Some scholars have theorized that Andersen was really the illegitimate son of a Danish prince, the future King Christian VIII. But certainly he was raised in sordid conditions; the cobbler left the family to fight in the Napoleonic wars. He returned a broken man and died when Hans Christian was 11. His mother became an alcoholic and eventually died in the poorhouse.
"I think he always felt very strongly about his social background," said Mai.
In his autobiographies, Andersen stressed that his mother worked very hard to keep their home clean despite their poverty; in his stories, he let a more realistic picture creep in. In "She Was No Good," he writes of a poverty-stricken washerwoman who takes to brandy. The better-off townspeople look down their noses at her, failing to recognize the pathos of her situation.
Andersen left Odense for Copenhagen, the capital, when he was just 14, and struggled to make it in the theater as an actor, dancer and even a singer. He found some patrons who sent him to school, which turned out to be a rather traumatic experience, since Andersen was a good deal older than the other pupils and became the butt of their teasing.
He survived the experience, however, and went on to a prolific career as a writer. His first book of fairy tales was published in 1835.
And fairy tales weren't the only type of tale he liked. He wrote travel books, novels, plays, poems and three autobiographies. His works would be translated into something around 150 languages. A talented illustrator, he would also use scissors to make elaborate paper cutouts. Understanding that success often depended on contacts, he worked hard to meet the right people. Among his friends was fellow author Charles Dickens, with whom he shared an interest in social justice issues.
A large part of Andersen's appeal as a writer, said Mai, is that he touches on "fundamental, existential issues."
He was also extremely innovative. "The plots are exciting, are surprising, but his way of using language, being able to speak to children and adults at the same time, his way of expressing himself in Danish --
it's a new way of expressing himself."
Andersen had a tendency to plunge headlong into love with women who did not return his affections. He fell for Riborg Voigt, but she ended up marrying another man, the son of a local chemist. Later he became hopelessly enamored of the singer Jenny Lind, known as the "Swedish Nightingale."
Andersen also had some strong attachments to men, and scholars have questioned whether he may have been gay.
"Was Andersen actually a homosexual? In my opinion, he had these strong emotions for both women and these male friends, but friendships between men were different in the 19th century," said Mai. "It was a part of being a male to cry, to say 'I love you.'"
In her opinion, Andersen's attachments were always much more emotional than physical. Tall (he stood 6 feet 2 inches), skinny, with a big nose, Andersen was destined to be unlucky at love.
He won international acclaim, but somehow the attention at home was never so positive. The philosopher S&slash;oren Kirkegaard, a fellow famous Dane, once gave Andersen a bad review, and Andersen never forgot it.
In a way, Andersen felt very much like the Ugly Duckling, said Mai. "He also thought that we here in Denmark didn't appreciate him," she said.