Book Review: Axel Munthe – The Road to San Michele by Bengt Jangfeldt

Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele by Bengt Jangfeldt, reviewed by Alan Bellamy

Arran residents, like the residents of all Scottish islands, know that you need to be a bit different, perhaps a bit of a ‘character’, to move to and live on a small and hilly island. “Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele” tells the riveting life-story of an extraordinary individual who did just that, but on Capri rather than Arran or Eigg or Papa Westray. Strange choice but it takes all sorts, as they say……..
“I want my house open to sun and wind and the voice of the sea, like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere!”
Axel Munthe (31 October 1857 – 11 February 1949) was a Swedish-born physician and psychiatrist, best known as the author of The Story of San Michele, an autobiographical account of his life and work. He spoke several languages (Swedish, English, French, Italian fluently, and German at least passably), grew up in Sweden, attended medical school, and opened his first practice in France. He was married to an English aristocrat and spent most of his adult life in Italy. His philanthropic nature often led him to treat the poor without charge, and he risked his life on several occasions to offer medical help in times of war, disaster, or plague. As an advocate of animal rights, he purchased land to create a bird sanctuary near his home in Italy, argued for bans on painful traps, and himself kept pets as diverse as an owl and a baboon, as well as many types of dog. His writing is light-hearted, being primarily memoirs drawn from his real-life experiences, but it is often tinged with sadness or tragedy, and often uses dramatic licence. He primarily wrote about people and their idiosyncrasies, portraying the foibles of both the rich and the poor, but also about animals.

In 1887, he moved to Capri, bought the Villa San Michele and began restoration, doing much of the work himself, but also employing local residents, including three brothers and their father.

In 1892, Munthe was appointed physician to the Swedish royal family. In particular, he served as personal physician of the Crown Princess, Victoria of Baden, continuing to do so when she became Queen consort, and until the time of her death in 1930. It is thought likely that they were lovers.
Another indication of his passionate nature concerns an affair he is believed to have had with the English socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell, beginning when they first met in July or August 1898. Ottoline was then an unmarried 25-year-old member of the privileged London social scene, while being at the same time slightly contemptuous of it. Her intellectual and spiritual interests drew her to more mature men, such as Herbert Asquith, particularly if they had a reputation for iconoclasm. She and Axel Munthe were drawn to each other, and managed to spend significant private time together on Capri.

The Story of San Michele overshadows all Munthe’s other writings, and includes material from some earlier works. His earlier work can be very difficult to find and often commands high prices. The Story of San Michele was
first published in 1929 by British publisher John Murray. Written in English, it was a best-seller in numerous languages and has been republished constantly in the over seven decades since its original release. Worldwide, the book was immensely successful; by 1930, there had been twelve editions of the English version alone, and Munthe added a second preface. A third preface was written in 1936 for an illustrated edition.

Munthe died in 1949 aged 91, in Stockholm. He willed Villa San Michele to the Swedish nation, and it is maintained by a Swedish foundation. The complex functions as a cultural centre, hosting concerts, visiting Swedish scholars, and the local Swedish consulate. The foundation also maintains the Mount Barbarossa bird sanctuary, which covers over 55,000 square metres.

I was first introduced to Munthe’s writings many years by my teacher and mentor as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Villa San Michele last September. The house and gardens glowed in the sunshine, and the memory of Munthe prescence seemed strong. I was therefore intrigued when a secondhand copy of this biography of Munthe, by Bengt Jangfeldt, became available, and I can vouch that it does a thorough and yet entertaining job of trying to describe the twists and turns, high and lows, and many paradoxes in the life and character of this remarkable man. Often depressed, always hypochondriacal, free and easy with the truth, craving attention from rich and powerful men and beautiful women, and yet much loved by both the poor of Capri and the upper echelons of European society, he treated his poor patients for free and lived on handouts from rich patrons and the meager earnings from his writings. He climbed mountains and loved sailing, and left to posterity one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy. Not an easy life to capture for a biographer but Jangfeldt does his subject proud.

“Villa San Michele on Capri in Italy is a magical place quite out of the ordinary. Some people call the villa with its garden a paradise on earth, others regard it as the pearl of the island, a place where for a moment you can step out of this world.”