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Sigrid Undset

By Gidske Anderson


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Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is one of the three Norwegian authors (and so far the most recent one) to have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The others are Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, the national bard, in 1903, and Knut Hamsun in 1920. Undset received the Prize in 1928, for "her powerful description of life during the Middle Ages in Scandinavia", as the Nobel Literary Committee in Sweden put it at the time. They were speaking about her two extensive serial novels set against the background of medieval Norway in the 13th century, the 3-volume Kristin Lavransdatter, and the 4-volume Olav Audunssøn.

Both these novels about the Middle Ages, in particular Kristin Lavransdatter, became international best-sellers at the time. According to Alfred Nobel's will, the Literature Prize is to be awarded to the author who has written the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency, and so Undset's books fell within this somewhat elastic category. But it was Sigrid Undset's talent as a great story-teller rather than the idealistic tendency which fascinated her readers all over the world. Her books had been translated into the most important foreign languages even before she received the Nobel Prize. After 1928, they were published in most languages. Now, after a lapse of 70 years, her books are still being read world-wide, by new generations of readers.

Outside Norway, her reputation has been mostly confined to Kristin Lavransdatter. Not so in Norway. I noticed that in connection with my biography of Sigrid Undset, published in 1989. I have received letters from women and men, old and young, from every part of Norway, showing that she is being read, by an increasing number of people - in this our television age.

Her books are being read, and not only the novels about the Middle Ages. She wrote 36 books, and the Middle Age novels are one part of her work. Another part are her then contemporary novels of Kristiania (now Oslo) and Oslo, between the turn of the century and the 1930s, the third part being literary essays and historical articles. Her authorship is wide-ranging and of considerable substance. And, quite obviously, a new generation of readers in Norway has discovered this.

None of her books leave the reader unconcerned. She is a great story-teller, with a profound and realistic knowledge of the labyrinths of the human mind - at all times and in all places. Her literary and historical expertise, acquired first-hand, her thorough knowledge of nature and her understanding of its significance for all of us, - Sigrid Undset has enormous riches, emotional and intellectual, to draw on.

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Who was Sigrid Undset?

It might be worth mentioning that Sigrid Undset was born the same year as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, and was born three years before D.H. Lawrence and Karen Blixen. From the literary point of view, none of these were of importance to her personally, except D.H. Lawrence, with whose work she was strongly preoccupied in the 1930s. But they all belong to the same generation, they are contemporaries, each one in his/her own corner of Europe. Their respective authorships did indeed develop along very different lines, but they do have one thing in common: They are the children of a Europe in crisis, and they are very conscious of it.

Sigrid Undset's themes are obviously Norwegian, but equally obviously European at the same time, in the same way that James Joyce's themes are intensely and exclusively Irish.

In Undset's case, this has to do with her adolescence. The environment she grew up in was a European environment in Norway, in Scandinavia. Her father, Ingvald Undset, was an internationally respected archeologist, whose special subject was the Iron Age in Europe, with Norse and European pre-history as supplementary fields. He pursued his profession by extensive travel and archeological research all over Europe. Her mother, Charlotte Undset, was Danish. She was deeply involved in her husband's work, spoke Germand and French, and was very well versed in Norse and European culture.


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Sigrid Undset was born on 20 May 1882, at Kalundborg, in Denmark, at her mother's handsome childhood home on the market place of that small town. Sigrid was the eldest of the couple's three daughters. She came to Norway at the age of two, when her parents moved on account of her father's illness, which forced him to give up further scientific travel in Europe.

Sigrid Undset grew up in Kristiania, the capital (the name was later changed to Oslo). The first eleven years of her life were under the influence of her father's serious illness but also of his extensive historical knowledge. At an early age, Sigrid learnt not only the secrets of archeology, but also the mysteries of the Norse sagas and Scandinavian folk songs.

Her father died, only 40 years old, when she was 11. Her mother was left single-handed to cope with three young daughters, and with practically no means. This family tragedy left its mark on Sigrid Undset's childhood and adolescence. Her hopes of a university education had to be abandoned. Having passed the intermediate school (Middelskole) examination, she took a 1-year secretarial course, and, at the age of 16, she got a job as secretary with a major, German-owned engineering company in Kristiania. Did she have a talent for that? That was hardly the point - it was necessary for her to earn money to help her mother and her two younger sisters. She worked with the same company for 10 years as a secretary, and after some time as a highly appreciated confidential secretary. There were times when she detested office work, feeling she was wasting her time and her youth. But it gave her insight into a major industrial enterprise, taught her how to work systematically, and made her into an expert typist. It was later to turn out that she had a considerable talent for organisation, both in her capacity as housewife and subsequently as chairman of the Society of Norwegian Authors. Also in her capacity as author, systematic office routine undoubtedly taught her a good deal about how to proceed with major literary works such as her serial novels.

But those ten years doing office work were really painful. She made time during the late hours of the night, during weekends and holidays, for writing. Sigrid was no more than 16 years old when she made her first uncertain attempt at writing a novel set in the Nordic Middle Ages. For several years, she battled with the subject. At the same time, she read a lot, and on her own acquired a thorough knowledge of Nordic literature as well as foreign literature, English literature in particular.

She was deeply moved by Shakespeare, enthusiastic about Chaucer, attracted by the King Arthur legends. But she also immersed herself in the work of the Scandinavian writers, such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Brandes, and in English ones such as the Bront* sisters and Jane Austen. On her own initiative and during the time she was not at work, she thus acquired the sound background for the trade of writing which, as she was convinced at an early stage, would be her fate in a way.


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The manuscript of her first novel was ready by the time she was 22. It was the result of burning the midnight oil for many years. It was an historical novel set in Denmark during the Middle Ages, the rather romantic type of historical novel. The manuscript was turned down by the publishing house, and to her this was a devastating blow. All the same, two years later, she had completed another manuscript. Much less voluminous this time, only 80 pages. She had put aside the Middle Ages, and instead had produced a realistic description of a woman with a petit-bourgeous background in contemporary Kristiania. The title was Fru Marta Aulie, with an opening sentence which scandalised the readers: I have been unfaithful to my husband. These were the words of the book's main character. This book was also refused at first, but after the intervention of a well-known writer of that time, it was subsequently accepted.

Thus, at the age of 25, Sigrid Undset made her debut as an author with a short, realistic novel on adultery, with a contemporary background. It created a stir, and she found herself ranked as a promising young author in Norway. During the years that followed, up to 1919, Undset published a number of novels with a background in contemporary Kristiania. The 10 years at the office had been lonely and difficult ones, but they had given her a footing in a world of rather insignificant, ordinary people who, bravely if not necessarily heroically, strove to find some happiness in life. Undset was a shy, rather introvert young woman with few personal friends. But she had unusually sharp eyes, she saw people, and she saw through them. Her way of breaking out of her loneliness was to take long strolls in and around Kristiania, both east and west, and she came to know it better than most. Her contemporary novels of the period 1907-1918 include all this - the city and its insignificant, ordinary inhabitants, the monotonous boarding house existence of secretaries in a gloomy town, their longing for a little warmth and love, and their brave, not to say heroic "no" to seediness. They are the stories about working people, about lesser family destinies, about the relationship between parents and children, written with warmth, but soberly, and completely unsentimentally. Her main subjects are women and their love. Or, as she herself put it - in her typical short and ironic manner - the immoral kind (of love).

This realistic period culminated in the novels Jenny in 1911 and Vaaren (Spring) in 1914. The first one is about a woman painter who, as a result of various crises of love, believes that she is wasting her life, and in the end commits suicide. The other one is about a woman who succeeds in saving herself and her love in spite of a serious matrimonial crisis, and creates a secure family. These books placed Undset more or less clearly apart from the incipient women's emancipation movement in Europe - perhaps not exactly against it, but on an entirely different level.

Undset's books sold well from the start, and after the publication of her third book, she quit the office job, and made arrangements for living on her income as a writer. Having been granted a writer's scholarship, she set out on a lengthy journey in Europe. After short stops in Denmark and Germany, she continued to Italy, arriving in Rome in December 1909, where she remained for 9 months.


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Her parents had had a close relationship with Rome. As a matter of fact, Sigrid should have been born in Rome while her parents were living there in 1882. But just before her birth, her father became suddently and seriously ill, her parents travelled north in a great hurry to her mother's home at Kalundborg, and that is where Sigrid was born. But Undset herself very likely felt that her proper place of birth was Rome, and during her stay there in 1909 she followed in her parents' footsteps.

The encounter with Southern Europe meant a great deal to her. She immediately made friends within the circle of Scandinavian artists and writers in Rome, she became more open, and more outgoing and lively in her relations with other people.

In Rome, she met Anders Castus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter, whom she married 2 or 3 years later. She was then 30 and, most likely, he was her first love. Svarstad was nine years older than her, he was married, and had a wife and three children in Norway. Their meeting must have been a case of love at first sight, but it was nearly three years before Svarstad got his divorce.

They were married in 1912, and went to stay in London for 6 months. Svarstad painted, and Undset developed strong ties with English art and letters, which were to be of decisive importance to her for the rest of her life. From London, they returned to Rome, where Sigrid's first child was born in January 1913. It was a boy, and he was named after his father.

Marriage and the other children who came later, meant a great deal to Sigrid Undset, both as a person and as a woman. But it was a serious dilemma for the creative artist. In the years of marriage up to 1919, she had three children of her own, and a large and busy household to look after, where also Svarstad's three children by his first marriage had a home. They were difficult years for Sigrid Undset. Her second child, a girl, was retarded, and Svarstad's retarded son also lived in the house. She kept an open and busy house, for the large family and for old and new friends. At the same time, she continued writing at night, after the others had gone to bed, finishing her last realistic novels and collections of short stories. She also entered the public debate on the most topical themes: women's emancipation, ethical and moral issues. She had considerable polemical gifts, and she was categorically critical of emancipation as it was developing, and of the moral and ethical decline she felt was threatening in the wake of the First World War, which was raging beyond the shores of neutral Norway.

In 1919, she moved to Lillehammer, a small town in the Gudbrandsdalen Valley in south-east Norway, taking her two children with her. She was expecting her third child. The idea was that she should take a rest at Lillehammer and move back to Kristiania, as soon as Svarstad had got their new house in order. But thas was not to be.

Instead, the marriage broke up for good. In August 1919, Sigrid Undset gave birth to her third child, at Lillehammer. She decided to live at Lillehammer, and in the course of a couple of years, she had completed ÀBjerkebæk, a large and beautiful home. It was a property with three large, handsome houses of traditional Norwegian timber architecture, and a large, fenced garden with lovely views of the town and the villages around. Her sick daughter and the two boys now had a secure and fantastic home. At last, after years of moves and changes, Sigrid Undset, the writer, had a quiet place to which she could retreat from the world at large in order to do the one thing she now knew she was really good at: writing.

Marriage and the First World War were to change Undset's attitudes. During those difficult years she had experienced a crisis of faith, almost imperceptible at first, then with increasing force. The crisis led her from clear agnostic scepticism, by way of paintful uneasiness about the ethical decline of the time, towards Christianity. She had grown up in a tolerant, free-thinking home, and had herself been a sceptical free-thinker, though without the blind faith of the time in science and materialism being the be-all and end-all.

It would appear that Sigrid Undset had had a personal religious experience at one time or another during those years. In all her writing one senses an observant eye for the mystery of life, for what cannot be explained either by reason or common sense. At the back of her sober, almost brutal realism, there is always an inkling of something unanswerable. It would seem that this recognition of mystery resulted in a personal religious experience. At any rate, this crisis changed her view of Christianity. She no longer believed that man had created God, but had come to believe that God created man.

It was not the Lutheran Church, the Protestant Church, which is the Norwegian State Church, where she herself had been christened, on which her decision fell. She joined the Roman Catholic Church in November 1924, having received thorough instruction from the local Catholic priest in her home district. She was 42 years old at the time.

Sigrid Undset's conversion to Catholicism was considered not only sensational in Norway, it also had an air of scandal about it. It was also taken note of abroad, where her name had become known with the international success of Kristin Lavransdatter. Today, we can only smile at that sensation. But at that time there were practically no Catholics in Norway, an almost obsessionally Protestant country. "Papism" was held in contempt, even feared by large sections of the community, and not only by the Church, but actually just as much by free-thinkers, and among those more or less closely connected with marxism, leninism, and socialism. The attacks were quite vicious at times, with the result that Sigrid Undset's polemical gifts were aroused. For many years she participated in the public debate, in fact going out of her way to join in it, in almost total defence of her Roman Church.

However, it is not, after all, the Lady of Bjerkebæk or the Catholic lady who interest us most when it comes to Sigrid Undset, it is Sigrud Undset the writer, and this is a productive period for her.

As soon as her third child had been born, and she had a secure roof over her head, she started on Kristin Lavransdatter, a major project indeed. She was completely at home in the subject matter, having written a short novel, at an earlier stage, about a period in Norwegian history closer to the pagan times in Norway. She had also published a version in Norwegian of the King Arthur legends, from the British/Celtic Middle Ages. She had studied Norse manuscripts and medieval texts, and had closely investigated medieval churches and monastries, both at home and abroad. She was now an authority on the period she was battling with, and a very different person from the 22-year old, who had written her first novel about the Middle Ages.

What had happened to her in the meantime has to do with more than history and literature, it has just as much to do with her development as a person. She had experienced love, and passion, to the bitter end. She had been in despair over a sick world in the throes of the bloodbath of the First World War. When she started on Kristin Lavransdatter in 1919, she knew what life was about.

Kristin Lavransdatter is, of course, an historical novel. But it is more than that, the historical novel aspect is not even the most important part of it. The historical background is precise and realistic enough, and never romanticised. This is by no means a writer's escape from the contemporary scene into vague longings for the past. Instead, in these three volumes Undset transfers the feelings - well known to herself - of happiness and sorrow, of ecstasy and despair back to a distant past. Not in order to romanticise them, though obviously Undset's choice of the Middle Ages is a result of her admiration for the power to believe, which is so characteristic of that period.

She transfers the protagonists to a distant past in order to create the distance the author needs, in order to create a work of art from her own strong feelings and her strict thoughts. She was aware of being on the threshold of something new in her authorship. She searches for, and finds, the necessary distance by going back to the Middle Ages. I am finding my feet, and quite unaided at that, she wrote to a friend at that time.

It is life's mystery, as she knows it from her own experience, that she writes about in Kristin Lavransdatter. That is why these 1400 pages, as well as the 1200 on Olav Audunssøn are timeless. The people in these books are men and women of flesh and blood, they could well be our neighbours today. And Undset has put them in a natural setting which is ours to this day. It is the city of Oslo she knew so well, the Gudbrandsdalen Valley she loved, and her father's Trøndelag region. She knew the ins and outs of those settings and they remain as they were when she wrote about them 70 years ago, and indeed as they were in the 13th century.

It was after she had broken up from her marriage that Sigrid Undset became mature enough to write her masterpiece. In the years between 1920 and 1927 she first published the 3-volume Kristin, and then the 4-volume Olav (Audunssøn). Simultaneously with this creative process, she was engaged in trying to find the meaning of her own life, finding the answer in the God of Christianity. As she herself put it: He fetched me in from the outposts.

At the end of this creative eruption, Sigrid Undset entered calmer waters. After 1929, she completed a series of novels set in contemporary Oslo, with a strong Catholic element. She selected her themes from the small, though interesting Catholic community in Norway. But here also, the main theme is love. She also published a number of weighty historical works, which undoubtedly did their bit in putting the history of Norway into a more sober perspective. She also made translations into Norwegian of several Icelandic sagas, and published a few literary essays, mainly on English literature, of which a long essay on the Bront* sisters, and one on D.H. Lawrence are especially worth mentioning. These are not great literature, but they are both sound and inspiring.

In 1934, she published Eleven Years Old, an autobiographical work. With a minimum of camouflage, it tells the story of her own childhood in Kristiania, of her home, rich in intellectual values and love, and of the sick father. It is one of the most fetching Norwegian books ever written about a little girl, and there are few in world literature that are better. Sigrid Undset was going from strength to strength.

At the end of the thirties she started on a new book, an historical novel set in 18th century Scandinavia. Only the first volume Madame Dorthea was published in 1939. The the Second World War broke out. It was to break her, both as a person and as a writer. She never finished the set of 18th century novels. The War had taken all her strength.


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When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, she had to flee. She had strongly opposed Hitler and nazism since the early '30s, and her books were banned early on in Germany. She had no wish to be taken hostage by the Germans, and fled to Sweden. Her eldest son, Anders, was killed in action at the age of 27, in April 1940, only a few kilometres from their home at Bjerkebæk. He was an officer in the Norwegian army and was killed in an encounter with German troops. Her sick daughter had died shortly before the outbreak of the War. Bjerkebæk was occupied by the German Army, and used as officers' quarters during the War.

In 1940, Sigrid Undset and her youngest son left neutral Sweden for the United States. There she untiringly pleaded her occupied country's cause, in writings and speeches. She returned to Norway after the liberation in 1945, worn out. She lived for another four years, but she never wrote another word.

Today there is a strong indication that new and young generations in Norway are becoming interested in her work. She had cognition of the moral responsibility of the individual, not only for him or herself, but also for the extended family, for nature, and for all living things around us. To me it seems that this is why her books today appeal to a growing number of readers.

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