In this very personal post author Derek Farrell explains why The Little Matchgirl gets his vote to be included in our Christmas Special Edition - A Very Fahrenheity Christmas...
Marie Grimes – a cousin on my father’s side - was my Godmother.
Marie was my aunt’s daughter, but the age gap between us meant I referred to her as Auntie Marie. She was almost impossibly glamorous for Dublin in the seventies and eighties: Marie had a job with the European Union, and lived in Luxembourg and Brussels, and jetted around European capitals at a time when people like me could dream, at best, of a mailboat trip and overnight train ride to London.
And she was not only impossibly glamorous; she was a really great Godmother too. She never forgot me, and often sent gifts from wherever she was. And on one of those trips – to Copenhagen – she bought and sent me a book of Hans Christian Andersen stories, translated into English and lavishly illustrated with a cover image featuring – what else? – The Little Mermaid.
But it wasn’t ‘Den lille havfrue’ that caught eight- or nine-year-old Derek’s imagination. It was another story in that collection – The Little Matchgirl – that broke my heart the first time I read it, and which (I’ve just re-read it and had a little weep before writing this) can still make the soul sing a little even as it chips a little more of the flint-like heart away.
This perfect little story is a wonderful mixture of beauty and melancholy. The language is poetry, the imagery is both beautiful and whimsical, and the themes of love, loss, longing, of man’s inhumanity to mankind, and of the common desire for a redemption - for something better than the cold dark world – are universal.
But there’s more here. There’s a darkness as brutal and biting as the Midwinter Danish night it takes place in. There’s a sadness that, for a kid of a very early age, was an unknown feeling that’s stayed with me my whole life. There’s the luxury, reading the beautiful but terrible little story from the warm bosom of a loving family and a warm hearth, of enjoying the melancholy (the unnamed child, her story and her ultimate fate are not normal fairytale fare).
And these two things – the poetry and the sadness – make it the perfect holiday read, which is why I’m so delighted that Fahrenheit Press have included one of my favourite pieces of writing in their new Holiday anthology, A Very Fahrenheity Christmas.
But there’s more: Andersen’s love of story, of language that was intelligent but playful; his sense of social justice and of the value of all creatures from the lowest up are all evident in this story and clearly made an impact on little Derek both personally and artistically. There’s a reference, in the story, to a glittering, gayly lit Christmas Tree glimpsed in a rich merchant’s house just before the front door slams firmly and permanently shut. It’s that – those glimpses of the impossible and the impact of all that longing on people – that inspired my book Death of an Angel, while anger at the idea that a death, any death, could be seen as unimportant because of the status of the dead is at the heart of Death of a Nobody.
Then, of course, there’s the love of wordplay, of what R.P. Keigwan (writing in 1935) called Andersen’s ‘Conversational touch … crisp, lively openings … frequent asides or parentheses, little bits of slang; much grammatic licence; and, above all, a free use of particles – those nods and nudges of speech with which Danish is so richly endowed.” I’m not putting myself in the same room, let alone the same stairway as Andersen, nor would I dream of doing so, but I think it’s clear to see, from a cursory skim through Death of a Diva, Death of a Devil or any of the other Danny Bird mysteries, just how important to the development of my worldview and writing style this story and its author were.
And there’s more: Andersen’s classic “The Snow Queen,” was begun one icy day in Copenhagen. December 5th 1844, to be exact.
It was published – written, redrafted, typset, printed bound and on the shelves - sixteen days later on the 21st day of the same month.
If that drive to make the story work and to get it into the hands of the readers with as much urgency as possible, doesn’t make him a Fahrenheit Hero, then I don’t know what does.
Even Dickens, writing in the London Daily News in 1875 noted that the frozen desperate child in The Little Match Girl is “No less real and living in [her] way than Othello, or Mr Pickwick or Helen of Troy”, going on to note that whilst “It seems a very humble field in which to work”, Andersen’s metier is a vital one that connects us to the earliest story tellers, and that HC Andersen “has succeeded in recovering and reproducing the kind of imagination which constructed the old stories”. And this – the recognition and celebration of the vitality and value of an artform and a genre which the establishment would happily sniff, sneer and dismiss – is at the heart of what Fahrenheit is about.
My Godmother died a few years ago, but I still think of her often, and always credit her impossible glamour and her love of travel and books with adding to who I became eventually. I’ll be gifting this wonderful anthology – which features, alongside Andersen, stories by Wilde, The Grimm Brothers, Doyle, and O. Henry – this year. It’s a selection of joy and melancholy and love, and, as Fahrenheit themselves have noted, it’s the closest you can get to a Christmas hug in book form.
Stay well, and be loved.
Derek Farrell, November 2020
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