Pippi Longstocking is a nine-year-old girl who lives alone with a monkey and horse in a cottage called Villa Villekulla at the edge of a village close to the sea in an unnamed part of Sweden. She is a tender-hearted braggart, brilliant but unlettered, with a punning, pulling-the-rug wit. She lives as she likes — sleeping with her shoes on the pillow is something children always remember about Pippi, along with the carrot-coloured plaits at right ankles to her freckled face and her superhuman strength.
Pippi burst upon the world in 1945 and her main adventures were over by 1950 — a few later books elaborated on scenes already laid down. Her creator was a previously unknown writer of occasional magazine stories who had been born into a farming community in southern Sweden and moved to Stockholm in her teens. She had worked as a secretary before marrying in 1931 and settling down to a life as a stay-at-home wife and mother. During the war she had gone back to work — in the censorship department of neutral Sweden’s central post office. The first Pippi stories were written to amuse her nine-year-old daughter when she was bedridden with a sprained ankle.
The immediate success of Pippi Longstocking — first in Sweden then Denmark then the rest of the world — set Astrid Lindgren on a path to becoming one of the best known figures in Swedish cultural life. In 1948 she joined the permanent panel of 20 Questions, the country’s most popular radio programme, and was soon being canvassed for her opinion on everything from child-rearing to world peace (she reckoned they were connected).
But mainly she continued to write children’s books and they continued to be phenomenally successful, despite frequent changes of genre. She moved between the magic of the Karlsson-on-the Roof series to the realist 1930s pastoral of The Six Bullerby Children and onto the more robust adventures of Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. In the English-speaking world none of her subsequent series matched the popularity of Pippi, though two of her stand-alone titles — including the enchanting Seacrow Island (1964) — have recently been republished in the New York Review Children’s Collection list, a sure sign of canonical favour.
Like many successful writers for children, Lindgren drew deeply on her own childhood. Astrid Ericsson was the eldest of four children born in 1907 to pious tenant farmers in Småland, a pastoral paradise which she later described with such vividness that it afflicted some German readers with a condition known as Bullerbu Syndrom, whose sufferers are possessed by yearning to emigrate to rural Sweden. But the interest of Andersen’s biography lies more in the story of her youthful rebellion against this world than his dutifully plodding account of her later career.
Ericsson left school at 16 to become a trainee journalist on the local paper, a strikingly modern figure in cropped hair and hiking boots like Hilde Wangel in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Then, like Rebecca in Rosmersholm, she became entangled with the paper’s businessman proprietor who was more than 30 years older and already married to his former housekeeper. Finding herself pregnant, she escaped to Stockholm. Meanwhile her seducer and his angry wife entered a legal wrangle which ended in their divorce two years later. Ericsson gave birth to a son in Copenhagen and left him with a foster mother. She kept in touch with the father of her child but refused to marry him and become stepmother to his eight children. He found a substitute and continued, like Bernick in The Pillars of Society, to play the big man in the small town that Astrid Ericsson had fled.
She worked as a secretary in Stockholm, saving money for trips to see her son who was growing up Danish. When he was three, she persuaded her parents to look after him, while she embarked on another affair with a married employer. This time the battle-scarred stenographer was ready to go respectable. Sture Lindgren divorced his wife to marry Astrid, who retrieved her young son and soon provided him with a sister. The boy-cut became a bob beneath a married cloche, and the experiment in free-thinking defiance seemingly went underground.
It emerged in the exuberant anarchism of the Pippi books and again, arguably, in titles such as Mio, My Son (1954) and The Brothers Lionheart (1973), both of which dared to breathe life into death — presenting an unconventional subject for children to chew on.
Lindgren later became a prominent spokeswoman for a number of liberal causes, but the books, at their best, are much odder and more original than her public persona. ‘Love children, and their behaviour will take care of itself’ she said, when asked for her opinion on how best to bring up the next generation.
But Pippi isn’t loved, exactly. She lives alone and exhausts any adult who has dealings with her. Sometimes we see her wistful in the face of other children’s comforts. ‘Rather pathetic really’ is the standard response of a defensively pitying world when faced with the solitary brave enough to acknowledge that something is missing.
Pippi only pretends to let pity in; she no sooner acknowledges a gap in her eco-system than she fixes it. There’s much for modern children to mock in the books — Pippi’s friends Tommy and Anneka, for example, are so tightly fixed into gender roles that Peter and Jane of Ladybird fame look mildly trans by comparison. But a generation which regards social self-sufficiency as a form of suicide has plenty to learn from the strongest girl in the world, whom we last see sitting at her kitchen table, unaware of the eyes of her friends as she blows out a candle and disappears alone into the darkness.
After treating the drama of Lindgren’s early years, Andersen appears to lose his nerve about delving further into her personal life. We learn that her husband left her for a bit in 1944 and died of drink in 1951, and that her son — who died in 1986 — was a depressive, whose early unsettled life haunted his mother for the rest of hers. Also that she had a close friendship with a German lesbian, who would have liked something even closer. But Lindgren, like her most famous creation, was good at being alone, and appears never to have wobbled in the widowhood which lasted for more than half a century. Andersen is content to quote from her blandly unrevealing diaries. He calls no witnesses, and asks no further questions.
This makes for dullish reading, but perhaps he was warned off. In the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s sprawling auto-biographical novel My Struggle, mention is made of another author who has had the temerity to publish a book about Astrid Lindgren’s views on religion, loosely based on conversations he claims to have had with her before her death. This author has the humiliation of seeing his book withdrawn by the publishers in the face of complaints from Lindgren’s estate. Karl Ove is coldly unsympathetic, saying: ‘He had only himself to blame.’ Is the moral that you can write what you like about your parents, partner and children, but even Knausgaard knows not to speculate about the belief system of Astrid Lindgren?