Undset, Sigrid (1882–1949)

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Undset, Sigrid (1882–1949)

Norwegian writer of novels, short stories and essays who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 and honored by her country with the Norwegian Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav in 1945. Born in Kalundborg, Denmark, on May 20, 1882; died at the hospital of Lillehammer on June 10, 1949; daughter of Ingwald Undset (a distinguished archaeologist) and (Anna) Charlotte (Gyth) Undset; married Anders Castus Svarstad (a painter), in 1913 (marriage annulled); children: son Anders (b. 1913); daughter Maren Charlotte (b. 1915); son Hans (b. 1919).

Converted to Catholicism (1924); received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1928) and the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav (1945).

Selected works:

Martha Oulie (1907); The Happy Age (1908); Gunnar's Daughter (1909); Jenny (1911); Four Stories (1912); Spring (1914); Tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1914); The Wise Virgins (1918); "A Woman's Point of View" and "Postscript to the Fourth Commandment" (1919); Kristin Lavransdatter (1920–22); "Saint Hallvard's Life, Death and Miracles" and Olav Audunsson in Hestviken (1925); Olav Audunsson and His Children (1927); Stages on the Road and The Wild Orchid (1929); The Burning Bush, "Saint Olav, Norway's King" and "Sigurd and His Brave Companions" (1931); Ida Elisabeth, and "Christmas and Twelfth Night" (1932); The Longest Years and Saga of Saints (1934); "Progress, Race, Religion" (1935); The Faithful Wife (1936); Men, Women and Places (1938); Madame Dorthea (1939); Happy Times in Norway and Return to the Future (1942); Articles and Tales from Wartime (1952); Catherine of Siena (1954).

Sigrid Undset, whose work was termed "an Iliad of the North," was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. This award was followed by the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav in 1945, which was presented as much for her patriotic activities as for her writing. Although probably most well known for her Kristin Lavransdatter, published in 1920–22, Undset spent decades writing and exploring questions of morality, loyalty, sexuality, and spirituality with particular focus on the relationship between wife and husband. Her childhood exposure to history, and later meticulous research, made possible the powerful Middle Ages settings in which her most lauded works often found expression. An ardent patriot and anti-Nazi, Undset housed refugees during World War II, was a strong voice of opposition to Nazi aggression, and lost one of her sons to the war after the Nazis landed in Norway in 1940.

She was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, on May 20, 1882. Her mother Charlotte Gyth Undset was Danish, and her father Ingwald Undset was Norwegian. Ingwald, a distinguished archaeologist, has been considered perhaps the greatest influence in Undset's life, though he did not live to see her reach adolescence. His international reputation was achieved with The Beginnings of the Iron Age in Northern Europe, a book published in 1881. While he traveled a good deal for work, the family stayed with relatives until Ingwald received an appointment at the Museum of Antiquities which was associated with the University of Kristiania. Notes Olga S. Opfell of the young Sigrid's influences: "Almost before she could talk, the little girl babbled of 'blunt-butted axe' and 'shaft-hold axe' when her father showed her various implements…. When the museum was closed, Sigrid was allowed to run about the galleries. If she pointed at some fine things in the cabinets, they were lifted out, and she was decorated with necklaces and rings of gold and silver from the iron age."

While Ingwald provided his daughter with an early passion for archaeology and botany, her mother tutored her in both Norwegian and Danish history from the time Sigrid was five. Undset's grounding in early history would become intrinsic to her literature about life in northern Europe in the Middle Ages. In 1891, Sigrid, an independent-minded, precocious child, noted for her imagination, read Njäl's Saga, an Icelandic family saga which she would later credit as a turning point in her life.

The History of Norwegian Literature notes that Ingwald sensed that his death would come at a comparatively young age, and between the years of 1888 to 1892 he poured himself into efforts to complete as much of his work possible. During his last months, father and daughter read the Icelandic sagas in Danish together, with Ingwald occasionally requesting that his daughter read to him in Old Norse. After writing From Akershus to the Acropolis, Ingwald died in 1893 at the age of 40. Sigrid was 11 years old. Notes Opfell: "[He died] still hoping that Sigrid would devote herself to science and carry on his research."

The loss of Ingwald increased the family's financial difficulties. Sigrid and her two younger sisters, Signe and Ragnhild Undset , were able to stay at their school, run by Fru Ragna Nielsen , for free. Sigrid would later credit the school's liberal and progressive lines with prompting in her "an indelible distrust of enthusiasm for such beliefs." Ready to leave the school by age 14, she attended a commercial college. By the time she was 17 and took work as a secretary, Undset was in Opfell's words "a tall, slim, pretty girl

with deep, thoughtful eyes and long braided hair." She would spend ten years working in an electrical engineers' bureau office, remaining until her sisters were financially stable. Meanwhile, she wrote a draft of a novel set in 13th-century Norway. This was later to become the Olav Audunsson story which would contribute to her fame and to the Nobel committee's decision. For the time being, however, the story was not to see the light of day. After submitting the manuscript to Gyldendal publishers, she was told by them: "Don't try your hand at more historical novels. It's not your line. But you might, you know, try to write something modern."

Undset took this advice initially, and she wrote two contemporary works, Martha Oulie (1907) and The Happy Age (1908), which were received well enough to garner her a travel grant from the Norwegian government. Martha Oulie was written in diary form and set the theme which would pervade Undset's work, what Theodore Jorgenson called "the organic unity and the ideal power of marriage." Jenny appeared in 1911 and made her first success; its erotic descriptions caused a literary sensation. Opfell describes the novel's theme, which would reappear years later in Kristin Lavransdatter, as "love has its code of honor, and the cost of picking forbidden fruit is excessive." Notes Jorgenson of Undset's early works: "They are not optimistic books. Love is the key to the personalities of these girls, but society does not seem to be organized in such a manner that individual satisfaction is possible."

In her late 20s, Undset traveled to Rome where she fell in love with the married Anders Castus Svarstad, a painter whom Opfell describes as eccentric, "nervous and brusque, but keenly intelligent." She married him the following year (1912) in Belgium after he was divorced from his first wife. Undset wanted their first child to be born in Rome, where she had initially fallen in love, and there she gave birth to a son, Anders, in January 1913. Their living conditions were not good, however, so she and her son returned to Norway; her husband later joined them. Svarstad's three children by his earlier marriage stayed with the family for a time and later would come back for regular visits.

In 1915, their daughter Maren Charlotte (called Mosse) was born, and by the time the family relocated to Sinsen she was found to be severely retarded. Undset—described by her friend Nini Roll Anker as once "strikingly beautiful, slim as a boy, and with a suggestion of classical perfection about her head which she seldom moved"—retained her elegant hands and feet as she became what Opfell calls "a heavyset housewife." Despite the difficulty of her life at the time, she is said to have had "an air of calm and great tranquility." By 1919, the Undset-Svarstad union was crumbling, and the couple separated in July of that year by mutual consent, three months before the birth of their second son, Hans. The marriage was later annulled.

Preferring a country environment in which to bring up her children, Undset moved her family to Lillehammer, where she purchased a farm which she named Bjerkebaek (the restored farm house dated from the year 1000). Despite her responsibilities as a mother and her own frequent ill health, several novels followed. "Meanwhile," writes Opfell, "the war was confirming her doubts about the beliefs she had been brought up with—feminism, socialism, liberalism, pacifism." In Undset's article "Some Reflections on the Suffragette Movement," she espoused woman's "fundamental position" in the domestic sphere, writing that "a woman can become nothing better than a good mother and nothing much worse than a bad one." It was her choice to keep Maren at home, and her attempts to secure medical assistance for her daughter were to no avail.

Undset's contemporary novels published before Kristin Lavransdatter were censured for their frank portrayals of female sexuality, demonstrating that a woman's need for sexual satisfaction, and right to it, is as justifiable as a man's. But the author also viewed women's responsibilities as different from men's. Sexual equality, she maintained, was guaranteed in the marriage vows, which, if they were taken seriously by both parties, secured the roles of husband and wife. These roles remained unchanged even if the male sought physical release outside the marriage. But a mother must be faithful; with her own chastity, she protected the welfare and continuance of the clan, which was her primary duty. For life to have meaning, wrote Undset, humans needed to uphold the "threadbare truths" of duty and responsibility, and women were especially obliged to preserve the day-today routines of life. Only a few—with demonstrably special gifts and as much physical energy as the author herself—would be able to sustain that responsibility and simultaneously fulfill their own needs, artistically or otherwise.

In Lillehammer, Undset produced the two works set in the Middle Ages which were to bring her international acclaim and the Nobel Prize. The first of these, Kristin Lavransdatter, offers readers particular insight into the author's concerns and her personal development. It depicts the relationship between the individual and the race or family, the power of human sexuality, and the consequences of passion. As a parable of a woman's journey from youth to responsible maturity to a devoutly religious old age, it can be seen to mirror Undset's own progression from young woman and writer searching for a man she can call master, to wife and mother holding home and life together for her children, to the converted Catholic she would become, exploring a human soul in relation to God.

Set in the 14th century, the novel is comprised of three sections—"The Bridal Wreath," "The Mistress of Husaby," and "The Cross"—each of which covers an epoch in the life of the protagonist. Jorgenson speculates: "She chooses the Catholic fourteenth century, because she feels that under the full power of the church of the Middle Ages, men had a moral earnestness and a religious zeal worthy of the stature of manhood and womanhood. Her charge against modern life is that it is a little of this and a little of that and not much of anything." "Wisely," writes Opfell, "Sigrid Undset chose a period without any great historical figures. Her main characters are purely fictitious…. Her primary sources, she noted, were old ballads and laws. Besides this impeccable scholarship, Kristin Lavransdatter shows great psychological depth. Its strong characters are not explained, but explain themselves."

In "The Bridal Wreath," 15-year-old Kristin falls passionately in love with the dashing Erlend Nikulausson, a warrior chief, for whom she abandons her responsibilities to her family and to Simon Darre, her betrothed. Pregnant at the time of her wedding to Erlend, Kristin can be seen to make a mockery of the bridal wreath she wears, symbolic of maidenhood; this leads to her parents Ragnhild and Lavrans confronting each other on her wedding night.

Ragnhild confesses that she had been another man's lover before her marriage to Lavrans. Throughout their married life, Ragnhild tells him, her guilt has made her feel that she has fed her husband mould for meat. Lavrans responds bitterly, "mayhap mould must be ground if meat shall grow." In his attempt to console her, Lavrans bespeaks his painful insight into the nature of sex, recognizing it as a life force, the power of which he, unlike his wife and daughter, has exempted himself. This view into the agony inherent in living a full life on earth while being God's servant foreshadows the last thoughts, many pages later, of Kristin before she dies. Lavrans and his daughter dramatize Undset's own contention that disloyalty and its consequences, which are frequently the price for sexual indulgence, are basic to the human condition; erotic passion is powerful and fulfilling enough to make people betray what they love the most. Writing Kristin Lavransdatter in the wake of her disintegrated marriage, Undset was fully aware of the power of human passion and the human desire for self gratification and rebellion against real or perceived authority. Asked by an interviewer if she liked Erlend Nikulausson—a character readers generally find as irresistible as Kristin does—the author answered in the negative.

Kristin bears eight male children, and the author's description of her Herculean efforts to build a home for them in the face of her husband Erlend's irresponsibility toward both property and progeny reflects her own fiercely maternal instincts. (Undset wrote her great novel during the quiet night hours, with coffee and cigarettes as boosters.)

Following publication of Kristin Lavransdatter, in 1924 Undset rejected the state religion of Lutheranism to become a convert to the Catholic Church. She had been for some time brooding intensely over the conflict of wills between God and man. Original sin, she reasoned, had obscured man's moral vision, which could only be made clear by the grace of God; man had to choose God, however, to be set free to become what God intended him to be, a creature made in His image. She argued that the only "thoroughly sane" people she had encountered in her readings of history were those that the Catholic Church calls saints. Only they seemed to know "the true explanation of man's undying hunger for happiness—his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice and goodwill to his fellowmen, his everlasting fall from grace."

I am one who has lived two thousand years in the land.

—Sigrid Undset

The other work in addition to the monumental Kristin Lavransdatter which was largely to influence Undset's receipt of the Nobel Prize was her tale of Olav Audunsson. This was originally published in two parts: Olav Audunsson i Hestviken and Olav Audunsson og Hans Børn. (When translated into English as The Master of Hestviken, it was published in one volume.) Notes Opfell, "When the first volume appeared, she burned her first draft, rejected twenty years earlier." Olav has been seen as a counterpart to Kristin, as both suffer estrangement from God and other misfortunes due to pride, but Olav's tale has a greater spiritual bent.

The Swedish Academy awarded Undset the Nobel Prize in 1928. Noted Per Hallström: "Sigrid Undset has received the Nobel Prize in Literature while still in her prime, an homage rendered to a poetic genius whose roots must be in a great and well-ordered spirit." Undset divided the prize money among the authors' society, families of children suffering from retardation like her own who wished to keep their children with them at home, and to Catholic children in financial need who were seeking enrollment in Catholic schools. A torchlight parade met her upon her return from Stockholm to Lillehammer. "It was one of the few times she came into contact with [her fellow citizens]," writes Opfell, "because, except for the company of her children and occasional visits from close relatives, she preferred to lead a rather solitary life."

Approaching age 50, Undset lived in her farm house at Lillehammer, where she presided as matriarch in the embroidered blouses and wool skirts recognized as Norway's native costume. She moved again to modern novels, producing such works as The Wild Orchid, The Burning Bush, and The Faithful Wife, as well as autobiographical essays. Madame Dorthea (1939), intended to be the first book of a trilogy, was instead her last novel.

By 1935, with Adolf Hitler coming to power, Undset's voice carried considerable weight when she became among the first to speak out against the regime in Germany, with a direct attack on Nazism. Declaring that lack of freedom was worse than "death and extinction," she confronted both Marxism and Nazism on moral grounds, alleging that they had sprung from the pride of Lucifer. Totalitarianism she opposed as self-worship and a path towards dissolution and death. In response, her books were banned in Germany, and the Norwegian Nazi newspaper denounced her as not only "foreign and offensive to us" but "hostile."

As Europe became embroiled in World War II, Undset fought against Germany's invasion of Norway with the powers she had at her disposal. Her writings during this period reflect her willingness to sacrifice the best she had, her art, on behalf of Norway. But well known as she was, she was in more danger than she realized. Once Norway was occupied, she was advised that as a famous writer and president of Norway's Society of Writers, she might be forced to make propaganda broadcasts or even be taken hostage. When nearby Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, the author sold her Nobel medal to help the Finns and invited three refugee Finnish children—Elmi, Toimi, and Eira—into her house. Opfell notes that they would soon be joined by another refugee, "a German priest who had befriended some Jews. But Sigrid Undset's aversion to all things German was now so strong that he wore on her nerves. Quickly she arranged to have him sent over to Sweden." When the Germans neared Lillehammer, she relocated the Finnish children to a farm in a side valley to try to ensure their safety.

In May 1940—having recently lost both her mother and her daughter—she heeded the words of Norwegian authorities who encouraged her to flee. The day following her arrival in Sweden, she learned that her son Anders had been shot and killed defending a bridge outside Lillehammer. Her second son, Hans, escaped to Stockholm and flew with his mother to Moscow; from there, they went by Trans-Siberian Express across Russia to the port of Vladivostok, where they sailed for Kobe, Japan. The grueling journey challenged the writer's unflinching insistence on seeing and describing things the way they were. In Russia, she witnessed "indescribable filth, dilapidation, and wretchedness," and the cleanliness of Japan did not divert her from the "German trash, cheap and hideous" on display in store windows as she identified what she considered the common denominator of totalitarianism: a sure and steadily sinking standard of living and a regime which can only keep its promises to the people by annexing neighboring states.

Boarding the President Cleveland for San Francisco, Undset was to spend the next five years in the States. She traveled the country indefatigably, lecturing and writing articles in support of Norway's resistance movement, gathering news items for the Norwegian Information Service and reviewing books for The New York Times. With "nations like Germany attempting to destroy democracy completely," she saw the future of Western civilization at stake, but feared equally that, if the Allied countries acted on their current enemies with hatred and revenge, they might lose their souls in the process of making the world safe for democracy.

In 1945, with the war ended, Undset could return to Norway and Lillehammer. She sailed for home in July, and upon her arrival, writes Opfell, found that the "Nazi troops had rifled her extensive library, smashed her father's old desk at which she had written her great novels, and taken all her silver and linens." Photographs from this period show the toll of recent years. The writer was past 60, and despite her adherence to the principles of faith, hope and love, and her reliance on "our own … tireless, patient, and courageous exertion," noted in her Return to the Future, a light has gone out of her eyes. But she was deeply pleased to be honored that year with her country's Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav, in part for her writing, but equally for her soldiering and "efforts for Norway's cause during the war."

Her last creative effort, a biography of Catherine of Siena , was rejected by Doubleday; it would be published posthumously. On June 10, 1949, Sigrid Undset was ill at the hospital of Lillehammer. Sister Xavier, a Catholic nun who had kept a vigil with her through the night, was sent away by Undset so that the nun could rest. The writer died that day alone. In addition to Catherine of Siena, her Articles and Tales from Wartime was published posthumously.

sources in english:

Bayerschmidt, Carl. Sigrid Undset. NY: Twayne, 1970.

Beyer, Harald. "Sigrid Undset," in A History of Norwegian Literature. Ed. by Einar Haugen. NY: New York University Press, 1956.

Brunsdale, Mitzi. "Sigrid Undset," in A Critical Study of Long Fiction. La Canada, CA: Salem Press, 1983.

——. Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Gustafson, Alrik. "Christian Ethics in a Pagan World: Sigrid Undset," in Six Scandinavian Novelists. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 1968.

Jorgenson, Theodore. History of Norwegian Literature. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1933.

Opfell, Olga. The Lady Laureates. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Ruch, Velma. Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter: A Study of Its Literary Art and Its Reception in America, England and Scandinavia. WI: University of Wisconsin, 1957.

Winsness, A.H. Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism. NY: Sheed and Ward, 1953.