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The unassuming author who shrugged off scandal and success

Author Astrid Lindgren has her nose pulled by a young fan - Credit: ullstein bild via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the life of Astrid Lindgren, creator of a children’s classic.

It’s nearly two decades since the death of Astrid Lindgren but in her Stockholm apartment at Dalagatan 46 it still looks as if she’s just stepped out for a moment. A lightweight jacket dangles from a coathanger in the hall. A typewriter sits on a small desk in her study with paper rolled through it, her glasses neatly folded nearby and a notepad filled with scribbles to the left of the machine. In the bedroom, next to her single bed there are two small worn patches of carpet where her feet would land every morning as she balled her fists on the edge of the mattress and heaved herself upright at the beginning of each new day.

Astrid Lindgren began more than 60 years of new days in that apartment between her arrival in 1941 and her death there in 2002. It’s bright, spacious and homely with the kind of mix and match furniture acquired over many years. The only clue that this was home to someone more than just a comfortably-off member of the Swedish middle class lies on the many bookshelves: rows of books in different languages and a range of alphabets, all of them bearing the name Astrid Lindgren on their spines. For all that she sold nearly 170 million books translated into more than 100 languages, Lindgren never moved from the simple home above a restaurant into which she moved with her husband and two children when working as a stenographer for the Swedish equivalent of the RAC.

It wasn’t long after the family arrived at Dalagatan that Lindgren created Pippi Longstocking, the remarkable character responsible for the bulk of her success. Lindgren’s seven-year-old daughter Karin had been ill in bed and demanding a string of tales to help keep her spirits up, but as a working mother it wasn’t long until fatigue set in and Lindgren’s well of stories began to run dry.

“I was bored,” Karin recalled later, “and kept begging my mother to tell me stories. One evening she said, sounding exhausted, ‘But what more can I tell you?’ An answer came bursting forth in an attempt to keep her at my bedside: “Tell me about Pippi Longstocking!” It was a name that came to me out of the blue, just a child’s play on words. But it did the trick. She began a completely new story.”

Pippi Longstocking, wearing one black stocking and one brown, “hair the same colour as a carrot, braided in two stiff pigtails that stood straight out”, was the antithesis of most children’s literary characters of the time. Her mother was dead, her father was missing, presumed lost at sea. She lived alone in a ramshackle cottage, funded herself from a suitcase filled with gold coins, didn’t go to school and shared her home with a horse and a monkey named Mr Nilsson. Independent, free-spirited and not remotely bound by convention, Pippi was the perfect character for a generation of children who’d known nothing but war and an inspiration to fledgling feminists everywhere. Her willingness to stand up to bullies and protect the vulnerable also made her an excellent, if slightly unorthodox, role model.

Pippi was far from being Lindgren’s only creation. There were also the Six Bullerby Children, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, Mischievous Meg, the Lionheart Brothers, the Children of Troublemaker Street and Master Detective Bill Bergson, but it was the girl with the freckles and gravity-defying pigtails who conquered the world, providing valuable escapism for her creator as much as her millions of readers.

“It is my childhood that I long to return to,” said Lindgren. “When I go home I experience my childhood intensely, again and again. If I dare to be so bold as to speak of inspiration, it is there in my childhood home that I find many of the impulses that can later appear in a story.”

Lindgren grew up in an old house among apple trees on a 500-year-old farm near Vimmerby in south-eastern Sweden. She enjoyed an idyllic childhood during which she would help her farmer father on the land and still find the energy to indulge her many enthusiasms such as dancing and reading. A childhood friend recalled she fizzed with so much vitality and adventure that “sparks came off her”.

“Rocks and trees were as close to us as living beings and nature protected and nurtured our games and our dreaming,” Lindgren wrote in 1973. “All the fairy tales and adventures we invented, read or heard about, all of it happened there and only there. Even our songs and prayers had their places in surrounding nature.”

Her childhood came to a juddering halt when she left school to take up a job at the local newspaper where, while still in her teens, she became pregnant by the 50-year-old editor. Predictably the community’s morals were outraged and, equally predictably, only Lindgren was ostracised. “It was like being in a nest of vipers so I decided to leave,” she recalled. “It was not, as some thought, that I was thrown out of town. I threw myself out.”

Lindgren gave birth to a son, Lars, had him fostered by a family in Copenhagen until she was in a position to take over parenting, moved to Stockholm, enrolled in a secretarial college and began working as a typist and stenographer. Before long she was able to bring Lars to Stockholm, then in 1932 met and married Sture Lindgren, an executive at the Swedish motoring organisation where they both worked. Two years later Karin was born.

Although she spent the rest of her life among the bustle of the Swedish capital the circumstances of her departure from Vimmerby left Lindgren with a deep yearning for the countryside. In the apartment on Dalagatan it’s noticeable how everything is orientated towards the windows, which look out across the street onto the expanse of Vasaparken, a large green space that serves almost as the city’s lung. Her desk is pushed right up against the window, affording an uninterrupted view of trees and greenery.

She spent the war working for Swedish intelligence intercepting and reading mail by day and keeping her children entertained with stories of Pippi Longstocking by night. It was only in 1944 when she was immobilised after slipping on a patch of ice and spraining her ankle that she began writing the stories down. Before the war she had succeeded in placing a few stories in a Christmas magazine but it was only when she began transcribing her children’s bedtime stories that she began to think seriously about pursuing her writing.

She sent a compilation of her Pippi Longstocking tales to a publishing house with a covering letter that signed off, “In the hope that you won’t notify the Child Welfare Committee”. The publisher didn’t take on the book but, in the meantime, a different, more conventional manuscript called Britt-Mari Opens Her Heart had gone to another publishing house as an entry in a competition for stories for girls. The story came second and the book was published in 1944. The following year Lindgren plucked up the courage to submit Pippi Longstocking, which won first prize and unleashed her unconventional heroine on the world.

Success certainly didn’t change her. In 1946 Lindgren was appointed editor-in-chief of the publishing house, Raben & Sjöogren, a post she held until 1970 despite the huge global success of her own books. While she could have moved her family to a much larger home she never left the flat over the restaurant with a view of the park, inside which there was little evidence of her extraordinary success. “I don’t think anything impresses me,” she wrote, “least of all myself.”

Instead Lindgren chose to devote her influence to the causes she cherished, including animal rights – a law protecting animals introduced in 1976 was even named ‘Lex Lindgren’ in her honour – and a successful campaign against corporal punishment for children.

By her late sixties Sweden’s tax system had become so punitive to high earners that one year Lindgren realised her tax rate had grown to 102% of her income. In response she wrote a fairytale called Pomperipossa in the World of Money for the national newspaper Expressen that highlighted this flaw in the system, not only leading to a change in the law but also contributing to the downfall of the ruling Social Democratic party at the next election.

It was in the world of children’s stories that she was happiest, however, sitting at her simple wooden desk, looking across to the trees and grass of Vasaparken and setting her imagination as free as in the carefree days of her childhood on the farm.

“A childhood without books would be no childhood,” she said. “Like being locked out of the enchanted place where you go to find the rarest kind of joy.”