The Swedish doctor Axel Munthe (1857–1949), personal physician, and probable lover to Swedish Queen Viktora, became famous when he published his partly fictionalized autobiography The Story of San Michele (1929). The book is a literary phenomenon, and has sold more, in 50 languages, than any other Swedish book during the 20th century. The Story of San Michele tales place around 1900. It stages the times ambivalence between old and new views regarding gender, class and science as well as literary style. Munthes ridiculing of nobility gives both derogatory descriptions of its women, and a critique of the construction of women as confined to the home, passive and sickly. Radical notions are weaved together with conservative ones. The Story of San Michele mixes autobiography with the travel book, light reading with the philosophical essay. In combination with gothic traits as gnomes, speaking animals and ghosts it is clear that the book makes both gender trouble and genre trouble. The experience of WW1 led Munthe to a ruthless critique of the martial ideal of masculinity that brought Europe to catastrophe. In Munthes book courage and cowardice exchange places, as well as activity and passivity. The aim of this article is to show how Munthes text, through queer themes and stylistics can be read as an exploration of a masculinity where activity as the prime signifier of masculinity is questioned.
Axel Munthe, masculinity, gender theory, 19th century, literature, fin de siècle, history of medicine, autobiography