Sigrid Undset

Apologies for the lack of post last week.  I was behind to begin with, I got halfway through typing up my notes but I was feeling horrible, and wound up spending all day in bed instead of doing anything at all productive. 😦  But here we are this week with the post I should’ve written for last week.  Hopefully that won’t happen again.

This week we have a Nobel Prize winner in literature for a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while (I finally picked it up last weekend!), Sigrid Undset.  Sigrid was born at her mother’s childhood home in Kalundborg, Denmark on May 20, 1882.  She was the oldest of three daughters of Charlotte Undset (née Anna Maria Charlotte Gyth) and Ingvald Martin Undset, a Norwegian architect.  When Sigrid was two, her family moved to Kristiana, Norway (what is now Oslo; the name changed in 1925).

Sigrid Undset, youngWhen Sigrid was eleven, her father died after a prolonged illness.  This put the family in financial trouble, and Sigrid had to give up her hopes of going to university.  Instead, Sigrid enrolled in a one year secretarial course, and at age sixteen went to work for an engineering company in Kristiana; she would work there for ten years.

Throughout this time, Sigrid was writing fiction.  When she was sixteen she had started a novel set in Denmark in the Middle Ages.  This was completed by age twenty-two, but it was turned down by the publishers she approached.  Two years later, Sigrid had a new manuscript; it was only eighty pages and was set in contemporary Kristiana, focusing on a middle-class woman.  This too was turned down at first, but was then published.  The work, Fru Maria Oulie, created a stir upon its publication; the opening line reads “I have been unfaithful to my husband” and scandalized its readers with its frank discussion of adultery.

The publication of Fru Maria Oulie made Sigrid Undset a “promising young author in Norway” (1).  In 1907 she joined the Norwegian Authors’ Union; in the 1930s she would head their Literary Council and was one of their chairmen as well.

From the time Fru Maria Oulie was published in 1907 until 1919, Sigrid wrote about life in contemporary Kristiana, “about the city and its inhabitants,” “working people, of trivial family destinies, of the relationship between parents and children” (2).  She focused a lot on women and who and how they loved.  In 1911 Jenny was published, and in 1914 Varren (Spring) was published.  All of her works sold well immediately, and after her third book was published, she was able to quit her office job to write full time.

Sigrid was given a writer’s scholarship and travelled throughout Europe.  She went to Denmark, Germany, and Italy, where she spent nine months in Rome.  Her parents had loved Rome and she spent her time travelling to all the same places she knew her parents had visited.  In Rome there was a group of Scandinavian writers and artists and Sigrid made friends with them.

In Rome in 1909, Sigrid met the Norwegian painter Anders Castus Svarstad.  He was nine years older, and was married with three children, but they fell in love.  They waited three years for Anders’s divorce to finalize, and then married in 1912.  They travelled to London for six months and then came back to Rome where their first child was born in January 1913.  The child was a boy, named for his father.  By 1919, Sigrid had had another child, a mentally handicapped daughter, and had taken in Anders’s other three children, including a mentally handicapped son.

Throughout this time, Sigrid continued writing, working on more novels and some short stories.  She also entered public debates, critical of women’s issues, and the moral and ethical issues she saw that had led to the First World War.

In late 1919, Sigrid moved to Lillehammer, Norway with her two children, and pregnant with her third.  The plan was for Sigrid to rest in Lillehammer while hers and Anders’ home was being built in Kristiana.  However, the marriage broke up and the couple divorced before their home was completed.  Sigrid stayed in Lillehammer and her third child was born there in August of that year.

Within two years, though, the home that was being built was completed.  Bjerkebæk was a large home with traditional Norwegian architecture.  It had a “large fenced garden with views of the town and the villages around” (3).

While the home was being completed, Sigrid worked on a Norwegian retelling of the King Arthur myth.  She also “studied Old Norse manuscripts and Medieval chronicles and visited and examined Medieval monasteries, both at home and abroad”, becoming “an authority on the period … and a very different person from the 22-year-old who had written her first novel about the Middle Ages” (4).  Her works are “precise, realistic, and never romanticized” (5), showing true human emotions, just set in a different time period.  By using the Middle Ages, she was able to give herself the necessary distance, but also allowed for her admiration of Medieval Christendom.

The work this research led to is Krisin Lavransdatter, a trilogy published between 1920 and 1922.  The trilogy shows “life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, portrayed through the experiences of a woman from birth until death” (6).  In addition to the attention to detail about the historical period she was writing about, Sigrid employed modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness in Kristin Lavransdatter; these were cut out of the first English translations of the work though.

Around this same period, Sigrid became a Catholic.  Her parents had been atheists and her upbringing was secular, though living in a Lutheran country she had been baptized and had attended Lutheran church growing up.  With the outbreak of the First World War and the break-up of her marriage, Sigrid had had a crisis of faith, and Catholicism was the answer for her.  In 1924, at age 42, Sigrid was received into the Catholic Church and also became a lay Dominican.

Sigrid’s conversion was scandalous at the time in Norway.  As mentioned, Norway was a Lutheran country; almost no one practiced Catholicism.  There was also a lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric in the country at the time.  As an author, Sigrid was also part of the intelligentsia at the time.  They too didn’t accept her though, being mostly socialist and communist themselves.  Sigrid was open about her Catholicism though, defending the Catholic Church in public debates.

Sigrid Undset, 1928Her next work after Kristin Lavransdatter was Olav Audunssøn (translated in English as The Master of Hestviken).  Olav, a four volume novel, was written during her conversion and published right after; it takes place during a time period when Norway was a Catholic country.  After Olav, Sigrid went back to writing contemporary books, set in Oslo and “with a strong Catholic element” (7).  In 1928 Sigrid won the Nobel Prize for Literature “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages” (8).

Following this, Sigrid was translating the Icelandic Sagas into Modern Norwegian and writing literary essays on English literature, mainly on the Brontës and D. H. Lawrence.  In 1934 she published Eleven Years Old, an autobiographical piece about her childhood in Kristiana.  In the 1930s she was also starting a new historical piece, this time to be set in eighteenth century Scandinavia, but only one volume was published before World War Two broke out.  After the war Sigrid was too broken herself to finish writing it.

With World War Two came a lot of changes in Sigrid’s part of the world.  Stalin invaded Finland; Sigrid donated her Nobel Prize to the Finnish war effort.  In 1940 Germany invaded Norway.  Throughout the 1930s Sigrid had been critical of Hitler, and so fled Norway upon the German invasion.  She and her son first went to Sweden and then to the United States; they lived in Brooklyn and she pleaded for help for her country and for the Jews.  In 1940, also, her oldest son, Anders, was killed in battle (her daughter had died before the war broke out).

After World War Two ended, Sigrid returned to Norway, but never wrote again.  Sigrid Undset died in Lillehammer on June 10, 1949 at age 67.  She is buried in Mesnali, east of Lillehammer.  The son and daughter that predeceased her are buried there as well; there are three black crosses marking their graves.

Sigrid Undset has been honored in many ways.  In addition to the Nobel Prize in 1928, there is a crater on Venus named Undset for her.  She was on the 500 kronur note and a 1982 2 kronur postage stamp in Norway.  In 1998, Sweden put her on a stamp as well.  Her home of Bjerkebæk is now a part of the Maihaugen museum.

The book I finally got of Sigrid Undset’s is Kristin Lavransdatter, but now I’m interested in her other works.  I think her books about contemporary Norway would be really interesting, reading about how Norway was in the early twentieth century, especially Fru Maria Oulie and its controversial opening line.  I’m also now interested in her more Catholic novels, though I’d wait and read those after I’d read her earlier works.  (While I love Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, I wish I had read it after I’d read his earlier works.  He went through a similar conversion to Catholicism and it becomes more and more prevalent in his works.)  I hope I’ve inspired you all to go find some Sigrid Undset books as well!

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – Sigrid Undset

8 – Nobel Laureates in Literature


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