Novelist and social commentator
Life. The Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset was born in Kalundborg, in western Denmark, the eldest of three daughters. Her father was an archaeologist, and the family lived a comfortable uppermiddle-class lifestyle. In 1884 the family moved to Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway. After Undset’s father died in 1893, her mother raised her daughters in more difficult conditions. From 1899 until 1909 Undset attended a commercial school in Kristiania and then worked as a secretary in an office. During this decade she began to write, and in 1907 and 1908 she published her first two books, the novel Fru marta Oulie (Mrs. Marta Oulie) and Den lykkelige alder (The Happy Age), a collection of short stories about middle-class women in contemporary Norway.
Early Themes Undset’s early fiction is a window into the experiences of middle-class Norwegians at the turn of the century. In Mrs. Marta Oulie Undset depicts the life of a middle-class housewife who has become involved in an affair with her husband’s friend. After her husband becomes ill and dies, she is so guilt-ridden that she refuses to continue her relationship with her lover. One of the stories in The Happy Age focuses on the difficulties faced by poor teenage girls as they interact with wealthier school friends. Two other stories describe the economic insecurity and unfulfilling work experiences of young middle-class women who have left home in search of careers. The women dream of better, more gratifying lives; yet, they avoid extended relationships with men and offers of marriage because they fear that their dreams might never come true. One character commits suicide when she realizes the difficulties of her depressing situation.
Feminism. From 1909 until the outbreak of World War I, Undset studied in Italy, visiting Paris and continuing to write fiction. Jenny (1911) reveals Undset’s interest in turn-of-the-century feminist issues and her belief that women should be allowed to pursue interesting professions and enjoy family life. Turn-of-the-century middle-class Europeans, however, frowned upon these goals. Undset’s title character eventually commits suicide after struggling between identifying herself through her work and through her personal and sexual relationships. The novel sold well but aroused intense feelings. Social conservatives were shocked by its explicit discussion of sexuality, eroticism, and pregnancy, while feminists questioned the meaning of having the main character abandon her career for her relationships and then kill herself.
Marriage and Family While studying abroad, Undset met her future husband, Anders Svarstad, whom she married in 1912, after he left his first wife and children. They separated in 1919, when she was pregnant with their third child. Undset and her children settled in Lillehammer, Norway, where they lived until 1940.
Nobel Prize During the 1920s Undset published a trilogy of historical novels, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920–1922), on the basis of which she was awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in literature. In 1924 she converted to Catholicism. Her faith plays an important role in the historical and contemporary novels she wrote during the 1920s and later. Undset fled Norway after the Germans invaded in 1940 and spent the war in Sweden and the United States. She returned home in 1945 and died there in 1949.
Carl Bayerschmidt, Sigrid Undset (Boston: Twayne, 1970).
Tim Page, ed., The Unknown Sigrid Undset South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2001).
The Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was internationally acclaimed for the historical novel "Kristen Lavransdatter." She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928.
Sigrid Undset was born on May 20, 1882, in Kalundborg, Denmark, the daughter of a distinguished Norwegian archeologist and a Danish mother. She grew up in Oslo in a closely knit family where her interest in history and literature was early awakened. Her father died when she was 11, leaving the family in financial difficulties. Her first 11 years are movingly described in the autobiographical novel The Longest Years (1934). She had intended to study painting but was forced to work in an office for 10 years, until she began to earn enough from her books to quit and devote herself to writing.
Sigrid Undset's authorship was a reaction against the Norwegian literature of her contemporaries. On the basis of her experiences among the working women of Oslo— whose rootless lives seemed to contrast so sharply with her own homelife—she came to believe that most of the new liberal ideals and freedoms were illusory and that a fulfilling life could only be based on a sense of personal responsibility.
From the beginning until Kristen Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset's fiction deals almost exclusively with contemporary women in their search for values that will give their lives meaning. Her fortunate heroines are those who find something greater than their own egos—a strong, enduring love, children, a home and, finally, religious faith. The strength of the best of these novels and stories lies in their vivid realism, their compassionate objectivity, and Sigrid Undset's remarkable gift for characterization. The outstanding work of this period is the novel Jenny (1911), shocking in its time for its bold erotic descriptions.
Kristen Lavransdatter (1920-1922) is Sigrid Undset's masterpiece, one of the great historical novels in world literature. Its greatness lies in the way she brings to life a distant age and yet shows us the universally human beneath the medieval forms. The rich and complex Kristen dominates the novel, in her rebellion, her joys and suffering, and her gradual growth as a woman.
In 1924 Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism. Her authorship from this time on directly reflects her religious convictions. The two-volume novel The Master of Hestviken (1925-1927) is much more tendentious than Kristen, although it contains many powerful scenes. After these historical novels, Sigrid Undset returned to novels of contemporary life, now with a clear Catholic message: The Wild Orchid (1929), The Burning Bush (1930), Ida Elisabeth (1932), The Faithful Wife (1936), and Madame Dorothea (1939).
As one of Norway's most prominent anti-Nazi writers, Sigrid Undset was forced to flee to America after the German invasion. While there she worked actively for Norway's cause and also wrote a book about her flight, Return to the Future (1942), and a book of memoirs, Happy Times in Norway (1942). Sigrid Undset died at her home at Lillehammer on June 10, 1949.
For a discussion of Sigrid Undset's life and work see Harald Beyer, A History of Norwegian Literature (1964); Alrik Gustafson, Six Scandinavian Novelists (1966); and Carl F. Bayerschmidt, Sigrid Undset (1970).
Dunn, Margaret, Sister, Paradigms and paradoxes in the life and letters of Sigrid Undset, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994. □