excruciating poverty even worse than he had experienced at home.

Hans’s childhood and adolescence was tragic and harsh but through it survived a desire and passion for storytelling. Also, living through poverty, much like Charles Dickens, instilled a powerful moral compass into all of Hans’ later work. All his stories highlight the plight of the poor and celebrate underdogs.

Hans managed to fight the rigid class system, and against all odds obtained a college degree that was funded by King Frederick. This allowed Hans to finally do what he had been born to do, write. After some limited success with a published poem and short story Hans garnered more praise for later writings and eventually began writing over 160 fairytales for which he is most famous for today. Despite having grown up as an only child with no family of his own, Hans seemed to understand how children think in a way few writers have captured before or since.

Hans was a voracious writer of diaries, journals and letters. Very few of these were lost or destroyed, so we have a unique insight into his mind and his heart. It is clear that Hans was a true romantic. He hungered for love and affection and this affection was not bound to any one gender. He wrote letters to many men and women showering them with adoration and praise. Whether male or female, the objects of Hans’ affection seemed to share one thing in common: they were nearly all unobtainable. In this sense, it seems as if Hans never actually lived out the romantic relationships he hungered for, resulting in many many tragic heartbreaks as the objects of his desires were rarely able or willing to reciprocate.

Hans clearly lusted after and worshipped many women but he was also powerfully drawn to a number of men in a way that definitely goes beyond mere friendship. At the time, his attraction to the dancer Harald Scharff was noticed by onlookers who commented on it. ‘I long for him daily’ wrote Hans in one of his journals. Later Hans became infatuated with the Grand Duke, Carl Alexander, writing ‘The Hereditary Grand Duke walked arm in arm with me across the courtyard of the castle to my room, kissed me lovingly, asked me always to love him though he was just an ordinary person’ and then later, ‘I fell asleep with the melancholy, happy feeling that I was the guest of this strange prince at his castle and loved by him... It is like a fairy tale.’

Of all the infatuations with men and women the most powerful for me was his love for Edvard Collin and the story it helped inspire: Edvard Collin, like most people that Hans fell for, was unable to return his love. In over 500 letters the two corresponded and Hans made his feelings very clear. Hans writes, ‘I long for you as though you were a beautiful Calabrian girl.’ Hans was eventually rejected by Edvard who married a woman, resulting in a dramatic self-exile to the isle of Fyn, a deep depression and the writing of possibly his most famous fairytale of all time, ‘The Little Mermaid’.

Hans poured his previous experiences, his traumatic childhood and his heartbreak into his writings. ‘The Little Mermaid’ mirrors many of the feelings that Hans must have been feeling after being rejected by Edvard: the longing, the unrequited love, the fact that, unlike Disney, the Little Mermaid does not get her prince in the end but sacrifices herself so her love may be happy with someone else.

Hans Christian Andersen’s life and writings exemplify why queer history should not be annexed to a separate space. The stories we read as children, the cultural touchstones we grow up with and even popular culture in film and television, have been actively shaped by the lives of people who do not fit a heteronormative mould.

TLDR: Mermaids are queer, and so is everything else!

Sam Russell Walker is an illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process. 

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