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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)


Norwegian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Undset is best-known for her novels about life in the Scandinavian countries during the Middle Ages. Her early fiction dealt with contemporary subjects, problems of city women. Often her heroines face tragic consequences when they are unfaithful for their true inner self or idealistically challenge traditional gender roles.

"The sun was shining but it had rained hard during the night so the streams were splashing and singing everywhere on the hillsides, and wisps of fog drifted below the mountain slopes. But above the crests, white fair-weather clouds climbed into the blue sky, and Lavrans and his men said it was going to be a hot day later on." (from Kristin Lavransdatter I, 1920, translated by Tiina Nunnally)  

Sigrid Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, the eldest daughter of Ingvald, an archeologist, and Anna Charlotte, the daughter of a Danish attorney. Through his father's influence, Undset developed a fascination with medieval history and sagas, ballads, and mythology of Scandinavia. From her mother Undsed derived realistic view of life in general, but she never shared her mother's critical attitude toward religion. When she was two years old, the family moved to Christiania (now Oslo), Norway, where her father took a position at the university.  

A defining moment in Undset's childhood was when a family friend gave her a copy of Njals Saga. Its story absorbed her so much that she lost all other awareness: "I could see it all so clearly that it hurt. Skarphedin, with his black eyes and pale face - beautiful eyes, but an ugly mouth - reckless, unpredictable . . . " Ingvald Undset died in 1893, at the age of forty, and the family's financial situation deteriorated. Undset's mother sold her husband's collection of books and antiques, many of which Undset later searched for and acquired back. Ingvald became the model for Lavrans Bjørgulfsson in Kristin Lavransdotter  (1920-22). After passing the middle-level exam at a school run by Ragna Nielsen, a supporter of the suffragist movement, Undset took a secretarial training course. To support her mother and two sisters, Undset took a job as a secretary to a German electrical contractor, Wisbech Electrical Company, where she worked nine-hour days.

Undset remained at the office for the next ten years. On her spare time she read Norwegian authors such as Henrik Ibsen, history, Shakespeare and Chaucer, and the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Brontë. To her Swedish pen pal, Andrea (Dea) Hedberg she wrote long letters. In 1900, Undset began to work on a historical novel set in medieval Norway, finishing the manuscript four years later. With the hope of having it published, she took it to Gyldenhal Publishing Company in Copenhagen. The legendary reply of the editor, Peter Nansen, was: "Don't attempt any more historical novels. You have no talent for it. But you might try writing something modern."

Undset's first novel, Fru Marta Oulie, came out in 1907, after the publishing house of H. Aschehoug & Co. had first rejected it. "I have been unfaithful to my husband," confessed the protagonist in the story of marital infidelity, which shocked some critics. The novel, set in contemporary Kristiania (renamed Oslo in 1925) was followed by a collection of short stories, Den lykkelige alder (1908). Fortællingen om Viga-Ljot of Vigdis (1909, Gunnar's Daughter), a short novel, was an imitation of Icelandic saga. Its protagonist is a woman, who raises her son to take revenge on the man, who had ruined her - his father. Gunnar's Daughter earned Undset a government scholarship for travel. She left her job and devoted herself entirely to writing.

Her third novel, Jenny (1911), Undset set in partly Rome, depicting with enthusiasm the sights of the Eternal City. "Helge whispered aloud to the city of his dreams, whose streets his feet had never trod and whose buildings concealed not one familiar soul: "Rome, Rome, eternal Rome." And he grew shy before his own lonely being, and afraid, because he was deeply moved, although he knew that no one was there watching him. All the same, he turned around and hurried down toward the Spanish Steps." (from Jenny) The protagonist is a promising young artist, Jenny Winge, who tries to compromise between love and artistic goals. Jenny leaves her indolent fiancé, Helge Gram, feels attraction to Helge's father, Gert, a failed artist. He leaves his wife, but Jenny doesn't want to marry him. She loses her baby who lives six weeks, and travels to Rome where she commits suicide.

After the success of her books, Undset began to travel. In 1912 she married the Norwegian painter Anders Castus Svarstad at the Norwegian consulate in Antwerp, Belgium. She had met him in Rome, where she had moved after her second novel. Undset returned with Svarstad to Norway. Svarstad continued his career as an artist, spending most of his time in his Oslo studio, Undset published several books, took dutifully care of the home and the children - three of them from his previous marriage. Eventually they separated in 1919, and Undset settled on a farm in Lillehammer in Gudbrandsdal with her daughter, Maren Charlotte, who suffered from mental retardation, and two sons. Her husband and stepchildren become frequent visitors to the farm, called Bjerkebæk. When the future Nobel laureate F.E. Sillanpää went to see her in 1930 at her house, an angry dog chased him away.

Before publishing her great historical novels, Undset wrote Splinten av troldspeilet (1917), which focused on the contradictions between new opportunities for women and their traditional duties. In 1924 she converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and at the same time had her marriage annulled. Her religious beliefs are reflected in everything she wrote but without dogmatism. Undset's own spiritual development is recorded in Gymnadenia (1929, The Wild Orchid), Den brændende busk (1930, The Burning Bush), and Den trofaste hustru (1936, The Faithful Wife). Undset's relationship with feminism was more ambivalent: her heroines often find fulfillment in home and family rather than in paid work. The enlarged version of Saga of Saints (1934) was published in Norway under the title Norske helgener (1937). It contained portraits of such saints as St. Sunniva, St. Olav, St. Hallvard, St. Magnus, St. Eystein, and St. Thorfinn.

Undset was the third Norwegian writer to be awarded The Nobel Prize, after Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Knut Hamsun. Her first masterwork from the 1920s is the trilogy Kristin Lavransdottir, slow and unpretentiously old-fashioned, consciously setting itself against modermism and vicissitudes of history. It re-created a woman's life in the devout Catholic Norway of the 13th and 14th centuries. The first volume, The Bridal Wreath, depicted Kristin's passage to adulthood. Kristin is the proud and beautiful daughter of a prosperous landowner. Early on she is close to being a victim of rape, and marries a basically unworthy man, Erlend, who had saved her. "She understood not herself why she was not glad - it was as though she had lain and wept beneath a warm covering, and now must get up in the cold. A month went by - then two, now she was sure that she had been spared this ill-hap - and, empty and chill of soul, she felt yet unhappier than before. In her heart there dawned a little bitterness toward Erlend. Advent drew near, and she had heard neither from or of him; she knew not where he was."

The Mistress of Husaby and The Cross dealt with Kristin's marriage, the love and hate relationship with her husband, who has illegitimite children, and her final reckoning with God and succumbing to the Black Death. The novel was followed by a tetralogy, translated into English as The Master of Hestviken (1924-27), also a medieval tale. The protagonist, proud and unyielding Olav, has committed murder - he kills the lover of his fiancée - which he chooses not to confess. In both novel series "the first sin" shadows the protagonists life.

In his presentation speech, Per Hallström, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, stated that "the erotic life, the problem common to the two sexes, which constitutes the centre of Sigrid Undset's psychological interest, is found again, almost without modifications, in her historical novels. In this respect, objections naturally come to mind. In medieval documents, the feminist question is not known; one never finds hints of the inner personal life which later was to raise this question. The historian, demanding proofs, has the right to note this discrepancy. But the historian's claim is not absolute; the poet has at least an equal right to express himself when he relies on a solid and intuitive knowledge of the human soul." Undset did not deliver a Nobel lecture, but said in her brief acceptance speech that "I write more readily than speak and I am especially reluctant to talk about myself."

With the exception of  Madame Dorthea (1939), the only completed volume of a planned trilogy set in the 18th century, Undset's later novels dealt with contemporary society. In most of these works, such as The Wild Orchid  and its sequel The Burning Bush, Undset wove religious themes in the story.

In the 1920s, Undset began to earn a comfortable income from her books. Moreover, she was awarded a lifetime annual author's stipend from the Norwegian goverment. Her Nobel Prize money, 156,000 kroner, Undset gave away. Part of it went to a foundation established to help families with mentally retarded children. Undset sold also her Nobel medal later, giving the money to the relief effort for Finnish children after the outbreak of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939.

In 1939, Undset lost both her mother and daughter. When Norway was occupied by the Germans in April 1940, Undset joined the Resistance. In her essay 'Fortschritt, Rasse, Religion' (1935, Progress, Race, Religion) she had compared the "superior race" belief  of the Nazis  to the  pride of Lucifer. Undset's oldest son, Anders, was killed during a combat in Gausdal in 1940. A prominent and an outspoken critic of the Nazis, her books were banned in Germany, and Norwegian authorities advised him to flee the country. She had barely enough time to pack a suitcase. The Germans occupied Bjerkebæk for several years. Her writing desk was chopped up for firewood. Undset made with her son a journey on foot and skis over the mountains into Sweden and then crossed Siberia by train, on to Japan, eventually sailing to San Francisco.

Undset lived in exile in the United States, in a small apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Her new acquaintances included the novelist Willa Cather, whose novels she greatly admired. Durig this period, she made lecture tours, which gained much publicity. At the end of the war, Undset returned to Norway, where she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav in 1947, for her "distinguished literary work and for her service to her country." Undset died in Lillehammer, on June 10, 1949.

Undset combined in her work knowledge of history with a psychological analysis. With the '"domestic epic," a sweeping drama set against a carefully studied social background, she broke a new ground. Undset turned away from the sentimental style of national romanticism and wanted to re-create the realism of the Icelandic sagas and write so vividly, that "everything that seem romantic from here - murder, violence, etc becomes ordinary - comes to life," as the author explained. In her personal life Undset devoted herself to medieval interests - she restored house dating from the year 1000 and dressed in the grown of a Norse matron of the Middle Ages. In Lillehammer Undset lived a reclusive life and refused to open the doors of his house to journalists. Undset's emphasis on women's biological nature, and her view that motherhood is the highest duty a woman can aspire, has been criticized by feminists as reactionary.

For further reading: 'Undset, Sigrid (1882-1949)' by Katherine Abernathy, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present: Volume II, edited by Michael D. Sollars (2008); Dikterdronningen: Sigrid Undset by Sigrun Slapgard (2007); 'Undset, Sigrid,' in Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater by Jan Sjåvik (2006); 'Introduction', by Tiina Nunnally, in The Wreath, transl. by Tiina Nunnally (1997); 'Sigrid Undset,' in Women Writers of Great Britain and Europe: An Encyclopedia, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, Paul Schlueter and June Schlueter (1997); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 4, ed. by M. Seymour-Smith and A.C. Kimmens (1996); Redifining Integrity by Elisabeth Solbakken (1992); Natur og normer hos Sigrid Undset by Liv Bliksrud (1988); Sigrid Undsed: Chronicler of Norway by Mitzi Brunsdale (1988); Sigrid Undset by C. Bayerschmidt (1970); Sigrid Undset, ou la morale de la passion by Nicole Deschamps (1966); Undset :A Study in Christian Realism by A.H. Winsnes (1953); 'Christian Ethics in a Pagan World. Sigrid Undset', in Six Scandinavian Novelists by A. Gustafson (1940); Sigrid Undset by V. Vinde (1930) - For further information: Literature Nobel Prize

Selected works:

  • Fru Marta Oulie, 1907 [[Mrs. Marta Oulie]
  • I grålysningen, 1908 (play)
  • Den lykkelige alder, 1908 [The Happy Age]
  • Fortællingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis, 1909
    - Gunnar's Daughter (tr.  Arthur G. Chater, 1936)
  • Ungdom, 1910 (play)
  • Jenny, 1911
    - Jenny (tr. W. Emme, 1921; Tiina Nunnally, 2002)
    - Jenny (suom. Anna-Maria Tallgren, 1936)
  • Fattige skjæbner, 1912
  • Vaaren, 1914 [Spring]
    - Kevät (suom. Väinö Jaakkola, 1924)
  • Fortællinger om Kong Artur og ridderne av det runde bord, 1915
  • Splinten av troldspeilet, 1917
    - Images in a Mirror (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1938)
    - Peilikuvia (suom. Anna-Maria Tallgren, 1938)
  • Tre søstre, 1917
  • De kloge jomfruer, 1918 [The Wise Virgins]
  • Et kvindesynspunkt, 1919 [A Woman's Point of View]
  • Kristin Lavransdatter, 1920-22 (trilogy: Kransen, 1920; Husfrue, 1921; Korset, 1922)
    - The Bridal Wreath (tr. C. Archer and J. S. Scott, 1923); The Mistress of Husaby (tr. C. Archer, 1925); The Cross (tr. C. Archer, 1927) / Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath (tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1997); Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife (tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1999); Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross (tr. Tiina Nunnally, 2000) / Kristin Lavransdatter (Deluxe Edition, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 2005)
    - Kristiina Lauritsantytär (Seppel, suom. Siiri Siegberg, 1923; Emäntä, suom. Siiri Siegberg, 1923; Risti, suom. Siiri Siegberg, 1923)
    - film 1996, dir.  Liv Ullman, starring Elisabeth Matheson, Bjørn Skagestad, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Ruth Tellefsen
  • Kransen, 1920
  • Husfrue, 1921
  • Korset, 1922
  • Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken, 1924 & Olav Audunssøn og hans børn, 1927
    - The Master of Hestviken: The Axe (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1928); The Sanke Pit (tr.  Arthur G. Chater, 1929); In the Wilderness (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1929); The Son Avenger (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1930)
    - Olav Auduninpoika 1-2 (suom. Siiri Siegberg, 1926); Olavinlapset (suom. Sirkka Impi, 1929)
  • Samlede romaner og fortællinger fra nutiden, 1925 (5 vols.)
  • Sankt Halvards liv, død og jærtegn, 1925
    - Pyhän Halvardin elämä ja ihmetyöt (suom. Siiri Siegberg, 1925)
  • Katholsk propaganda, 1927
  • Gymnadenia, 1929
    - The Wild Orchid (tr.  Arthur G. Chater, 1931)
  • Etapper, 1929
  • Den brændende busk, 1930
    - The Burning Bush (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1932)
  • Hellig Olav, Norges konge, 1930
  • Die Saga von Vilmund Vidutan und seinen Gefährten; Weinachtsfrieden: zwei Erzählungen, 1931 (autorisierte Uebersetzung a. d. Norwegischen von E. A)
  • Ida Elisabeth, 1932
    - Ida Elizabeth (tr.  Arthur W. Chater, 1933)
    - Ida Elisabeth (suom. Anna-Maria Tallgren, 1933)
  • Etapper. Ny række, 1933
    - Stages on the Road (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1934)
  • Elleve aar, 1934
    - The Longest Years (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1939)
    - Yksitoista vuotta (suom. Anna-Maria Tallgren, 1935)
  • Fortschritt, Rasse, Religion, 1935 (written in German)
  • Den trofaste hustru, 1936
    - The Faithful Wife (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1936)
  • Norske helgener, 1937
    - Saga of Saints (tr. E. C. Ramsden, 1934)
  • Selvportretter og landskapsbilleder, 1938
    - Men, Women and Places (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1939)
  • Images in a Mirror, 1938 (tr. Arthur G. Chater)
  • Madame Dorthea, 1939
    - Madame Dorthea (tr. Arthur G. Chater, 1940)
    - Lannistumaton sydän (suom. Anna-Maria Tallgren, 1942)
  • Tibake til fremtiden, 1945 [Return to Future]
    - Return to the Future (tr. Henriette C.K. Naeseth, 1942)
  • True and Untrue, and Other Norse Tales, 1945 (edited and compiled by Sigrid Undset)
  • Lykkelige dager, 1947
    - Happy Times in Norway (tr. Joran Birkeland, 1942)
  • Romaner og fortællinger fra nutiden, 1949 (10 vols.)
  • Middelalder-romaner, 1949 (10 vols.)
  • Caterina av Siena, 1951
    - Catherine of Siena (tr. Kate Austin-Lund, 1954)
  • Artikler og taler fra krigstiden, 1952 (ed. A.H. Winsnes)
  • Sigurd og hans tapre venner, 1955
    - Sigurd and His Brave Companions:  A Tale of Medieval Norway (Eng. tr. 1943)
  • Sten Steensen Blicher, 1957
    - Diary of a Parish Clerk (Eng. tr. 1976)
  • Four Stories, 1959 (tr. Naomi Walford)
  • Østenfor sol og vestenfor maane, 1960 (play)
  • Kirke og klosterliv. Tre essays fra norsk middelalder, 1963
  • Romaner og fortellinger fra nutiden, 1964-1965 (10 vols.)
  • I grålysningen, 1968
  • Kjære Dea, 1979 (ed. Christianne Undset Svarstad)
  • Kritikk og tro: tekster, 1982 (ed. Liv Bliksrud)
  • Fred på jorden, 1992 (ed. C.Fr. Engelstad)
  • Den hellige Sunniva, 2000 (illustrated by Gøsta af Geijerstam)
  • The Unknown Sigrid Undset, 2001 (edited by Tim Page; new translations by Tiina Nunnally)  
  • Essays og artikler 1930-1939, 2007 (ed. Liv Bliksrud
  • Essays og artikler 1940-1949, 2008 (ed. Liv Bliksrud)
  • Eskalibur: fortellinger om kong Artur og ridderne av det runde bord, 2009 (introduction by Jan Erik Rekdal)

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