H. C. Andersen's Educational Roots Through His Own Eyes

He started out in Odense, he stumbled through three years in Copenhagen, and he buckled under his teachers in Slagelse and Helsingør. He endured the final stages before his university entrance exams. It is well known that Hans Christian Andersen moved haltingly through these years of his youth. When he died, both Archdeacon Rothe and Bishop Engelstoft who spoke at his funeral service at the Cathedral in Copenhagen, referred to his energy and the struggling days in his youth.

From the time he sat on his father's lap until he passed the exams giving him entry to the university, he was uniquely grounded in a non-traditional schooling that gave him the impetus for a career as a citizen of the universe. Whether he was in the Jewish School in Odense, studying music or theatrics with tutors, meeting with the rector of the Latin School, or preparing for his exams, Andersen absorbed and learned from each experience. He was influenced by his surroundings, family, teachers and other individuals who encouraged and discouraged him along the way. Essential to the understanding of Andersen's educational roots are his first 24 years of life from 1805 to 1829.

Most of what we know of Andersen's education comes by way of his own writing. In addition to his three autobiographies, we also have letters and diaries. However, it is in the autobiographies that we are able to closely examine the formal and informal descriptions of his education. The subtle nurturing and psychological impact on his life are revealed in his autobiographies.

When Andersen sat down to write his first autobiography, Levnedsbogen [L], in the early 1830's, he illuminated his early life for Louise Collin. Andersen wrote a letter to Louise expressing his feelings. Similar words appeared in the preface to the autobiography he was writing at the time. Andersen wrote, "Day by day everything becomes more poetic for me; poetry enters my life and I believe that life is a long, wonderful, poetic poem" (L19). Andersen went on to say to Louise that he was thinking of her as he wrote the story of his childhood (L7). Andersen had no intention of ever publishing this first autobiography. It was filled with personal remarks and intended only for himself and an extremely limited audience, namely, his friend, Louise (L16).

The subsequent autobiographies were spaced in intervals of ten years, in 1845, The True Story of My Life [TSL], and in 1855, The Fairy Tale of My Life [FTL]. A final manuscript was completed from earlier editions and published four to five years prior to Andersen's death. Each autobiography has a personality of its own with details of relationships, experiences and imaginative thoughts. Andersen writes of his struggles and also of the pleasant times.


Andersen's roots began in Odense in 1805 with family members who moulded him with imagination and personality. Neither of his parents had any formal educational background. In spite of this, however, both parents were interested in educating little Hans and in giving him a loving and caring environment.

Andersen's first teacher was his father, Hans Andersen, who was interested in reading, mainly the Bible, Holberg, Voltaire and The Arabian Nights. One of his earliest recollections was sitting on his father's knee, listening to his father reading stories.

Andersen also learned from his paternal grandmother. She loved him and he returned this mutual affection. In his first autobiography, Andersen recalled that his grandmother took him to places that didn't cost anything (L27). Once he had permission to be with his grandmother when she was tending the garden at the hospital. He kissed the roses and wrote in his autobiography that he still had the desire to kiss a rose each time he would see a beautiful red one (L30). These early experiences stayed with him and helped shape his thinking and his writing.

At about the age of five, Hans Christian attended his first formal school, a pre-school. It is not until his third autobiography that there is mention of this experience. He refers to the "old female teacher" who taught him the letters of the alphabet and who also taught him to spell and read (FML8). His teacher was not one who was particularly admired. When she hit Hans Christian for the first time, he picked up his book, left, and never returned to her school. His mother supported his action and then sent him to another school, a school for Jewish children where Fedder Carstens was the headmaster. Mr. Carstens took extraordinary care of Hans Christian during his years at his school. In 1811 the Jewish school closed and Andersen was then sent to the Charity School.

Also about this time, Hans Christian's parents started taking him to the theatre (L31). This was an experience his parents had been deprived of during their childhood. For Hans Christian, the impression was long lasting. In his second autobiography (TSL), Andersen didn't write much about his schooling in Odense. But he did write about his childhood, his family and his interest in the theatre.

At Hans Christian's third formal school, the Charity School, he spent time daydreaming as he looked at the Biblical scenes painted on the walls of the classrooms. This was an impressionable setting according to Andersen (L32). Andersen was not known to be a good student. He rarely completed his homework before leaving home in the morning, but managed to have it fresh in his mind before arriving at the door of the school house (L32).

Other interests kept Andersen active in Odense. He began to read Shakespeare and other classics from books borrowed from homes with libraries. The Parson's wife, Madame Bunkeflod, was one individual who loaned him books. In all three autobiographies, Andersen refers to her generosity and warmth.

Hans Christian was energetic and wanted to develop his interest in the theatre in Copenhagen. So, following his confirmation in 1819, Hans Christian made plans to leave Odense.


In September of 1819, Hans Christian left Odense and travelled for two and a half days by coach to Copenhagen. His entry to life in Copenhagen was through a letter which Christian Iversen wrote on behalf of Andersen. Iversen was acquainted with theatre personnel in Copenhagen. One thing led to another and now Andersen had an introduction to Madame Schall, the leading dancer of the Royal Ballet (L49). For the next three years, he would be circulating from ballet school to music lessons, from writing to acting in plays at the Royal Theatre. Although he was having a love affair with the theatre, it was generally an unhappy time for him. He was rejected in each endeavour he attempted, as a singer, dancer, actor and playwright. Andersen did have a talent for making others interested in him. This was a talent he seemed to have from childhood. He was practising it again in Copenhagen. He met Ingemann, Rahbek and Collin. These individuals and others formed a core group who were aware of Andersen and his attempts to begin a theatrical career.

Meanwhile, Andersen was quietly working on a manuscript for his play, Alfsol. He presented the play to the Board of Directors at the Royal Theatre. Rahbek, the theatre's literary consultant, along with the others on the Board, was impressed with the literary value of Andersen's writing but quite dismayed with the grammar and spelling errors. He saw his potential as a writer and recommended that Andersen seek further formal education (L92). As a result of the recommendation, royal funds were made available for Andersen to attend the Latin School in Slagelse. The hope of this investment was that Hans Christian would become educated and become a useful citizen.

Was this three-year period in Copenhagen considered a time of failure or could it be considered a time for transition from one educational root to the next? In one sense these years served as a break between his schooling in Odense and his next pursuit at the Grammar School in Slagelse. In another way, Andersen's time in Copenhagen was a continuation of a streak of difficulties that stretched from Odense to Copenhagen to Slagelse, Helsingør and back to Copenhagen again.


In 1822 Hans Christian set out on a new journey. In the first two autobiographies, he wrote of his thoughts as he left with the mail coach. He wished that his father and his grandmother were living so that they would have knowledge of his attendance at the Latin School (TSL65). He knew it would have pleased them to know he was furthering his education. Before Andersen arrived, he knew there was a new head of the Latin School and that he wrote poetry. According to his first autobiography, Andersen had read a poem the new rector had written, entitled "Elegy to Childhood" (L95).

In his early years, the new rector, Dr. Simon Meisling, was considered a fine and disciplined scholar and teacher. But gradually he changed and became more pedantic. He has been described as having a profile resembling the head of a pig, large stomach, large feet, white fingers (caused from licking after meals); wearing old, worn clothing, usually a vest; sporting an Anders Tikøb hat and walking with his hands in his pockets, an umbrella tucked under his arm.

Meisling started out to be kind and considerate to Andersen. On the first Sunday after Andersen's arrival and many subsequent Sunday evenings, Meisling invited him to his home for social purposes. That first evening with Meisling may have been a surprise for Meisling, as Andersen was eager to impress him by reading from a play and a story he had written. Meisling was an aspiring author, and herein may lie the root of the lifelong conflict with Meisling and Andersen. On his first day of class, Meisling placed Andersen in the Second Form where he would be academically on par with the other students. However, remember that Hans Christian was seventeen years of age. While Andersen had not acquired the basic skills usually associated with his own age group, his placement with 11 year olds seemed to be the only choice. He had little knowledge of Latin. Subjects, such as Greek, geography and geometry were also new to him. In retrospect he admitted that he could not locate Copenhagen on the map (L97). Andersen had Meisling for just one class per week during the first year and for several classes during his other years.

Meisling felt that Andersen was spending too much time with his creative writing. Once when he went to Copenhagen for Christmas vacation, he stayed with Captain Peter Wulff and his family. When Andersen attended parties, he was often asked to read his poetry. Meisling was envious and following this Christmas visit, Meisling wrote a letter to Andersen expressing his dissatisfaction with his poetry writing. Further, Meisling suggested Andersen refrain from writing, yielding to his school work. After Andersen read the letter, he fell to the floor, devastated. Meisling had little understanding for adolescent sensitivity. Andersen attempted to explain that the poetry he read at the parties was poetry he had written during vacation time and therefore was not an interruption to his school work (L142).

In his first autobiography, Andersen details his anxiety with Meisling and his progress in school. But it is in the other two editions that Andersen writes so poetically about his plight:

I was actually like a wild bird which is confined in a cage; I had the greatest desire to learn, but for the moment I floundered about, as if I had been thrown into the sea; one wave followed another. The Rector ... stood there as a divinity ... one day when I replied incorrectly ... he said that I was stupid ...".
(TSL67; FTL45)

Fortunately, Andersen had other role models. He mentions them in his autobiographies: his math teacher, Jacob Andersen, and his history teacher, Christopher Andersen; Jens Snitker, his teacher in Latin and Danish; Jeppe Quistgaard, his religion teacher, a favourite. Andersen felt that Quistgaard gave him a way to be thankful for his family as Quistgaard, too, came from a humble background (L98-99). When Andersen was preparing for his first exams in 1823, he wrote a lengthy letter to Quistgaard expressing his concern about his upcoming exams. He also poured his heart out about his family situation and earlier experiences in Copenhagen. Andersen apologetically made inquiry about moving to the next grade level. Needless to say, Andersen took his exams and the results were favourable enough for Meisling to pass him on to the Third Form (Galster 22-24).

There were other positive aspects of Andersen's school years in Slagelse. He acknowledged his pleasure at being at the alma mater of Baggesen, Rosenkilde and Ingemann. However, the best part of his school life, according to Andersen, were the forest walks to Sorø, to visit Ingemann and his new bride. These visits were inspirational and a chance to get away from his troubles in school (FTL50-51).

In 1826 Andersen learned that Meisling was dissatisfied with his life in Slagelse and was considering a move to Helsingør. Even though Meisling and Andersen did not have a good rapport, Meisling wrote a favourable letter to Collin asking if Andersen would be able to move with him. Andersen was not aware that Meisling had anything good to say about him. By this time Andersen was in the Third Form and Meisling felt that with some extra tutoring in Latin and Greek, Andersen would be equipped to pass the exam and complete his grammar school studies. Andersen moved with the Meisling family, but his situation did not improve. Meisling continued to treat Andersen inappropriately by locking him in the classroom at the end of the school day. He was required to either work on his Latin or play with Meisling's small children. There was no opportunity to be with any of his classmates. Andersen writes:

My life in this family furnishes the most evil dreams to my remembrance. I was almost overcome by it, and my prayer to God every evening was, that he would remove this cup from me and let me die. I possessed not an atom of confidence in myself. I never mentioned in my letters how hard it went with me, because the rector found pleasure in making a jest of me, and turning my feelings to ridicule.

By contrast, in Levnedsbogen, he compared his school setting in Helsingør to Slagelse: students healthier and not shy, teachers more elegantly dressed. He had a favourite teacher, Schørring, who was more empathetic towards students with his sense of humour. Eventually, Andersen was removed from the school in Helsingør and he wrote about his feelings as he left Meisling and the Latin School:

When, in taking leave of him, I thanked him for the kindness which I had received from him, the passionate man cursed me, and ended by saying that I should never become a student, that my verses would grow mouldy on the floor of the bookseller's shop, and that I myself should end my days in a madhouse. I trembled to my innermost being, and left him.


The saga does not end there. In Levnedsbogen, Andersen chronicles his experiences with Ludvig Müller, the young linguist who would tutor Andersen daily. As Andersen walked back and forth to his tutor, his mind was constantly occupied. On the way out he thought of his lessons and on the way home, relieved that his lessons were behind him, he let his imagination amuse him. In his autobiography, Andersen wrote, "All sorts of colourful poetic images went through my head. I jotted some down on paper but kept most in my head" (FTL58). When the exam was completed he sat down to write A Journey on Foot from Holmens Canal to the Eastern Point of Amager. Meisling appears in the poem as the Devil in the disguise of a schoolmaster.

In 1828, Andersen passed his final entry examination for the university. Ørsted was one of the examiners and Oehlenschläger was dean of the faculty of arts that year. Andersen relates an experience he had when he was completing his formal exam. "During the oral examination I was so nervous that I splattered ink from my pen all over the face of one of the examiners, who was kind enough, however, not to say anything but just to wipe the ink off his face" (L186). In 1829 Andersen passed two more exams, one in philosophy and the other in philology. Now Andersen was able to pursue specialized university study.


Andersen's education was not traditional. It was as unique as his many and varied life's experiences. As a creative, insightful, gregarious person, he loved to be recognized by other people. Was this outcome a result of the kind of education he had or was his life moulded at birth and shaped by his mother and father before he went to pre-school? Perhaps it was a combination of hereditary and environmental factors. To what extent did his formal education change his life? It is difficult to determine how much he actually learned and retained during his preconfirmation years in school. Andersen was 17 years old before he resumed his formal education in Slagelse. He was poorly prepared for this level of education. Yet, he passed his major examinations. So it would seem that Andersen benefited from the drudgery of his school years and that the granting of a Royal Scholarship to him was not in vain.

When thinking about Andersen and his schooling, it is imperative to return to his teacher, Dr. Meisling, to realize the impact this educator had on Andersen. He recalls a meeting and an episode in his dreams. In an 1838 letter written to Ingemann Andersen wrote:

Meisling came up to me in the street and said he wanted to tell me that he knew he had been unkind to me at school but that he had been mistaken in me, and he was sorry, and I was far above him - as he put it. He asked me to forget his harshness and said, "Honour is yours, shame is mine." Oh, how it touched me.

In several diary entries, he writes about dreams in which Meisling is featured. The most poignant occurred less than a year before Andersen's death:

... I had lovely dreams and one that was especially comforting, and about how I coolly and confidently went up for my exams. Meisling came in the room and I declared that I couldn't listen while I was being examined because I would feel such pressure that I would give stupid answers, which is exactly what I did. A little while later I was walking with Meisling, and he came with his brand of humour. I felt cheerful and confident, and we soon started to talk about art and everything beautiful and ended up very firm friends. He seemed to respect me and I, him.
(The Diaries. 356)

Meisling made a deep impression on Andersen who carried the burden and finally released it in his dreams.

As recorded in Andersen's own words, he received formal and informal schooling in Odense, Slagelse, Helsingør and Copenhagen. While he never attended the university, he did combine his academic understanding with what he learned from being around educated people to form the nucleus of his creativity. Thus, coupled with a vivid imagination and fresh ideas, Andersen's educational roots served as a base for an active and creative life.


  Andersen, H. C., The Fairy-Tale of My Life, Ontario: Random House of Canada, 1975. (Mit Livs Eventyr, translated 1868.)
  H. C. Andersens Levnedsbog: Digterens Liv 1805-31. Nedskrevet 1832. Udgivet med et Forord af Hans Brix. Copenhagen: Aschehoug, 1926.
  Andersen, H. C., Mit eget Eventyr uden Digtning. Efterskrift og noter ved H. Topsøe-Jensen. Copenhagen: Lademann, 1986.
  Andersen, H. C., The True Story of My Life. Translated by Mary Howitt. London, 1847.
  The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen. Selected and translated by Patricia L. Conroy and Sven H. Rossel. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990.
  Galster, Kjeld, H. C. Andersen og hans Rektor. Kolding: Konrad Jørgensens Bogtrykkeri, 1933.
  "H. C. Andersens Dagbog fra hans sidste Aar i Slagelse 1825-1826" (ed. H. G. Olrik), in Anderseniana, 1st Series, Vol. 4, 1936, pp. 1-150.
  Hedegaard, Ole A., H. C. Andersen og Helsingør 1826-27. Copenhagen: Bent Carlsens Forlag, 1981.

Bibliographic information about the text:

Johnson, Kristi Planck: "H. C. Andersen's Educational Roots Through His Own Eyes" , In: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (ed.): Hans Christian Andersen. A Poet in Time. Papers from the Second International Hans Christian Andersen Conference 29 July to 2 August 1996. The Hans Christian Andersen Center, Odense University, Odense University Press. 576 pages, Odense, Denmark 1999.