Norwegian novelist; b. Kalundborg, Denmark, May 20, 1882; d. Lillehammer, Norway, June 10, 1949. Undset' father, Ingvald, was a distinguished Norwegian archeologist and her mother was Danish. Straitened family circumstances curtailed her education, and she worked as a typist from 1898 to 1908. She was always keenly interested in her father's work and developed a fine sense of history, which was to give authenticity to her great historical novels.
Her first attempt at a novel was Fru Marta Oulie (1907), a picture of modern, everyday life in Oslo. After an excursion into the historical novel, Gunnar's Daughter (1909), she returned to studies of contemporary life, of which Jenny (1911) and Spring (1914) are perhaps the most representative. These are tinged with a spirit of the discontent of youth and reveal the agnosticism that was rife among members of her generation.
Gradually, and perhaps mainly, because of her interest in the Christian background of the Scandinavian countries as revealed by archeology, she discovered Christianity, and she was received into the Catholic Church in 1925. Her wide knowledge of the Middle Ages
laid the groundwork for the vast panorama she envisioned for the historical novels Kristin Lavransdatter (1920–22) and Olav Audunsson (1925–27). The basic motive of these masterpieces was a desire to make Christianity visible to modern man by showing how the light of revelation was carried to the heathen Nordic people as the supreme answer to the riddles of which humanity has always been aware. In her later works she turned to the spiritual crises of modern times, and although The Wild Orchid (1929), The Burning Bush (1930), Ida Elisabeth (1932), and The Faithful Wife (1936) do not have the sweep of her medieval themes, they are among the most penetrating of modern novels. Lesser, but by no means insignificant, are The Longest Years (1934), a charming recollection of her first 11 years; Madame Dorothea (1939), a picture of life in 18th-century Norway; and Saga of Saints (1935), in which she returned once again to the Middle Ages in studies of medieval sanctity.
When Norway was occupied by the Nazis, she came to the U.S. where she lectured extensively and published Return to the Future (1942) and Happy Days in Norway (1943). She had married the painter A. C. Svarstad in 1912 and had three children, but the marriage was dissolved in 1925. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for Kristin Lavransdatter. Her second son was killed by the Nazis in 1940, an event that inspired the anti-Nazi sentiments she expressed during her lectures in the U.S. She returned to Lillehammer in 1945, and in 1947 received the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olaf, the first woman not of noble blood to be so honored.
Bibliography: s. undset, Artikler og taler fra krigstiden, ed. a. h. winsnes (Oslo 1952), a collection of her articles and speeches; Middelalder-romaner, 10 v. (3d ed. Oslo 1959), the medieval novels; Nutridsfortellinger, 9 v. (Oslo 1964–65), the modern novels. a. h. winsnes, Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism, tr. p.g. foote (New York 1953). e. steen, Kristin Lavransdatter (Oslo 1959). a. m. de vos, Sigrid Undset (Ghent 1953). c. a. brady, "An Appendix to the Sieridssaga," Thought 40 (1965) 73–130.
[a. h. winsnes]