What the Moon Saw

  • by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

We’ve been thinking a fair bit about chimney sweeps recently at Central Library… Not because the chimneys here need attention (it’s a long time since any of our various original fireplaces held an open fire) but because our student-curated Sweepiana exhibition is currently occupying Room 700 until 5 May 2017. Objects on display range from a real – and tiny – top hat worn by an unfortunate young sweep, to a life-size mock-up of a chimney for you to stick your head inside and shudder at the thought of having to climb. We also have, as you’d expect, a fine selection of books, mostly from the city’s Henry Collection, which focuses specifically on the subject of sweeps.

One of the most exciting things about this collection is the sheer variety it encompasses, whether it’s rare and beautifully illustrated editions of William Blake poetry (“A little black thing among the snow / Crying “’weep! ’weep!” in notes of woe!”) or medical studies of chimney sweep health in the Victorian era. For me, one surprise was the sixteen different books of stories by Hans Christian Andersen, an author I previously associated only with what I assumed to be children’s fairy tales involving little mermaids and ugly ducklings. A less familiar but fairly characteristic story of his, entitled The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweeper, explains why he’s so well represented in the Henry Collection, but there’s also another story included in some of the volumes that mentions a sweep – one that’s not as well-known, and which I think remains one of Andersen’s most unusual tales.

Fairy tale compendiums from 1905 and 1887, included in the Henry Collection

What the Moon Saw was published in 1839, making it the 21st fable from Andersen’s pen (a number that would eventually total 168). Uniquely, it is split into 33 short parts, each describing unrelated scenes witnessed by the Moon as it travels around the world, looking down at its inhabitants over the course of some fifty or so nights. Fittingly for a tale told entirely after sunset, the tone is dark, even occasionally bleak – something I didn’t immediately associate with this author, despite being mildly traumatized as a child by a story of his called The Daisy (no one, be they flora or fauna, survives that grim little piece).

In What the Moon Saw, we’re first introduced to a young artist who has moved to a garret in the city, only to find his creative passion outweighed by loneliness: “Instead of green woods and hills, I had only chimney pots on my horizon. I had not a single friend, and there was not even the face of an acquaintance to greet me.”

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Illustration by Rex Whistler, from Fairy Tales and Legends by Hans Andersen, published by Cobden-Sanderson Ltd (1935) and part of the Henry Collection

But one familiar face does eventually appear in the sky outside his window – that of the Moon, who decides to check in on the artist each night, describing a scene for him to paint and enabling the creation of ‘a very fine picture book’. (In fact, the story was originally published under the name A Picture Book without Pictures.) The rest of the tale is not really a tale at all, but a collection of abstract impressions, some dreamlike and haunting, some almost unbearably tragic, and many concerned with death. We don’t encounter the artist again until the ‘Eighth Evening’, when the Moon can’t appear due to some unfortunate cloud issues; and – after that – never again, as the vignettes take over from the original narrative completely and What the Moon Saw drifts into what it really wanted to be all along: a multifaceted and powerful prose poem about introspection, finding one’s place in the world, and recognizing that none of this ultimately amounts to very much after your star has twinkled out.

The moon itself, of course, has long been regarded as symbolic of inner emotions. The light it shines in this pictureless picture book is full of compassion – and yet a very real sense of distance, as it can only ‘kiss’ with its rays those who evoke its sympathy. Across the many scenes the Moon recounts, we hear about a suicidal actor, a little girl whose favourite doll is stuck in a tree, the deserted cityscapes of Pompeii and Venice, the birth of new life, and many bereaved and dying characters of all kinds. Here’s one of the lighter moments – the ‘Twenty-Sixth Evening’, and another reason why the works of Andersen sit alongside the others of the Henry Collection:

“It was yesterday, in the morning twilight … in the great city no chimney was yet smoking—and it was just at the chimneys that I was looking. Suddenly a little head emerged from one of them, and then half a body, the arms resting on the rim of the chimney-pot. ‘Hurrah!’ cried a voice. It was the little chimney-sweeper, who had for the first time in his life crept through a chimney, and stuck out his head at the top. ‘Hurrah!’ this was a very different thing to creeping about in the dark narrow chimneys! the air blew so fresh, and he could look over the whole city towards the green wood. The sun was just rising. It shone round and great, just in his face, that beamed with triumph, though it was very prettily blacked with soot. ‘The whole town can see me now,’ he exclaimed, ‘and the moon can see me now, and the sun too. Hurrah!’ And he flourished his broom in triumph.”

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Illustration by Thomas, Charles and William Robinson, from Fairy Tales from Hans Christian Andersen, published by Dent & Co. (1905) and included in the Henry Collection

To find out more about the Sweepiana exhibition and the books included, come to our free Meet the Curators event on Monday 24 April at Leeds Central Library. Book your place via Ticketsource.

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