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.
Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigourfilm
Bannatyne leaves Dragon's DenTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Belgium fan Axelle Despiegelaere lands L'Oreal campaign after World Cup viral photo
- 2 Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
- 3 Israel-Gaza conflict: ‘Sderot cinema’ image shows Israelis with popcorn and chairs 'cheering as missiles strike Palestinian targets'
- 4 Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
- 5 Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country
Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons' employment, say government advisers
War is war: Why I stand with Israel
Even when it brutalises one of its own teenage citizens, America is helpless against Israel
Socialist Worker called to apologise over ‘vile’ article saying Eton schoolboy Horatio Chapple's death is ‘reason to save the polar bears’
Emergency data law: David Cameron plots to bring back snoopers’ charter
NUT strike: David Cameron announces crackdown on strike action ahead of mass industrial action