Monday 23 July 2018

The woman behind Pippi Longstocking

Biography: Astrid Lindgren, Jens Andersen (trans Caroline Waight), Yale, hardback, 360 pages, €13.99

Exuberant: Inger Nillson in the TV series of Pippi Longstocking
Exuberant: Inger Nillson in the TV series of Pippi Longstocking
Astrid Lindgren: The Woman behind Pippi Longstocking

Claire Allfree

A biography of Astrid Lindgren suggests her famous redhead heroine was created to defy Hitler.

Was there ever a fictional heroine like Pippi Longstocking, the little girl with odd stockings, carrot-coloured pigtails and superhuman strength who lives by herself with a pet monkey and a horse? When burglars try to steal her stash of gold coins, first she ties them up with rope, then teaches them how to dance a polka.

On one of her very rare forays into a school, she declares to the class that, at schools in Argentina, children simply eat sweets all day. She makes ginger snaps by rolling out dough on the kitchen floor and sleeps the wrong way round in bed.

When the first Pippi Longstocking book was published in 1945 (there would be three in all), a few conservative commentators in Sweden denounced this merry insubordinate as "depraved". Children instantly saw in her a kindred spirit. A year later, her creator Astrid Lindgren was already talking about her "frightening popularity". "'Tell us about Pippi Longstocking' was all I ever heard wherever I went," she said in 1946. "I felt as though this fantastical character must have hit a sore spot in their childish souls."

Lindgren originally began telling stories about naughty Pippi to amuse her young daughter Karin, born in 1934, while the latter was stuck in bed with a fever. But in this reflective biography, Jens Andersen argues that Pippi - who rejects all forms of authority and is particularly adept at disarming displays of male aggression - owes her curious combination of exuberance and pathological pacifism to Hitler.

Lindgren's hatred for totalitarian ideologies - those of Stalin and Mussolini, too, as well as of the Führer - is detailed at length in the excellent A World Gone Mad: The Wartime Diaries of Astrid Lindgren. In the story Pippi Goes to the Circus, Pippi triumphs over the dictatorial, whip-cracking ring master who bears a striking resemblance to Hitler, right down to his narcissistic obsession with his hair. In 1944, in a letter to her first publisher, Lindgren referred to Pippi as "a little Übermensch in child form".

Andersen paints an enticing picture of Lindgren as an instinctively self-sufficient woman, as determined to buck against gender conventions as her heroine Pippi is. Born Astrid Ericsson in 1907, in the rural backwater of Vimmerby, she was the eldest of four in a family of farmers. By 16, she had chopped off her hair, favouring trousers and a cap, in tribute to La Garçonne, the emancipated heroine of Victor Margueritte's bestselling 1922 novel. Always ambitious and bright, after school she became a trainee journalist, only to become pregnant at 18 by her married editor.

She had the child, Lars, in Denmark in 1927, and for the first few years of his life, a foster family brought him up. Her lover got a divorce, but Lindgren rejected his offer of marriage in 1928, partly because she found him controlling and partly because it would mean moving back to Vimmerby to become stepmother to his seven children. Instead, she chose the emotional and financial challenges of life as a single mother, working herself to the bone in Stockholm to earn money to support Lars, and making the long trip to Denmark to see him as often as she could.

These years were tough. Money was so tight she could rarely afford a bed on the overnight train to Copenhagen, so spent the night sitting up. She was depressed, telling her brother she felt "lonely and poor, and lonely". In a letter to her sister in 1929, after the worst appeared over, she described herself as "a soon-to-be-ex candidate for suicide."

Yet awful though much of this period was, Andersen argues that it gave Lindgren much of the emotional material she later relied on to sustain one of the most successful writing careers of modern times. Her enforced absence from her son during the first three years of his life left her with a profound and fascinated empathy for lonely or abandoned children.

For all the antic disposition of many of her fictional creations, they are often vulnerable, too. Several "isolated" children in desperate need of friends their own age crop up in her 1949 collection Nils Karlsson-Pyssling, the Elf, while the eponymous Mio in the melancholic Mio, My Son, written two years after the death of Lindgren's husband Sture from liver failure in 1952 (they married in 1931) is an orphan. And then, Andersen posits, there is Longstocking herself - resilient and autonomous, yes, but very much alone.

"'She looks so lonely,'" says little Annika in the closing paragraph of the final Longstocking novel, as she looks through the window at Pippi, sitting by herself staring at a candle.

Lindgren is an absolute gift to a biographer. She was an industrious letter writer and diarist, and her life both reflected and embodied some of the most significant political and social shifts of the 20th century. Her fascination with child psychology reflected Sweden's own progressive attitudes towards child-rearing that took seed between the wars. These theories play out again and again in her tales of children resisting authoritarian adults.

She effectively modernised a Swedish children's literature that had previously been populated largely by trolls when she became editor of children and young adult literature at the publishers Rabén & Sjögren in 1946. In later years, she branched out into political and environmental activism, and philanthropy on a massive scale: her daughter Karin estimated she gave away many millions to charitable causes.

As a member of the literary academy De Nio, she used her influence to fight passionately for the humanitarian usefulness of children's imaginations to be recognised, not just in Scandinavia but across Europe. "The day children's imaginations are no longer capable of creating... will be the day humanity grows poorer," she said during her 1958 acceptance speech for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in Florence.

It's a pity, then, that this biography should be marred by some tiresome repetitions and convoluted plotting. We are told several times that Elsa Olenius, Lindgren's first editor, also ran a children's theatre; Andersen refers often to the fact that Lindgren's daughter Karin came up with the name Pippi Longstocking, yet he never recounts the actual incident. But he is masterful at elucidating the accumulative private sorrows that shaded the inner life of this industrious woman, who wrote such enduringly exuberant stories. "I've probably never had much zest for life, although I can be very jolly when I'm with other people," she wrote to a friend in 1954. "I've had to carry this melancholy since I was young."

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