I get a lot of wrong numbers, usually from people who say they would like to stay with me for a few days. My telephone number is just one digit different from that of a local youth hostel. On the other hand I have never received an e-mail by mistake. But this is what I thought had happened when I received an e-mail asking me to write about Axel Munthe. I have never even heard of anyone called Axel Munthe. Nevertheless, I accept the assignment.
We are fortunate today that it is easy to find information about virtually anything. So as it is a nice day I decide to take a walk to the city library and see what I can find out about this person called Munthe. In the Swedish biographical dictionary I find an Axel Munthe, born 1857 in Oskarshamn in southeastern Sweden. Munthe becomes a famous physician and author. He serves for several years as the physician to the Swedish royal family, and as the personal physician of Queen Victoria. This must be the right Munthe, I think, and read on.
Munthe received his doctorate in medicine at the University of Paris in 1880, at the age of 23, France’s youngest medical doctor ever. Afterwards he opened his first practice in that city, which he basically made his residence for several years. During this period he spent a lot of time with the Swedish writers and artists living in Paris, such as August Strindberg, Carl Larsson and Ernst Josephson. It was also during this period that he met and married Ultima Hornberg.
The couple divorced, however, eight years later. Munthe left Paris and a difficult period followed. Certainly his fame and popularity grew, but at the same time he suffered from depression and wandered restlessly around Europe. It was 1897 when he once again makes a permanent home in a place he had dreamt about and worked in for many years, villa San Michele on Capri.
Munthe was popular on Capri. This was reinforced by his treating the poor of the island at no cost.
In San Michele over the years he also collected a considerable number of antiquities and art, which encouraged tourism and attracted many artists and royalty to the area.
Munthe the Man of Disasters
San Michele’s popularity increased with the increasing fame of the author Munthe. The stories of his experiences as a doctor during a cholera epidemic in Naples and his service with the Red Cross during the First World War were great successes, both when they first serialised in newspapers, and later when they were published as books. But the greatest attention was given to the partly autobiographical ”The Story of San Michele”, one of the most successful Swedish books ever.
In 1907 Munthe remarried Hilda Pennington Mellor. The couple had two children together, but the marriage was no better the second time around, and they separated in 1919.
Munthe died in 1949 at Stockholm’s Royal Palace, where he had been invited to live as a guest of King Gustav V. As I finish reading the biographical dictionary, I am confused. How could I study Swedish and Literature for many years without hearing about the author of one of the most successful Swedish books ever? With this thought gnawing at the back of my mind I look for the book in the library catalogue. All copies are loaned out, which is evidence that this is still a popular book. There is still one copy available at the branch in the suburb of Bagarmossen. I go there immediately.
When I get there I find two other interesting books. One (“Boken om Axel Munthes San Michele “) has an even more detailed account of Munthe’s 67 year stay (with one short break) abroad.
His travels took him to countless places around the world, but these were from far from pleasure trips.
For example in 1881 Munthe volunteered to treat patients during a typhus epidemic on Capri, right in the middle of his honeymoon. The same year he helped in the rescue efforts after an earthquake on the neighbouring island of Ischia. Three years later he took part, as already mentioned, in the efforts to assist the cholera victims of Naples.
These visits nourished a growing fancy for the area, which eventually matured into the decision to settle in Villa San Michele on Capri. From the beginning the lovely San Michele attracted famous visitors. It’s believed that by 1897 Oscar Wilde and his close companion Alfred Douglas had spent the night at the villa, after they had been denied accommodation in the local hotel. Other famous visitors during the following years included Swedish writer Ellen Key, Rainer Maria Rilke, artist Anders Zorn and Henry James.
During the First World War San Michele served for awhile as a sanatorium for injured soldiers. The British Red Cross borrowed the house in the summer of 1917, at the same time that Munthe himself was working for the Red Cross at the front in Flanders. This, however, didn’t discourage the visitors. On the contrary, their numbers grew with Munthe’s celebrity. And after the great success of “The Story of San Michele” there were more than ever.
Munthe did not waste time taking advantage of his fame. For example, he used his influential friends to stop the hunting of birds on Capri. But at the same time he understood that the island’s poor were dependent on the hunt, so he had visitors to the villa pay en entrance fee, which he then donated to Capri’s elderly and poor.
Even if Munthe himself didn’t want to live in San Michele much longer, Capri remained the closest he had to a home until 1943 when he left the island for the last time. A couple of years later he donated the villa and its holdings to the Swedish state, in whose possession it has remained.
The other book I found (“Drömmen om San Michele”) initially brings up the contrast between Munthe’s activities and his current relative obscurity , for example how strange it is that one of the most successful Swedish books ever is never mentioned in Swedish literary history.
Among the explanations, Munthe’s success offended some Swedes, his relationship with Queen Victoria caused bitter gossip, and ”The Story of San Michele” was published in an era when that type of literature was regarded as antiquated and old-fashioned.
This second book describes more about Munthe the person and his view of the medical profession. As early as his years in Paris Munthe was treating the poor of the city for free. He also refused payment from his artist friends when they needed his medical services, and stubbornly claimed that he owed a debt to them. This says something about Munthe’s relationship to art, but more about his philosophy of life.
Munthe already embraced this philosophy as a poor student and held to it the rest of his life. When he had his first bestseller a few years later (“Från Neapel”) he insisted that the profits should go to the city’s poor and the wildlife of the area. It’s said that during his early years on Capri Munthe bought some land with half of all the money he then had, and gave it to a poor local farmer. And the not inconsiderable income from ”The Story of San Michele” was also donated to various charities. The list of his good deeds is lengthy.
But at the same time Munthe also had a darker side, which neither success nor good deeds could cure, and which grew stronger with the years.
Munthe was in this way a pessimist and an idealist at the same time. He was a person who saw his surroundings without illusions, and though he didn’t always succeed in vanquishing the demons within him, he constantly did his best to fight the demons of the world.
This fascinating double nature also stands out in ”The Story of San Michele”.
I look at this copy of Munthe’s bestseller, realize that I must read it to let the author himself express himself. So I borrow the book, take it home, and sit down in and armchair with a cup of tea.
Quite rightly the book contains a fascinating combination of contradictions.
Munthe mixes dream and reality in an unusual manner, he displays an obvious fascination with death and a love of life at the same time, and he gives a voice during his travels to doctors and streetcleaners, people from the far north of Sweden and Parisians, saints and Father Christmases and dogs.
The vision is not always true, but it is nearly always fascinating.
With this assignment to write about Axel Munthe there was a suggestion for a title: ”The Philanthropist”. I first thought it sounded a little forced. But that is no longer the case, because I certainly did discover a philanthropist in my first meeting with Munthe.
In the books by him as well as those about him, a person emerges who perhaps did not always unreservedly love life, but who on the other hand always loved the people and the animals who lived it.
And consequently the altruism and the generosity are even more fascinating.
Certainly at times Munthe earned quite a bit of money, and perhaps for that reason there is a temptation to belittle his generosity. But Munthe didn’t just give to those who had it worse, it also helped them personally. He travelled to the distressed areas and treated those who were in need of treatment, without compensation. He even opened his own home to them when it was necessary.
In short, Munthe’s money went to his two lifelong projects
- building San Michele and helping the needy. And that is impossible to belittle.
So my first meeting with Munthe has been instructive. Perhaps some time during this portrayal of the meeting I have polished the story a bit. But this is just one of the many quirks that Axel Munthe adopted that I find worth emulating.
Department of Literature, Stockholm University