"The ending all match girls deserve"
Spoiler: It’s not the one Hans Christian Andersen came up with in his 1845 fable “The Little Match Girl,” a portrait of poverty-induced misery and fatal neglect:
“It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets.”
I reread Andersen’s tear-jerker recently when the New York Times Book Review asked me to write about two new middle-grade novels inspired (triggered might be a better word) by the story and its creator: Emma Carroll’s The Little Match Girl Strikes Back and Cary Fagen’s Hans Christian Andersen Lives Next Door.
The assignment got me thinking and reading a bit about HCA, an odd duck if ever there was one. Among other things, he was a terrible houseguest, ruining his friendship with pen pal Charles Dickens when he installed himself in the British novelist’s household for five weeks in 1857. (Dickens’ daughter Kate called their guest “a bony bore.”)
Andersen found Gad’s Hill, in Higham, Dickens’s country home, too cold, a biographer has noted. And he was also upset that no one was available to shave him in the morning.
Soon his mood swings also became a problem. He lay down on the lawn and wept after receiving a bad review and then cried again when he finally left Gad’s Hill on 15 July.
Dickens was less glum on his guest’s departure, writing on the mirror in the guest room: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!”
Though he overstayed his welcome chez Dickens, Andersen hasn’t lost his cultural staying power. He died in 1875 but remains a storytelling force, his tales (some of them anyway) retold time and again for new audiences. “The Little Mermaid,” most recently redone as a live-action Disney movie, has turned out to be especially durable. Certain fairy stories get told again and again for each new era—tale as old as time, etc.
I wouldn’t have picked the “The Little Match Girl” as ripe for retelling. Maybe readers of the 1840s felt uplifted by the visions of heaven the doomed girl sees as she strikes her last matches. In 2023, the news is too full of innocents suffering, in the streets at home as well as half a world away. Heavenly visions feel like cold comfort.
More responses than retellings, The Little Match Girl Strikes Back and Hans Christian Andersen Lives Next Door find possibilities in the source material that HCA probably couldn’t have imagined, living when and where he did. Both novels hand the story back to the girl and invite her to see if she can write a happier ending for herself.
Note: If you’re looking for a gift for the middle-grade reader on your holiday list, I especially recommend The Little Match Girl Strikes Back. It features both a corker of a workers’-rights plot, inspired by a real-life factory strike in 1888 London—match girls can be not only active but activists!—and fabulous, textured illustrations by Lauren Child, modeled on photos of the period.
Thanks for reading.