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.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 2 'Fire at every person you see': Israeli soldiers reveal they were ordered to shoot to kill in Gaza – even if the targets may have been civilians
- 3 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 4 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
- 5 YouTube social experiment shows just how easy it is to kidnap a child
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils