The Writing Place – Hans Christian Andersen

I have had a thing about Lego for as long as I can remember. This led to a school project on Denmark, where I announced that I had not been to Denmark ‘but I would like to one day’. I don’t know how old I was, but I do know my writing looked this bad:

I never was much good at drawing Norwegian fjords

Denmark is a country I have a deep affection for. I get Denmark and Denmark gets me. Perhaps I should write a blog post raving about how exciting it is to visit a place with stunning architecture, views, Viking sites, the original Legoland, food, castles, design, pastries, bacon and clever Scandi-solutions everywhere you go, but this is not that post.

Well. You get the idea.

Nope. This post, following on from one I did about Rudyard Kipling’s home in East Sussex, is the second in an occasional series I am writing about places associated with well-known writers. I want to learn about what other authors’ places were like, what inspired them and how their creative spaces looked, if it is still possible to visit them.

I first went to Denmark for a long weekend with Matthew for our tenth wedding anniversary. We took the children last summer on a return visit. As well as Copenhagen, we got to travel on a replica Viking boat and were able to spend time on Jutland so that I could fulfil my ambition to visit Legoland Billund. As a writer, one of the highlights for me was popping in to Odense in order to visit the home of Hans Christian Andersen.

Someone obviously moved those islands since I drew them

Odense is on the island of Funen, which is connected by bridges to Jutland to the West and Sjælland (Zealand) to the East. A visit to Odense is well worthwhile; it is a pretty town with lots of history and is conveniently between Copenhagen and Billund. 

It is also, of course, the home town of the celebrated Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).

Hans, sensibly wearing layers in the changeable Danish climate
Andersen’s childhood home

Odense is home to the birthplace of Andersen, which has been adapted and extended into a fascinating museum about the man and his work, and also his childhood home, a humbler and much smaller yellow building with lots of timber details and the same tiny, curtained cot-beds and metal box radiators you can find in other historic buildings in Denmark.


Both sites fascinated me. I was intrigued to learn a lot about this famous author, but also surprised at how humble his beginnings really were. His mother was an illiterate washerwoman, who had hopes of her son becoming a tailor. Hans was certainly an odd character himself. He wrote prolifically (over 3000 works, including fairy tales, poetry, novels and travelogues), travelled widely and had a hobby cutting paper shapes. Bizarre, enigmatic paper shapes. He was tall and had a large nose and chose a life of celibacy, perhaps to disguise his various attractions. His stories were as bizarre and creative as his papercutting.

Some of Hans Christian Andersen’s more famous stories are ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Snow Queen’, The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Princess and the Pea’ and ‘Thumbelina’. Though few people read them in the original Danish, many are very well known through translations, films, plays and ballets.

Andersen clearly had a vivid – and often disturbing – imagination. He had grown up in poverty and been mistreated by a school-master. He had been told not to write and had failed at various career options. However, he appears to have had confidence and a need to write, which led to some of his writing getting published in Denmark and then acclaim in Germany and England too with ‘The Improvisatore’, a novel set in Italy and published in 1835.  The same year, his first fairy tales were also published, almost unnoticed. The first ones were re-told folk tales with strong moral messages, and later ones came from his imagination, often drawing on personal memories. Many of the fairy tales have strong characters and memorable dramatic or emotive situations. Andersen had an ear for telling stories like a child and an eye for sentimental detail.



While we were at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum we bought a Danish edition of an English retelling of his Danish work, ‘The Little Tin Soldier’. I’m not sure if you can source it anywhere else. My Danish is not strong, but I’m pretty sure the internet is right in translating the first part as ‘He began to blow as hard as he could.’ The second part is easier to guess.


I never did trust jack-in-the-boxes. So unpredictable.


“Ha’ ikke hovedet under armen – for din sikkerheds skyld”

Danish is a curious language. If you have learned German and are fluent in English, a great deal is guessable. If you know Norwegian or Swedish it is even easier. Danes are quirky and direct. You are likely to see signs like this at the stations, for example. The literal translation is ‘do not have your head under your arm – for your safety’ and the meaning equates to ‘keep your head screwed on’.

I can’t help thinking the national mentality is still not far removed from Andersen’s.


Hans kept his head under his arm however, so to speak. He kept his hands busy too, churning out page after page. This is one of his writing spaces, at the Museum:


Andersen’s writing desk (far right)

Such an elegant space, with many nineteenth century details, dark wood and curves. As a tall person myself I doubt he would have been particularly comfortable at the desk for long, although he was often travelling and writing. If it represents Andersen’s real work space it appears remarkably tidy, not to mention free of tiny paper cuttings.

There are few other books in this space and everything feels dignified and proper. Perhaps he was trying to show his wealth in a good light.

Here are a few more facts about the man himself:

  • Hans left school at fourteen, started as an apprentice tailor in Copenhagen and tried unsuccessfully to work as a singer, dancer and actor there, having lost his father in 1816.
  • He often lived as a guest in the country estates of wealthy friends. He loved meeting celebrities of his day.
  • He overstayed a visit to Charles Dickens and was eventually asked to leave after five weeks; this meant the friendship broke down.
  • He couldn’t spell or write elegant Danish, as he struggled to work systematically after a poor initial education; his writing is colloquial and easier to read as a result.
  • He was frequently in love, but apparently always unrequited; the famous singer Jenny Lind turned down a marriage proposal from him.

Today, thousands of people visit his hometown each year to see where he grew up, and millions around the world know his stories. Andersen has been immortalised in many ways and in many places. The latest is this:

HCA legoLego Creative Personalities set 40291 has just been announced: a book with reference to the great Dane. It seems Hans Christian Andersen still captures the imagination of young and old alike. Even in Lego.


The Writing Place – Rudyard Kipling

I write, you know. Mostly at my desk, often in my head and occasionally out and about. I scribble ideas in notebooks and on my phone and at night I rehearse ideas to commit them to memory. I use lined paper, plain paper, scrap paper and the screen to record plans and research notes, to make drafts and sweat through rewrites and edits. My writing discipline is improving; time then for a new blog series.

I visited a number of places in the past year which were directly associated with famous authors. It really got me thinking. I like my writing space to make sense in my head, though I doubt it comes over as organised to others. I am not comfortable in a noisy space. What about other people though? How much room do you really need to write? What conditions are conducive to penning a good book?

Where do other writers write? 

Towards the end of last year as the light faded into half-days, I found myself at the desk of Rudyard Kipling. If you are interested in seeing it for yourself, Bateman’s now belongs to the National Trust and can be found in East Sussex. Kipling lived there from 1902 until his death in 1936. The grand Jacobean house, set in beautiful gardens was the result of a very healthy income from his writing; a situation most writers today would find unimaginable.

This is his desk, in his rather lovely office:


The walls are lined with shelves and shelves of books, and the table holds pens, ink, newspapers, books, letters, an hour-glass, sealing equipment and his tiny spectacles. In the waste-paper basket are half a dozen discarded novellas by the looks of it. A globe, rugs, fine furniture and windows on two sides make the room look studious and practical and elegant. I like this room. It has the perfect writing atmosphere of diligence and expectancy. The creative space would be a dream for many writers; I’d love it too, as long as my dodgy copperplate could be brought up to scratch. I wouldn’t need the ash-tray and I’m not that impressed with the ivory elements, but the ambience is wonderful.

Kipling owned terriers, and I imagine him leaning back in his chair at the end of a good paragraph, inhaling a puff of something stale and woody and giving the little black pup sleeping by his desk a playful scratch. He loved his dogs, and wrote a book during his time at Bateman’s called Thy Servant a Dog which was published in 1930 from the point of view of ‘Boots’. I bought an early edition on my visit and was struck at how the dog’s language was just as witty and dog-like as many memes circulating the internet today.


Outside it was wet and wintry, but we still found time to see a little of the gardens. My son Joe was not impressed with the brassica beds. Perhaps I ought to revisit at a sunnier time of the year. He’s not really a sprout fan.

Visiting Rudyard Kipling’s home and seeing one of his writing spaces was fascinating for me, and I found out lots more about the man and his work. For example:

  • The author’s full name was Joseph Rudyard Kipling; he was known as Ruddy or Rud most of his life. (Rudyard is the name of a lake near Leek in Staffordshire, which was a special place for his parents.)
  • Rudyard was born in India at the end of 1865. As a young child he had Indian servants and was spoilt and difficult to control, but he did learn Hindustani.
  • At five and a half, Rudyard and his younger sister were packed off to England to live with foster carers.
  • He took a job in journalism in Lahore (then in India) when he left school.
  • He was short and full of energy and often worked very long hours.
  • Kipling became a freemason in Lahore.
  • His works were first published in India and by 1891 he was a household name in England and America.
  • Rudyard married American Caroline Balestier in 1892. They lived in Vermont for a while and had three children: Josephine, who died in 1899, Elsie and a son John who was killed in WW1.
  • Kipling was extremely well-travelled in his life, visiting Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bermuda, Rhodesia, France, Sweden, Egypt, Brazil and the West Indies.
  • Among various other accolades, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.
  • He worked hard to help the British in the Boer War and visited South Africa a number of times;
  • Kipling owned a 1928 Rolls Royce Phantom I, which can be seen at Bateman’s.
  • His long friendship with Lord Baden-Powell led to his Jungle Book characters’ names being used in the Cub Scouts;
  • Jungle Book was made into a cartoon by Disney in 1967 and a live action adaptation in 2016, but not many people know that Kipling wrote a sequel, The Second Jungle Book.
  • Kipling was overlooked for the role of Poet Laureate in 1913, perhaps because of his independent views and reluctance to write to order.

Rudyard Kipling (portrait).jpg

Rudyard Kipling was certainly a fascinating man, and a very popular writer. His writing space had many of its own stories to tell. I’m not likely ever to get my own Nobel Prize certificate adorning the walls of my home, but seeing around Kipling’s was exceedingly satisfying.