Skip to Content

Books

Doctoring the record

Jane Ridley reviews Bengt Jangfeldt's biography of Axel Munthe

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele Bengt Jangfeldt (translated by Harry Watson)

I. B. Tauris, pp.381, 25

The Story of San Michele is one of the great bestsellers of all time. It languishes on the shelves of second-hand bookshops, the autobiography of a Swedish doctor who fell in love with the island of Capri. The author, Axel Munthe, is a shadowy figure, a name often mentioned but (to me at least) an enigma.

Munthe’s life, as related by Bengt Jangfeldt in this new biography, was an extraordinary adventure, far more exciting than his autobiography. He was entirely self-made. Born in 1857, he was a middle-class Swedish boy, the son of a pharmacist. When he began to cough blood as a medical student, he left Sweden in search of the warmth of the south. He completed his training in France, qualifying as a doctor in five months — there was always a question mark hanging over his medical qualifications. He married a woman he didn’t love, and started to practise in Paris, where he discovered a wealthy patron, who bankrolled him. Then he heard about an outbreak of cholera in Naples. On a whim he dashed off to offer his services as a doctor, sending back articles for the Swedish press which he later published successfully as a book. He climbed Mont Blanc, almost killed himself, and wrote another book about it.

Munthe had straw-coloured hair, a moustache and round spectacles, and he liked to pose as a romantic, melancholic outsider. He divorced his wife and retreated to Capri, where he became a hero among the islanders, living on the land and charging no fees for his doctoring. His next step was inspired. He moved to Rome, and set up in practice as a doctor living in Keats’s house on the Spanish Steps. He was clever at attaching himself to influential patrons such as the British ambassador Lord Dufferin, and soon he had the most fashionable practice in the city. Being a doctor brought him especially close to women. Jangfeldt shows how, like Freud, Munthe understood the wealthy women who suffered from the fin-de-siècle malaise of hysteria, nerves and depression. He was direct and physical, and an expert in the new medicine of sexual pathology. One after another his female patients fell in love with him (professional ethics were not his strong point). Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, who suffered from chronic ill health brought on by a disastrous marriage, fell under his spell and appointed him her physician. Doctors were among the very few people who were able to talk to royals on equal terms, and the Queen of Sweden, as Victoria became, was utterly dependent on him.

Meanwhile, he cut a swathe (the author calls this double-entry book-keeping) through the women he met. Ottoline Morrell was besotted by him. He became suddenly improbably rich, presumably as a result of handouts from the Swedish royal family, and built himself a beautiful villa on Capri named San Michele, which he filled with antiques. Henry James, Oscar Wilde — all visited the Swede in his Capri villa.

Aged 50 his life changed again. A detached retina left him almost blind. He needed a carer, so he remarried. His second wife was an Englishwoman named Hilda Pennington Mellor. They had two sons, but Munthe was both absent and unfaithful, and Hilda left him, taking the boys with her, to his lasting regret. As he grew older and his eyesight worsened, he became domineering, bad-tempered and slovenly. The Queen of Sweden corresponded with his wife about his iniquities, but adored him until her dying day. He was at her death bed. His autobiography, The Story of San Michele, was a surprise success, making him a celebrity in his seventies.

Some people thought Munthe was a fake, but most considered him a genius. In reality he was both. He was a liar, a name- dropper and an appalling egocentric. He messed up his own marriages, but he was remarkably acute at helping other people. He only really liked people he felt sorry for — ‘You cannot be a good doctor without pity,’ he once said. A good doctor he most certainly was. Above all, he was an enchanter. Bengt Jangtfeldt has done impressive research to uncover Munthe’s colourful secret life. The book suffers a little from being translated, especially as all the source notes have been eliminated, but this is a compelling account of a remarkable man.


Those days are gone in which romantic novels had heroines called Muriel. Even on first publication 84 years ago, The Crowded Street was not a conventional romantic novel nor Muriel Hammond a conventional heroine — but the former embraces elements of romance, the latter aspects of heroism. The subversion of our expectations of heroism and romance provides the dynamic of Winifred Holtby’s second novel, originally published in 1924.

The Crowded Street is a family saga, comedy of manners and roman à clef. It tells the story of Muriel Hammond, from schoolgirl to maturity. The Hammonds inhabit the determinedly genteel Yorkshire village of Marshington, its confines narrow, its mindset small. Muriel leaves school to embark on Marshington life armed only with a determination ‘so much to be good’ and a naive certainty that excitement beckons. Her disillusionment is slow but inexorable. Marshington values a single quality in women: marriageability. It is a quality Muriel lacks.

Written when Winifred Holtby was 26, The Crowded Street is strongly autobiographical. Holtby shared Muriel’s apparent unmarriageability. Yet Holtby, unlike Muriel, was able to forge strong emotional bonds, notably with Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Friendship celebrates the two women’s intense and creative relationship.

Compared with Winifred herself, Muriel is a cipher, passive and fearful to the point of self-annihilation, one ‘whose eager clutching hands let slip prizes’. Schooled in the conventions of novels of this sort, the reader follows Muriel’s fictional journey with a light heart — certain that, despite Muriel’s best efforts, glittering prizes will ultimately be hers. The reader is mistaken — or at least surprised.

Holtby’s resolution resists the easy fairytale of ‘happy ever after’, offering up instead an outcome nearer to the author’s own experience. In doing so, it strikes a pose characteristic of interwar feminism. To its first readers, among whom were those ‘surplus’ women left husbandless by the first world war, it threw a lifeline of hope. The challenge faced by such women — ill-equipped to earn their own living and defined by society exclusively in terms of their marital status — provides the key to unlock The Crowded Street. Read outside this context, it becomes vintage Bridget Jones’s Diary without the Chardonnay but with an extra stiffener of sourness.

In fact The Crowded Street contains moments of terrific comedy, like the scene in which Muriel’s sister Connie disappears at an uncontrolled gallop on the dashing hero’s chestnut mare. It is punctuated by a quietly mordant wit that ruthlessly exposes the pretensions of Marshington’s intensely snobbish provincial society: ‘Some women take to crochet as others do to cigarettes.’ Its female characters are strongly drawn, although its menfolk remain stock types. The novel is well-crafted, elegant, intelligent and persuasive. Only at the final fence does it fall.

Holtby must have been aware that the outcome she bestowed on her readers would disappoint many of them. We can rejoice in Muriel’s belated moment of self-determination only if we believe that she has changed enough to make her stand with conviction and certainty. And of this, this reader remains unsure. A Hollywood scriptwriter would rewrite the ending. So, too, would this reader. But then, this reader is a man.

The Story of San Michele is one of the great bestsellers of all time. It languishes on the shelves of second-hand bookshops, the autobiography of a Swedish doctor who fell in love with the island of Capri. The author, Axel Munth
e, is a shadowy figure, a name often mentioned but (to me at least) an enigma.

Munthe’s life, as related by Bengt Jangfeldt in this new biography, was an extraordinary adventure, far more exciting than his autobiography. He was entirely self-made. Born in 1857, he was a middle-class Swedish boy, the son of a pharmacist. When he began to cough blood as a medical student, he left Sweden in search of the warmth of the south. He completed his training in France, qualifying as a doctor in five months — there was always a question mark hanging over his medical qualifications. He married a woman he didn’t love, and started to practise in Paris, where he discovered a wealthy patron, who bankrolled him. Then he heard about an outbreak of cholera in Naples. On a whim he dashed off to offer his services as a doctor, sending back articles for the Swedish press which he later published successfully as a book. He climbed up Mont Blanc, almost killed himself, and wrote another book about it.

Munthe had straw-coloured hair, a moustache and round spectacles, and he liked to pose as a romantic, melancholic outsider. He divorced his wife and retreated to Capri, where he became a hero among the islanders, living on the land and charging no fees for his doctoring. His next step was inspired. He moved to Rome, and set up in practice as a doctor living in Keats’s house on the Spanish Steps. He was clever at attaching himself to influential patrons such as the British ambassador Lord Dufferin, and soon he had the most fashionable practice in the city. Being a doctor brought him especially close to women. Bengt Jangfeldt shows how, like Freud, Munthe understood the wealthy women who suffered from the fin-de-siècle malaise of hysteria, nerves and depression. He was direct and physical, and an expert in the new medicine of sexual pathology. One after another his female patients fell in love with him (professional ethics were not his strong point). Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, who suffered from chronic ill health brought on by a disastrous marriage, fell under his spell and appointed him her physician. Doctors were among the very few people who were able to talk to royals on equal terms, and the Queen of Sweden, as Victoria became, was utterly dependent on him.

Meanwhile, he cut a swathe (the author calls this double-entry book-keeping) through the women he met. Ottoline Morrell was besotted by him. He became suddenly improbably rich, presumably as a result of handouts from the Swedish royal family, and built himself a beautiful villa on Capri named San Michele, which he filled with antiques. Henry James, Oscar Wilde — all visited the Swede in his Capri villa.

Aged 50 his life changed again. A detached retina left him almost blind. He needed a carer, so he got married again. His second wife was an Englishwoman named Hilda Pennington Mellor. They had two sons, but Munthe was both absent and unfaithful, and Hilda left him, taking the boys with her, to his lasting regret. As he grew older and his eyesight worsened, he became domineering, bad-tempered and slovenly. The Queen of Sweden corresponded with his wife about his iniquities, but adored him until her dying day. He was at her death bed. His autobiography, The Story of San Michele, was a surprise success, making him a celebrity in his seventies.

Some people thought Munthe was a fake, but most considered him a genius. In reality he was both. He was a liar, a name- dropper and an appalling egocentric. He messed up his own marriages, but he was remarkably acute at helping other people. He only really liked people he felt sorry for — ‘You cannot be a good doctor without pity,’ he once said. A good doctor he most certainly was. Above all, he was an enchanter. Bengt Jangtfeldt has done impressive research to uncover Munthe’s colourful secret life. The book suffers a little from being translated, especially as all the source notes have been eliminated, but this is a compelling account of a remarkable man.


Show comments
Close