Inspiration and publicationHans Christian Andersen was given the opportunity to write a new fairy tale for the upcoming Danish People Calendar for 1846. This booklet was published annually for the general public. As well as creative writing, it would contain useful information such as dates and statistics.
The story was to be based on one of three illustrations sent to Andersen. It was Johan Thomas Lundbye’s drawing of a little beggar girl (with a bundle of matchsticks in her hand) that inspired him the most. I don’t know any Danish, so am unsure how reliable this source is, but here’s what looks to be a photograph of ‘The Little Match Girl’ as it appears in the Danish People Calendar for 1846, with the original Lundbye illustration that caught Andersen’s interest.
Andersen wrote ‘The Little Match Girl’ during his one-month stay with the Duke of Augustenborg. The fairy tale was published in December 1845.
Past and presentWorking, homeless and beggar children were not unusual in the nineteenth century. Begging itself was a rising issue, so the response of most authorities was to make begging a criminal offence. Children on the streets would sell matches or newspapers to avoid getting arrested.
Since Andersen came from a poor background, it’s easy to see why he was so affected by Lundbye’s illustration. At the time of writing ‘The Little Match Girl’, he was a well-established writer with a number of successful publications. He had also been given an annual grant by the king of Denmark in 1838, allowing him to write whatever he wished. He was living in success that his parents had never known. Perhaps, in Lundbye’s illustration, Andersen saw his own family’s history of poverty.
According to Andersen himself, his fairy tale characters were based on real-life people. In the case of ‘The Little Match Girl’, the heart of the story came not only from Andersen’s own experiences, but also from his mother’s. He shares in his autobiography his mother’s childhood memories of begging on the streets. Whenever she went home empty-handed, her parents treated her cruelly. Sometimes, she would be too scared to go home and instead spent the night outside.
Even as a writer gaining international fame and recognition, Andersen never forgot his roots.
The endingDoes the little match girl really have to die?
Plenty of people think she shouldn’t, because ‘The Little Match Girl’ is first and foremost a children’s story. Allowing the lead character to freeze to death is cruel and distressing. How would a child respond to such an ending? For that matter, what are grown-ups supposed to get out of this fairy tale? Isn’t children’s literature supposed to distract us from the horrors of day-to-day living?
Unsurprisingly, there are versions of the story where the little girl survives and is granted a warm and loving home (Maria Tatar points to a 1944 American translation, which guarantees a “happily ever after”). Andersen, however, selected Lundbye’s illustration of a beggar girl for a reason.
One can easily turn a blind eye on the poor, but by confronting his own history of poverty and translating its reality into the form of a children’s story, Andersen was telling the people of the world to look. It’s a story about a child, for a child, based on very real childhood experiences. It’s arguably because of the tragic ending that ‘The Little Match Girl’ has managed to live on in people’s hearts.