The Father of Fairy Tales Was Also a Masturbation Journal Pioneer
Everyone needs a hobby. However good someone might be at their job, they need something else as well, something that takes them out of it for a while, that has different stakes, different aims. You might be a coder who enjoys a bit of archery during the weekend, for instance, or a pilot who unwinds by playing retro video games. It’s all healthy and balanced and pleasant.
Hans Christian Andersen, one of the most famous writers of fairy tales in all of history, had a hobby: When he wasn’t making up instantly timeless tales that would echo through the ages, he was jerk, jerk, jerk, jerk, jerking his hog. It’s a popular hobby, but we know that he in particular enjoyed giving himself a bit of a thrashing, because he documented it. He kept a diary, and noted down every time he flogged the dolphin.
Sexually, he was a bit of an enigma. He never married, and at different times in his life, he was infatuated with both men and women. He’s thought to have remained celibate his whole life, the result of a combination of a complicated childhood, disgust at his sexual feelings and religious guilt about same-sex attraction.
In fairness, there was a lot going on in his childhood for the young Hans Christian to deal with. Born in 1805, he was both clumsy and effeminate, shunned by his schoolmates. His aunt ran a brothel and his half-sister worked as a prostitute, which are thought to have affected his views on relationships with women later on. His father had mental health issues, and his grandfather spent a lot of his life committed to an asylum. Andersen was dyslexic and had multiple phobias, including an obsessive terror of being burned or buried alive.
A lot of the themes that run through his later work — of transformation, redemption, loneliness and yearning — are thought to stem from his early years. He compared himself to the Ugly Duckling — who eventually becomes a beautiful swan after constant rejection — on multiple occasions. When he died in 1875, he was found to be carrying a letter in his pocket from a girl he was in love with as a youth and spurned his advances, seemingly carrying it with him for decades.
But even in adulthood and financial success, surrounded by friends who championed his writing, he never entered into sexual relationship, although he had several ongoing romantic obsessions — he might have been celibate, but he was also pretty horny, consumed with what he called “Parisian thoughts.”
At one point, it was famous singer Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, who was the object of his affections until she told him she viewed him more as a brother. At another time, it was Edvard Collin, the son of his professional mentor, to whom he wrote florid love letters with passages like, “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench. … My sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” Collin didn’t reciprocate, however. Nor did his sister Louise when she in turn became the subject of Andersen’s infatuation. The closest he came to a relationship was time spent as a close companion of dancer Harald Scharff, which Andersen later referred to as “the erotic period” of his life.
But all the physical side of things seems to have been self-performed. The code he used in his journals wasn’t particularly complex — he used two small crosses, like plus signs, to show that he’d gone for it. For instance, one diary entry about receiving a visitor concludes, “When they left, I had a double-sensuous ++.” (It’s possible that some of his relationships got more physical, but he declined to record them in his diary. It just seems like, if you were so paralyzed by guilt and shame that you couldn’t admit to yourself that you were having sex, you might not also document every time you spanked the monkey.)
He developed a habit at one point of visiting brothels (or as he called them, “human shops”) just to fill his mind with material to entertain himself with later. One diary entry mentions leaving such an establishment “without having sinned in deed, but certainly in my thoughts.” As the Canadian playwright Robert Lepage, who wrote a play about the writer, The Andersen Project, puts it, “When he visited Paris, he would go to brothels in the Porte Saint-Denis area, not to touch the women, but to speak to them, return to his hotel and wank off.”
And sometimes he overdid it. His diary entries include passages like “penis sore,” “penis sick,” “penis tender,” “penis very bad” and “penis hurts.”
At one point he stayed at Charles Dickens’ house, two literary giants under one roof. However, rather than resulting in some incredible collaboration or meeting of minds, Dickens ended up pissed off after Andersen stayed for five weeks instead of the planned two and made bizarre requests, including for Dickens’ son to shave him. Dickens later wrote, describing his guest room, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” Whether this was also partly due to him constantly tugging away at himself has been lost to time.
None of this overshadows his incredible literary achievements, of course — Hans Christian Andersen is rightly celebrated as a creative genius able to come up with stories that immediately felt as though they’d always been part of the fabric of collective human consciousness. If anything, it humanizes this absurdly gifted individual to know that, between stories, he was yanking himself raw.