Invisible Ink: No 192 - Axel Munthe
Sunday 29 September 2013
It was said that in Axel Munthe’s one major book there were enough plots and short stories to fill the rest of most writers’ lives. It became a beloved classic, variously described as amazing, horrible, hilarious, romantic, pitiful, enchanting, and possessing that strange simplicity of mind which is often the attribute of genius.
Munthe was a Swedish physician and psychiatrist, born in 1857, who opened his first practice in France and married an English aristocrat before spending most of his life in Italy – as a consequence of which he spoke five languages. A natural philanthropist, he often treated the poor without charge and risked his life in times of cholera and war. He was also a tireless supporter of animal rights and sought bans on cruel traps.
In 1892, Munthe was appointed physician to the Swedish royal family, and the Crown Princess Victoria. After he recommended that she should visit Capri for her health (she suffered from tuberculosis and bronchitis) he and the now Queen Consort were rumoured to be having an affair. Another of his Capri conquests was the peculiar Bloomsbury hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell, who rejected his marriage proposal because of her spiritual beliefs.
In 1887, he began to restore the Villa San Michele on Capri, and found himself doing much of the work, cajoling local residents into giving him a hand. His experiences form the basis of the book that outshone anything else he wrote, The Story of San Michele. With just a charcoal sketch drawn on a garden wall to guide them, Munthe and his helpers rebuilt the house and chapel over five summers, their often hopeless-seeming project leading them to buried skeletons and ancient coins, and to some very funny encounters with a cast of eccentric villagers. The book is simply written but passionate, dream-like, and redolent of a hot Italian summer – and it also contains discussions with animals and supernatural entities. His son continued his mansion-remodelling legacy.
During the First World War, Munthe became a British citizen and served in the ambulance corps, his wartime experiences forming the basis for his book, Red Cross, Iron Cross. He was a fascinating man, an unusual combination; a modest humanist who moved in rarified circles. He was also the youngest doctor in French history, society medic to royalty, creator of one of the world’s most beautiful houses, and was present at the opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, and the author of a timeless, if neglected, novel.
film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Woman falls to her death as she celebrates marriage proposal at the edge of Ibiza cliff
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Dad attempts revenge on teenage daughter, plan backfires spectacularly
- 4 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 5 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
Game of Thrones, season 5: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
Game of Thrones really doesn't want Danny Dyer - EastEnders star rejected three times
Martin Scorsese 'in shock' after death on set of new film Silence
Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures