Lagerlöf, Selma (1858–1940)
Lagerlöf, Selma (1858–1940)
Swedish author of numerous novels, short stories and tales who was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Name variations: Selma Lagerlof. Born Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf on November 20, 1858, at the modest manor house of Maarbacka in Värmland, a district in central Sweden, west of Stockholm; died at Maarbacka on March 16, 1940; fourth of five children of Erik Gustav Lagerlöf and Lovisa (Wallroth) Lagerlöf; attended the Royal Women's Superior Training College, Stockholm; never married; no children.
Enrolled in a teachers' training college in Stockholm (1881); on graduation, was hired as a teacher in the southern Swedish town of Landscrona, where she started her writing career as well; following the success of The Story of Gösta Berling (1891), resigned her post and became a full-time writer; revenues from that novel and subsequent works enabled her to buy back her childhood home, Maarbacka, which had been auctioned off (1889); received an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala (1907), followed by the Nobel Prize (1909), first Swede and first woman to be honored thus; purchased the property surrounding Maarbacka that had been in the family for generations and resumed the position of landed gentry; was keynote speaker at the International Congress of Women (1911); accepted into the Swedish Academy (1914), the first and only female member.
The Story of Gösta Berling (1891); Invisible Links (1894); The Miracles of Antichrist (1897); The Queens of Kungahalla and Other Sketches (1897); The Tale of a Manor (1899); Jerusalem (1901–02); Herr Arne's Hoard (1903); Christ Legends (1904); The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906–07); A Saga about a Saga and Other Tales (1908); Liljekrona's Home (1911); Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness (1912); The Emperor of Portugalia (1914); Trolls and Men (2 vols., 1916, 1921); The Outcast (1918); Zachris Topelius (1920); Maarbacka (1922); The Ring of the Lövenskolds (1925–28); Memories of My Childhood (1930); The Diary of
Selma Lagerlöf (1932); Autumn (1933); Writings and Re-writings (1933).
"When I was five years old," writes Selma Lagerlöf in the opening of Christ Legends, "I experienced a great sorrow, so great I have experienced none greater since." She was referring to the death of her grandmother who, until then, had sat on the corner sofa telling stories from morning to night for the enjoyment of Selma and her siblings. "I remember that when she had told a story," continues Lagerlöf, "she would lay her hand on my head and say, 'And all I have told you is just as true as it is that I can see you and you can see me.'" At her grandmother's death, Lagerlöf felt as if something had been cut out of life. The door to a grand and enchanted world where the children had wandered in and out had been locked, and no one had a key. The young Selma had to wait for an older Selma to find the key to the world of imagination and reclaim its inhabitants, but the latter knew the place to look: Maarbacka, the family estate in the region of Värmland.
Lagerlöf was tied with unseverable bonds to her childhood home, a crucial departure point for her writing, and the seat of the only family she expected to have. At age three and a half, she had suffered a bout of temporary paralysis which left her with a chronic limp. She had to walk with care and early on came to consider herself unfit for the mating dance. She therefore thought it necessary to choose a career other than that of wife and mother. According to her notes written at the time of her 50th birthday, the child Selma knew from the time she was seven that she wanted above all to eventually write novels. She started by writing poems for family occasions, and one of those, a celebratory rhymed speech delivered at the wedding of relatives, brought her to the attention of a guest, author Eva Fryxell . Fryxell encouraged the young Värmland girl to submit her best poems for possible publication in a Stockholm paper. Though the poems were returned, Fryxell prevailed on Selma's father to send his daughter to Stockholm to prepare herself for matriculation at the Teachers' College for Women. Lagerlöf graduated three years later and, in her first assignment at the High School for Girls in Landscrona, proved herself a gifted teacher. In one of her students' memoirs, Lagerlöf is described as eagerly open to suggestions and yet full of clear explanations and imaginative expression. A born storyteller, she lectured so engagingly that her pupils forgot they were in school and sighed at the sound of the bell.
Much as she loved to impart the words and knowledge of others, Lagerlöf did not forget that her life's work was to be her own writing. Her opportunity to prove her talents came in the spring of 1890, when the women's publication Idun invited submissions for a fiction contest. At her sister's instigation, Selma submitted five chapters of a work in progress. It had already occurred to her, while attending school in Stockholm, that in the oral traditions of Värmland she had material as rich and varied as any that had been available to the Swedish romantic poets she admired. Lagerlöf had started writing the folk tales and sagas handed down by her grandmother and others, but she found it impossible to give them expression in the existing literary conventions of realism and naturalism, as dictated by August Strindberg and Émile Zola. Then, she had happened upon Thomas Carlyle's Hero and Hero-worship in her school library and found a literary model she could use. Reading the book, she was convinced that she, too, could write from the heart and, like Carlyle, tell what she knew with passion and enthusiasm. This intellectual discovery had been given emotional impetus by what she thought would be her last visit to Maarbacka, which was to be sold at a public auction. The loss of the place to which she was rooted impressed upon her the necessity of preserving the spirit of Värmland and its inhabitants with words. Thus she had written several chapters when the Idun contest was brought to her attention. Those chapters brought her a first prize; then a friend found means to secure her a year's leave of absence from school and a place in which to finish the book. It was published by Idun in 1891 as The Story of Gösta Berling.
In a later essay about the origin of the novel, Lagerlöf describes her role in its creation as that of a "medium" through whom events taking place in the Värmland countryside were given to the world. They are an odd mixture of tales, she writes, "a formless cloud of adventures, which drifted back and forth like a swarm of stray bees on a summer's day, not knowing where they might find someone who could gather them into a hive."
Lagerlöf's double image of herself as "medium" and "gatherer" is striking, and describes her activities as both woman and artist. At the time of this essay, she had repurchased Maarbacka with money earned from the publication of her books. Thus, her works had been the medium through which she could gather together not only the manor house and outlying buildings but eventually the entire surrounding property. Selma, the industrious gatherer, had reclaimed what her father, the swashbuckling hunter Erik Gustav Lagerlöf, had squandered. Lagerlöf's biographers
are in agreement that the loss of Maarbacka, though partly due to difficult economic times, was caused primarily by the extravagance and increasing incompetence of its owner. They describe Erik Lagerlöf as a gentleman farmer with progressive ideas which often failed in execution. His children—at least initially—adored their brilliant father who loved parties and open houses, songs, dances, pageants, speeches, theatricals and illuminations. He is the central character in Lagerlöf's childhood recollections, the revered father who gradually loses his power as she loses her expectations of that power and learns to recognize and control her own.
This shift in reliance from total dependence on her father, and the paternalistic rule he represented, to confidence in her own ability to provide is demonstrated in Lagerlöf's Nobel Prize acceptance speech which she styled as a conversation with her father in heaven. She has come to ask him, she begins, how she may repay an enormous debt. She shows him concerned at first that she is referring to money, but he regains composure when he understands that she is talking about gratitude towards those who have made her work possible. Her gesture vis-a-vis her father honors his position in her life: to him she owes all that makes life worth living, intense joy and unparalleled experience, but grief and barely sustainable loss as well. It fell to her, she implies, to reclaim the home and the land he had lost, which hard work and discipline in the service of the word had accomplished. She had done both of them honor and atoned for whatever guilt she may have experienced at leaving Maarbacka in its declining years.
In The Story of Gösta Berling, Lagerlöf pits guilt, responsibility, and loyalty against spontaneity and self-indulgence. The hero Gösta Berling, an unfrocked priest, is young, strong, handsome, and irresistible to women. He lodges with 11 other pensioners at Ekeby, ruled by the strong-willed Margareta Samzelius, the wife of a major, who owns six other estates as well. The action takes place on two consecutive Christmas Eves. On the first, the 12 pensioners are enjoying a drunken revel when the evil ironmaster of a neighboring manor appears dressed as the devil. He tells them that he is going to renew his pact with their benefactor Margareta. Since the pensioners have suspected that Margareta's power is supernatural, they believe the rumor that she holds her power by sacrificing the soul of one pensioner to the devil each year. With that knowledge, Gösta Berling signs his own pact: for one year, the 12 will be in charge of the estate and the foundries, with the understanding that if they do anything "sensible or useful or effeminate," they will forfeit all, including themselves. They win the wager with devastating results: their mistress is driven from her home and left to roam the highways like a common beggar, while the pensioners ruin her estates with wild abandon and dissipation. By the following Christmas Eve, however, Margareta has returned. On her deathbed, she listens to the beats of the great hammer in the smithy, which the pensioners are working as a sign of their repentance and reformation. Gösta pledges a life of work instead of play, a life of service rather than indulgence. The reader, along with the author, may want to subscribe to Gösta's proclaimed work ethic, but Lagerlöf has made a life of adventure and indulgence so engaging that the reader's sympathies are conflicted. Maybe it is possible to have fun and be good simultaneously.
Conceivably, Lagerlöf's attachment to Värmland and her lifelong fascination with religious fanatics spurred her interest in a group of Swedes who left their homeland towards the end of the century to follow a preacher to Jerusalem, there to await the imminent coming of the Lord. Their story is the subject matter of her next major work, the two-volume novel Jerusalem, which followed upon a series of travels she undertook with her friend and fellow-writer Sophie Elkan , first to Florence, Rome, and Sicily in the winter of 1895–96, and later to Turkish-occupied Palestine (now Israel). Set in the 1890s, Jerusalem explores the principles of ethics and religion as models to live by. It features a quiet, tradition-bound world of farmers in the region of Dalarna who find their chief pleasure in working the soil, but whose faith in God nonetheless makes some of them follow a returned Swedish-American emigrant to Jerusalem. The novel centers on the Ingmarssons, a deeply religious family fiercely loyal to the soil. To them, God exists in the daily tasks well done from year to year and generation to generation. Lagerlöf pits their love of land and homesteads against religion on one hand and romantic love on the other. Karin Ingmar sacrifices the farm to obey her inner summons to a religious pilgrimage while her brother renounces his fiancé to become engaged to another in order to keep the estate from passing out of the hands of the Ingmars. That Lagerlöf—and likely the reader—comes down on the side of the farm is evident in the sympathy evoked for the departing pilgrims' children who cry out in vain, "We don't want to go to Jerusalem; we want to go home." The Swedish Academy honored Lagerlöf with a gold medal for this novel, which by critical acclaim established her as the greatest novelist in Sweden.
An invitation to write a geography book for children brought on further contemplations of "home" for Lagerlöf even as it offered another opportunity for her descriptions of nature and her ready play in the land of the supernatural. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils introduces a tiny, bewitched child who can ride on the back of a farm goose. When his goose joins a flock of migrating geese, Nils rides the length of Sweden. In the process, he learns of the national character of the Swedish people in reference to the landscapes he observes as he flies above them. Nils also learns more than geography, coming to recognize the tension between his desire to stay home and his attraction to the adventures afforded by his travels. He also learns, as do all Lagerlöf's favorite characters, the importance of love and community.
In 1908, Lagerlöf set up summertime residency at Maarbacka; she would later reside there permanently. Her literary output during those years reflects her return home, and, in a series of novels and tales, she explored the nature of Värmland and its people. In 1909, she was honored with the Nobel Prize in recognition of "the noble idealism, the wealth of imagination, [and] the soulful quality of her style, which characterize her work."
Lagerlöf's idealism became increasingly grounded in her expectations for women. The central women in her novels are without exception strong and independent. Some are beautiful, but all have moral fortitude and all understand the importance of home. Lagerlöf also demonstrated her respect for women in her support of women's right to vote. In June 1911, she addressed members of the World Congress for Women's Suffrage at the Royal Theater of Stockholm advocating gender equality. Women's sphere is the home, she said, "man's, the State. Man has helped woman build the home, and the result at its best has been successful. Now woman wants to help man change the state into a home for the nation." Most specifically, she urged women to bring their power to bear on eradicating the destructive rule of force, though she realized the power of evil in the heart of humankind against which relief work, publications to raise funds for prisoners in Siberia, and support of the Red Cross were palliatives.
The hint of despair in those words foreshadows the devastating impact on her of the ensuing World War I. Yet, the 1920s and early 1930s revitalized her pen, producing both The Ring of the Lövenskolds (which includes three stories, The General's Ring, Charlotte Lövenskold, and Anna Svaerd) and a three-volume autobiography, Maarbacka. This includes Maarbacka (vol. 1, 1922), Ett Barns Memoarer (vol. 2, 1930), later published as Memories of My Childhood, and Dagbok (vol. 3, 1932), later published as The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf. Her faith in the strength of women had remained unchanged, as her creation of female protagonists like Charlotte Lövenskold and Anna Svaerd (or Sward) shows. Colorful, alive and strong, they stand at the core of the Ring trilogy which explores the dynamics of domesticity. A shrewd and experienced observer, by then in her 70s, Lagerlöf writes a riveting tale of the curse on the house of the Lövenskolds. She demonstrates once again that religious zealots and self-indulgent individuals may deserve one another, but they cannot be contained in the community of women and men which depends for its survival on the individual's love of others.
Lagerlöf spent the last decade of her life giving audience to thousands of visitors who wanted to see the Maarbacka described in her later books. These autobiographies are memories of her past, of her parents, brothers and sisters, servants, and others she had known during her life at Maarbacka, through which she reveals herself indirectly and offers a key to an understanding of her works. They also explain two seemingly contrasting drawings of her, one by Carl Larsson, the Swedish painter of country life (1902), the other by Austrian Oskar Kokoschka (1917). Both show Lagerlöf with the half smile recognizable from photographs, but whereas Larsson draws a smooth face radiating calm authority, Kokoschka sketches a thin-lipped older woman with sharp facial features and deep-set eyes. This is the face of a woman who has fought for the qualities depicted by Carl Larsson, and who has not always been a winner; it denotes a woman who has recognized within herself the powers to create or destroy.
sources in english or with english resumes:
Berendsohn, Walter A. Selma Lagerlöf: Her Life and Work. Port Washington, NJ: Kennikat Press, 1931.
Edstrom, Vivi. Selma Lagerlöf. Boston, MA: Twayne's World Author Series, 1984.
Vrieze de, F.S. Fact and Fiction in the Autobiographical Works of Selma Lagerlöf. Amsterdam, 1958.
Wivel, Henrik. Selma Lagerlöf og biografien. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad, 1991.
The Story of Gösta Berling (four-hour, silent movie) was made in Sweden in 1924 by Mauritz Stiller, with Greta Garbo playing the second lead; it was the movie that launched Garbo onto the European scene.
The Tower of Lies was an adaption of The Emperor of Portugalia, starring Lon Chaney, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1925.
Inga Wiehl , a native of Denmark, teaches English at Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington