Sex, Death and The Snow Queen

I’m back at my lovely desk in the Scott Polar library after a staggering 16 days of childcare (my two and a friend’s three some days).  I didn’t manage any time to write during the Christmas break, but I notebooked like I have never done before and read the wonderful biography of Hans Christian Andersen by Jackie Wullschlager, amongst other snippets of research.

The biography made me think about how much of a writer’s personal narrative ends up in their work, even when they don’t intend it to be there.  Re-reading ‘The Snow Queen’ immediately after the biography highlighted this to me, I had been unaware of Andersen’s sexual confusion or ambivalence, perhaps even his fear of sex or consummation – but it’s all there in the fairy tale and probably all of his fairy tales.

Kay is seduced away from Gerda by an arresting yet emotionally frozen older woman.  Warm, loving, innocent Gerda’s dilemma is whether to remain in a permanent state of childhood without her playmate (and therefore alone) or to go out into the wide, unknown world of adulthood, discover her own erotic self, find Kay and reunite with him.

I think meeting (or being snatched by) the Robber-maiden assists Gerda with this process, she seems to represent something wild and untamed like desire.  She forces Gerda to share a bed with her: “You must lie still,” said the Robber-maiden, “or I will thrust my dagger into your side”.  You don’t need Freud to make the connection between a dagger and a phallus, but that terror of sex that seemed to be Andersen’s own; the suggestion of the penis as a weapon or intercourse as an act of violence to be avoided and feared relates so strongly to Andersen’s interior concerns.

The confusion about wether sex is destructive or creative seems to worry Kay as well as Gerda, when he is first lured into the Snow Queen’s sleigh: ‘Oh, her kiss was colder than ice, it went to his heart, although that was half-frozen already.  He thought he should die – but only for a moment…’.  This suggests a climax, but a terror of what is beyond and as yet no suggestion of renewal or return.  Perhaps if Andersen could have been reassured about sex being cyclical, a coming together, then a pulling away, but then a coming back together again it would have held less of a nightmarish quality to him.

Andersen lost his virginity, perhaps, at the age of 57 after a lifetime of uncertainty about his looks (‘The Ugly Duckling’ stems directly from these feelings), his sense of himself as a physical human being, and a crippling fear of rejection.  He recorded in his journal on many occasions that he felt ‘sensual’ for which I read ‘aroused’, but he allowed himself so little opportunity to explore this in a healthy adult relationship for fear, I suspect, that sex might overwhelm him with such pleasure it might obliterate him, devour him even.  Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that he was bisexual or gay at a time when it was illegal, but he had opportunities with both sexes that he clearly ran away from.  He seemed to make a decision that his muse or his creative life would be his partner, and my goodness was that relationship with his muse productive, but he remained lonely for the most part, isolated.

Andersen seemed to keep himself in a permanent state of childhood regarding intimacy and sexuality which perhaps was what he was trying to work through during the writing ‘The Snow Queen’ in the winter of 1844.  He had been deeply in love with, and rejected by, his closest friend Edvard Collin who was now married with young children.  He was just about to turn forty.  He was still a virgin.  Andersen’s own personal narrative undoubtedly lends the story a depth and authenticity and a sense of wonderment and fear, as though the two children he created on the brink of adulthood and sexuality were in fact aspects of himself.  He wrote this fairy tale feverishly over a few days in December and although it is rooted in snow, in ice, in frozen emotional states, there is an incredible amount of heat in it: hot coins pressed on iced-up windows to melt a peephole, fires with no chimneys (arousal with no outlet?), sweltering animal skins making people strip off, meltings from hot tears.  He wrote it as though from inside the mind of a child facing daunting changes both mentally and physically.   How could Andersen’s own deepest fears not seep into his writing? It reminds me of the Flaubert quote: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’.

Kaddy Benyon’s Milk Fever

Thank you to the lovely Michelle McGrane!

Peony Moon

Kaddy Benyon was born and raised in East Anglia. Her poems have appeared in several literary magazines and websites. She won the Crashaw Prize 2012 and her first collection, Milk Fever, is published by Salt. This year she was also introduced by Gillian Clarke as a Granta New Poet and become Invited Poet at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge where she is writing her second collection.

“The poems in Milk Fever draw on myth, motherhood, loss and rebirth. They are so sharply observed they can leave you breathless, and with details so clear and new-minted they heighten your sense of the world. Whether they are set in the north pole, a mineshaft in Chile, Pasternak’s Russia, a tiny Italian island, ancient Greece or a volcano in Argentina, one finds the same disquiet lurking, the same poignant complexity paired…

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There are three days until I launch my first collection of poetry, Milk Fever, (Salt Publishing) and I am afraid.  In fact I am so afraid I keep looking in the mirror with some kind of perverse wish to see just how, exactly, this kind of terror manifests itself on the face… and let me tell you, it’s not pretty.  Blood shot eyes?  Check.  Grey-blue bags under said eyes?  Check.  Nervous twitch on the lips?  Check.   Harry Potter furrow on the brow?  Check.  New white hairs?  Check.

It’s not so much the nerves, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel them.  I am not the most confident public speaker, but I have done enough readings now to understand how to manage them and for me, preparation is everything, key to my own enjoyment and possibly also to that of the audience also.  I had set aside today and tomorrow to write a thoughtful, intelligent and witty speech.  I had set aside Thursday to buy shoes and tights, to get my hair done and to pick my sister up from the station…

…and then Reality flounced in and hip-nudged Fantasy right off centre stage.  After two nights of bed-hopping, bed-wetting, nightmares and very little sleep, my youngest was diagnosed with mumps this morning (despite being up to date on his immunisations).  He is very poorly and would like to spend the entirety of his quarantine snuggled up to his mummy thank you very much.  Out goes the shoe shopping.  His big sister was sent home from school this afternoon with an ear infection.  My plans are one by one being thwarted and it’s hard not to panic.

Anyone who’s known me since I was six will tell you that I used to dream about a book launch the way most little girls dream about their wedding day, so maybe this anxiety is nothing more than the poet’s equivalent of a ‘bridezilla’ attack – maybe I am ‘Poetstein’?   Things going wrong suggests I have some idea there is a right way to do this.  The truth is, I have no idea.  This much I do know, however:  come Thursday, I have more friends, family and colleagues joining me at my favourite bookshop (Heffers, Cambridge) than I ever imagined would say yes.   All I want is to get there and celebrate my gorgeous-covered little book with my special people – and if that means I have to do an Anne Sexton and read barefoot, so be it.   It’d be a huge honour for me to be considered one of ‘Her Kind’ anyway.

HER KIND by Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
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