I have just finished reading a fascinating biography of Axel Munthe, surely one of Sweden’s most colorful doctors, who died in 1949 at the age of 91. He was born in 1857, and lived through both world wars, as well as a whole number of lesser conflicts. Some years back I wrote a blog about the house he built for his English wife, Hilda Pennington, a house which stands on the shores of Lake Siljan, in Leksand, not far from Orsa in Dalarna from where many of Maria’s forebears come. The blog was largely about one of Axel Munthe’s sons, Malcolm, who was a colorful character in himself, serving in the British Army during WWII, but stationed in Stockholm with the British legation, where he aided and abetted, quite illegally as far as the Swedish Government was concerned, Norwegian resistance fighters in their efforts against the Nazi overlords who had occupied their country.
Within a few years of their marriage Axel and his wife Hilda were estranged from one another, and lived largely separate lives for the remainder of their years (which were many – they married in 1907 and were thus man and wife for some 42 years), though they never divorced. They had regular contact by letter, but Hilda and their two boys lived in London, while Axel spent most of his time on the island of Capri, though he usually returned to Sweden in the summer. Hilda was not keen for the boys to spend any time with their father, and he appears to have done little to oppose her. Hilda also usually spent the summers in Sweden, with her two boys, at the house in Leksand. But when Axel came to visit she often asked him to stay somewhere else. Although when they married she worshiped him, as the years wore on her infatuation changed to a growing dislike.
Two things struck me as I was reading the final chapters of Bengt Jangfeldt’s book the other night. The first was this odd relationship that Axel had with his wife, Hilda. In his will Hilda was not named, “nor did she regard herself as entitled to any marital right to half the property or any part whatsoever of the personal estate. She did not have nor did she wish to have any part in either his life or his death. In fact there were not many who knew that Munthe was married: in the register of deaths and burials the column headed ‘The deceased’s marital status’ contains a question mark.” (p354, Jangfeldt B, Axel Munthe. The Road to San Michele).
The second thing was the comment about Malcolm Munthe, whose book about his part in the Second World War (Sweet is War – for them that know it not) I read with interest a few years ago. Malcolm too was an unusual character, as I mentioned in my previous blog: perhaps not surprising for a son of Axel Munthe. As Bengfeldt’s book mentions, “Malcolm was more like his father than he believed or was willing to acknowledge, and he felt just as much at home in the no man’s land between fact and fiction where Axel preferred to dwell.” (p355)
Fact and fiction – that is apparently the mark of Munthe’s books – though they are based on factual events, much of what he writes is fantasy. Such a writer is not simply a reporter of events, not a journalist, but rather an observer and interpreter of the events that are unfolding around him. Facts are merely the starting point of a good story. Axel Munthe was a doctor and a writer, and I sometimes think of myself in similar terms though neither my medical or my literary achievements have ever amounted to much. I have not read any of Munthe’s books, which were received to huge acclaim when they were published. But I am keen to, not least in order to see how Munthe used the events of his life to weave the tapestry of his stories. I am keen to discover that “no man’s land between fact and fiction” – the place where Munthe went to gain some kind of understanding for the extraordinary life he led.