The Princess and the Pea, one of Hans Christian Andersen's shortest yet best-known stories, first appeared in his first collection of Tales Told For Children in 1835. The unbound, 61-page booklet also included the Tinderbox, Little Claus and Big Claus, and Little Ida’s Flowers.
In his preface to the second volume of Tales and Stories (1863) Andersen claims to have heard the story in childhood, but the tale was not a traditional one in Denmark. There is, however, a Swedish version, "Princess Who Lay on Seven Peas", which tells of an orphan child who pretends to be a princess on the advice of her cat. After undergoing many tests, the last of which was having seven peas placed under her mattress, the girl claims to have slept poorly, thereby proving she is a real princess.
While the folk-tale heroine relies on deception, Andersen’s is relies on her sensitivity. One stormy night, a bedraggled girl seeks refuge at the castle. Although the girl claims to be a princess, the queen tests her claim by placing a single pea under 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds. The next morning, the girl bemoans her sleeplessness, claiming the presence of ‘something so hard that I am black and blue all over’. That’s all the proof the queen needs. The girl and the prince are married and the pea is enshrined in a museum.
Tales of extreme sensitivity are not common but there are a few. The 11th-century Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva tells of a young man who claims to be especially fastidious about beds. After sleeping in a bed on top of seven mattresses, and newly made with clean sheets, the young man rises in great pain. A crooked red mark is discovered on his body, and upon investigation a hair is found on the bottommost mattress of the bed.
An Italian tale called "The Most Sensitive Woman" tells of a prince who wishes to marry “the most sensitive woman in the world.” He rejects a woman who is in great pain because of a pulled hair, a woman who was mad sick by a wrinkle in the sheet she slept on, and finally finds a woman whose foot is bandaged after a jasmine petal fell on it.
From India we have the Three Delicate Wives of King Virtue-Banner, a tale told to a kind by a goblin. The first wife is injured when a lotus petal falls on her. The second is burned by moonbeams. The third is bruised by the sound of pestles grinding grain. At the end the goblin asks the king to decide who is most delicate.
Unlike the folk heroine of his source material for the story, Andersen's princess has no need to resort to deceit to establish her identity; her sensitivity is enough to validate her nobility. For Andersen, "true" nobility derived not from an individual's birth but from their sensitivity.
The Princess and the Pea is told from the aristocratic perspective of the young prince seeking a royal bride. This reflects Andersen's preoccupation with issues of class as well as, by his own direct admission elsewhere, his feelings of personal fragility.
Andersen’s Princess and the Pea was not well-received by critics: "[the story] seems to the reviewer not only indelicate but indefensible, in so far as the child might absorb the false idea that great ladies must always be so terribly thin-skinned." One literary journal failed to mention his Tales Told For Children at all, while another advised Andersen not to waste his time writing "wonder stories".
The Princess and the Pea (full text)