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12 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

Grown-up wild child: Astrid Lindgren, the steely Swedish writer behind Pippi Longstocking

In a way, Lindgren is a metaphor for Sweden itself.

By Melanie McDonagh

Pippi Longstocking was dreamed up in 1941, the most perilous time of the war, including for neutral Sweden. And while Lindgren said later that “Pippi was a stroke of inspiration, not a carefully considered character from the start” it’s hard not to see her as a one girl response to the violence and danger of the times; she at least could match brute force with effortless strength, all while “smiling a friendly smile”.

Lindgren knew more than most Swedes about the war; she was a state censor, and reading other people’s letters brought her into contact with the heartbreaking realities of war. She was then and later a pacifist who famously connected harsh child-rearing with adult aggression. But really, her distinctive approach to writing for children, which was to see things as much as possible from the child’s point of view, was derived from her experience with her own children and their cousins, who simply didn’t take to moralistic stories; she took her cue from them.

Her own childhood was a bucolic idyll with her three siblings in rural Vimmerby. She adored her father Samuel August, a big, gentle farmer and church warden. She wrote magazine articles from a young age. After leaving school and scandalising Vimmerby by cropping her hair she began a promising career as a journalist with the local paper, but that was nipped in the bud when she became pregnant by the caddish married proprietor who knew her parents. “I thought my parents would die,” she said later. He wanted marriage once he had divorced his second wife; but Astrid, who had a steely quality, was having none of it, though she kept up relations for a couple of years.

Her little son, Lasse, was given to a loving foster mother in Copenhagen, though Astrid managed eventually to take him to her home. She was always acutely conscious of his vulnerability as a result. Remarkably, she managed to convince most people that her two children were born from her second marriage to Sture Lindgren, a prosperous businessman: her keenness on privacy and talent for fiction were evident early on.

This biography by Jens Andersen is infuriatingly Scandinavian; he’s terrific on Lindgren’s theories of child-rearing and philosophical influences but weirdly reticent about the gritty personal details that we – all right, I – actually want to know. So while we get an entire section on behaviourism, we know nothing about the woman whom Astrid displaced by having an affair with, and marrying, her boss; still less about Sture Lindgren’s subsequent affair with another woman, for whom he left Astrid for a time. As for his alcoholism, from which he died prematurely, that’s dealt with cursorily and tastefully. Andersen has useful quotes from Astrid’s daughter, but seems not to have interrogated other sources much.

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We do, however, get an interesting take on Lindgren’s philosophy of life as she ages: for all her progressivism she seemed mildly appalled by Sweden’s descent into totalitarian liberalism and she doesn’t seem to have been much impressed by feminism either. She campaigned against the government’s prohibitive marginal tax rate of 102 per cent.

Andersen is very strong on the details of Lindgren’s literary career. It was helped by Stockholm being such a small world. Elsa Olenius, who helped Astrid publish Pippi, was also on the prize-giving panel for children’s books and a radio critic; what Sweden plainly lacked was any concept of conflict of interest. Pippi became a publishing sensation, but I have to confess to sympathy with the sole refusenik critic, John Landquist, who wrote in 1946 that her antics were “mechanically cobbled together nonsense”.

The question is whether Lindgren’s books wear well. Some do, some don’t. My children found Seacrow Island, which Andersen adores, boring. The Brothers Lionheart is far more engaging, but I was relieved to read here about the scandalised controversy over the ending, which appears to justify child suicide. In fact, until I read this book, I hadn’t picked up on the cues that suggested this apparent act of self-sacrifice was in the hero’s imagination. (I confess that I excluded a new English version of it from a round-up of children’s books because I couldn’t bring myself to recommend what seemed like a dangerous example; yes, I am a prig.)

At the end of the third Pippi book, she gazes quietly and alone at a candle. And that’s how her author seems at the close of her life (she died in 2002), quietly despairing at the state of the world, wilfully seeking solitude. Lindgren lost her faith but not her habit of prayer in old age and her existence was bleaker for it. In a way, she’s a metaphor for Sweden itself.

Melanie McDonagh writes for the Evening Standard

Astrid Lindgren: the Woman Behind Pippi Longstocking
Jens Andersen; transl. Caroline Waight
Yale University Press, 360pp, £25

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This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran