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.
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