Hans Christian Andersen: The Princess & the Pea
One of the greatest words in the Danish language has to be “hygge”. Danish cookery writer Kirstin Uhrenholdt describes it as “a better, even more embracing word than ‘cosy’. It is being with friends and family, flickering candles, laughter, tea in mugs, the smell of cinnamon and baking bread, long evenings around bonfires. It is a warm feeling of togetherness and gratitude.”
And when the heroine of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1835 tale “The Princess and the Pea” arrives at her future husband’s castle, she is definitely in need of hygge. There are so many versions of this story that it’s worth remembering that in the Danish author’s classic telling, the prince does not ‘find’ his princess. She comes to him.
Andersen’s story goes that the young man has decided he wants to marry a “true” princess, and although he has travelled all over the world and found “princesses enough”, it has proven “difficult to find out whether they were real ones. There was always something about them that was not as it should be. So he came home again and was sad.” Ah, a sad prince of Denmark! Having trouble finding a woman good enough for him! You’d be right to hear echoes of Hamlet, which had its first Danish performance in 1796 in Hans Christian Andersen’s hometown of Odense.
Well, one evening while Andersen’s picky prince was wondering whether true love was to be or not to be, “a terrible storm came on; there was thunder and lightning, and the rain poured down in torrents. Suddenly a knocking was heard at the city gate, and the old king went to open it. It was a princess standing out there in front of the gate. But, good gracious! What a sight the rain and the wind had made her look. The water ran down from her hair and clothes; it ran down into the toes of her shoes and out again at the heels. And yet,” writes Andersen, “she said that she was a real princess.”
Like Hamlet, Andersen’s prince had a rather proactive mother, and she decides to test the princess’ claim by laying a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdown beds. In the morning, the poor girl claims to have slept “very badly! Heaven only knows what was in the bed, but I was lying on something hard, so that I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible!”
Her extreme sensitivity proves her value, so she is permitted to marry the prince and the pea is placed in a museum. For Andersen, the moral of the tale was that true nobility lay in sensitivity, not wealth. Like so many of the ancient folktales he reworked, it was a romanticised version of his own life. As the son of a poor shoemaker who died when he was eleven, Andersen’s washerwoman mother believed that her boy had greatness in him, and the lanky, beaky-nosed ‘ugly duckling’ found the strange confidence to push himself into the homes of the nobility demanding his artistic talents be recognised and given patronage.
The 1800s were a time of famine for the Danes. A series of fires and wars with the English brought the country to bankruptcy and the king led by example when it came to frugality, going from shop to shop in search of the cheapest snuff. Andersen went hungry for much of his early life and was often on the verge of starvation in his teens, renting the empty larders of Copenhagen brothels for sleeping quarters while he trained in drama and dance, given doses of oil to keep his limbs supple and developing a horror of sødgrød, a basic kind of a porridge consisting of barley and whole milk.
But although he wrote in a rural vernacular which appalled the critics – he always complained that “the backbone of the language”, grammar, “keeps laughing at me like a vile skeleton” – Andersen’s creativity did allow him to charm his way into the upper echelons of Danish society. In 1821, Crown Princess Caroline invited him to the palace for fruitcake. When he left, she gave him a little wrap of sweets which the clumsy lad dropped, and the princess found him even more adorable when he sank to his knees and began picking them up from beneath her chair. He later took them to eat beneath the budding birches of the public gardens, singing to the birds and the blossoms and recording in his diary that, “At that moment I was a child of nature.”
Although he experienced intense unrequited love for both men and women, Andersen never found his own true prince or princess. But literary fame allowed him to sate his longing for hygge at the homes of wealthy admirers for the rest of his life.
“It is difficult to say whether he had an appreciation of fine cuisine or just enjoyed a free meal,” says Dr Henrik Lübker, curator at the Hans Christian Andersen museum. “But he had a sweet tooth and suffered from horrible toothaches throughout his life.” Today, his dentures are on display at the museum.
For the Danish palate these days, one of the most popular tastes is liquorice. The Danes consume over 600 million Ga-Jol liquorice pastilles per year, in addition to drinking liquorice-flavoured beers, vodkas and ice creams. Although it is also served in its salty form, the glycyrrhizic acid that is extracted from the root of the liquorice plant is fifty times sweeter than sugar. And the liquorice plant also turns out to be part of the pea family.
When he died, aged 70 in 1875, recognised with an annual stipend as a national treasure, Hans Christian Andersen was buried in Copenhagen’s now fashionable Nørrebro district. Just round the corner from Denmark's first handmade sweet shop, the Karamelleriet, where squishy liquorice is still cooked up in copper pans over an open fire and rolled through an ancient machine, emerging with the lingering bittersweetness of Andersen’s best stories.