"Living in the lap of luxury": the strange wartime diaries of the woman behind Pippi Longstocking

Astrid Lindgren's diaries reveal how Pippi's creator lived happily during the war – but was ascerbic about Britain's conduct.

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Together with Babar the regal francophone elephant, Emil the German boy detective and Tove Jansson’s tribe of Finnish Moomintrolls, Pippi Longstocking is among a select company of foreign-language storybook characters who have become touchstones of British childhood.

Pippi, an anarchic, freckled redhead with the strength of a Bulgarian weightlifter and a fine disregard for education, was the creation of Astrid Lindgren, a housewife in Stockholm who beguiled her young daughter at bedtime during the Second World War with accounts of Pippi’s adventures. The first Pippi Longstocking book, published in Sweden in 1945, became an international bestseller. In her submission letter to her publishers, Lindgren wrote, “As you will see, Pippi Longstocking is a small Übermensch in the form of a child . . .” and something of her euphoria at the war’s end was reflected in Pippi’s disregard for tyrannical authority and her fondness for affronting it with ridicule rather than violence.

Sweden was one of a handful of European nations that remained neutral during the war, but the conflict pressed hard on its borders and Lindgren observed with dread the advance of what she feared might be the “fall . . . of civilisation”. Throughout the conflict, she kept a journal describing her life with her husband, Sture, and her children, Lars and Karin, and recording the progress of the war as she followed it in newspapers and in the private letters that she read in the course of her job as a censor at the postal control division.

In 2015 the diaries were published in Sweden, where Lindgren, who died in 2002, is revered not just for her writing but for her activism on behalf of children, animals and higher-rate taxpayers. In Sarah Death’s somewhat utilitarian translation, it offers a remarkable portrait of domestic life in a country maintaining a fragile peace while war raged all around.

Lindgren grew up in rural southern Sweden before moving to Stockholm, and the rhythms of her city life are strongly inflected by traditional rituals, invariably celebrated with lavish family feasts. Food is a leitmotif in the journal. Despite the introduction of rationing, the anticipated shortages never really materialised. At Christmas 1943 she recorded, “This is the fifth war winter – and we have more food than ever . . . I’ve got two big hams, brawn, liver pâté and pork ribs, herring salad, two big pieces of cheese and some salt beef . . . brandy rings, almond fingers, gingerbread and meringues.” Such Lucullan descriptions are often accompanied by an acknowledgement of “the pitiful wretches around the world and all the poor children who won’t even notice it’s Christmas”. Nevertheless, it is hard not to feel a twinge of distaste at her conclusion: “We’ve been living in the lap of luxury throughout [the war].”

Of particular interest to readers in the UK are Lindgren’s trenchant views on the British war effort. An admirer of Neville Chamberlain (“The nice old gentleman with the umbrella . . . our 1938 dove of peace”), she was caustic about the British government – practically a “dictatorship” – and its conduct of the war: “The British will fight to the last Frenchman as usual.”

A voracious reader, she admired Jan Struther’s 1939 novel, Mrs Miniver, and the subsequent film version starring Greer Garson (“excellent propaganda for the Allies”). One might conclude from the diaries that Lindgren herself was something of a Mrs Miniver: whimsical, sensitive to the suffering in the world beyond her neutral safe haven, but distinctly complacent about her good fortune. Listing a dismal catalogue of human misery gleaned from the foreign letters that she censored, she concluded: “But the Lindgren family is all right!”

This impression is supported by the publishers’ decision to issue the diaries with a minimum of additional information. There are brief introductory notes by Lindgren’s daughter, Karin, and the translator, together with a glossary of names in which the words “no information available” appear with dispiriting frequency, while facsimiles of Lindgren’s letter offering Pippi Longstocking to the publishing house Bonnier and its “famous letter . . . rejecting the manuscript” appear without translation.

Most damaging is the absence of biographical information. Observant readers will notice that Lindgren’s son, Lars, was born half a decade before her marriage. She became pregnant by her married employer when she was 18, and was obliged to leave her child with foster parents in Copenhagen until he was three years old – a fact only briefly mentioned in the glossary.

To know this is to read in quite a different context Lindgren’s constant checking of the pulse of her domestic security, which was badly disrupted towards the end of the war when her husband began an affair. In March 1945, in an entry that eloquently elides her wartime preoccupations with a prophetic glance to the future, she wrote, “Everything’s spick and span after all the spring cleaning, and sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m sad. I’m happiest when I’m writing.”

A World Gone Mad by Astrid Lingden, trans. Sarah Death, is published by Pushkin (352pp, £18.99)

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article appears in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage