Too Good to Be Forgotten – Nobel Prize Winner Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was always considered a Norwegian writer, but she was actually born in the Danish city of Kalundborg. Her father, Ingvald, was an archeologist and her mother, Anna Charlotte, was the daughter of an attorney. It is obvious that intellectually Sigrid was most influenced by her father as she developed a never dying fascination with the medieval history and mythology of Scandinavia. She may have resented her mother’s criticism of religion, but she was nevertheless influenced by her down-to-earth attitude to life.

Unfortunately Ingvald died, only forty years old, which was a financial catastrophe for the family which had moved to Norway. Anna Charlotte had to sell his collections of books which Sigrid later on tried to hunt down and buy. However, the financial situation of the family made it necessary for her to train and work as a secretary and she worked as such for ten years while reading and dreaming on her spare time. Also she started to write herself, but her first historical novel was turned down with the words that she lacked talent for writing about history. The first one she had published was the “Fru Marta Oulie” (1907) about an unfaithful wife which was a shocking subject for some critics. This contemporary novel was followed by a collection of short stories, “Den Lykkelige Alder” (1908), but it was the historical novel, “Fort√¶llingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis” (1909) which got her the government scholarship that made it possible for her to stop her job as a secretary and become a full-time writer.

After “Jenny” (1911) she traveled widely in Europe, but in 1912 she married the Norwegian painter Anders Castus Svarstad who had three children from his previous marriage. In 1919 they separated and she settled down with her mentally retarded daughter, Maren Charlotte, and two sons. This development went parallel with the shift in religion that she underwent. When she converted to Catholicism she also had her marriage annulled. Over the years she had moved from a more traditional feminism, wanting jobs and social equality for young women, but then she started to argue for women keeping their traditional place in the home and not leaving it for jobs or careers. When she converted she was adamant that this was the place for women and that they should not give it up no matter what.

Her most famous novel and the one which earned her the Nobel Prize is the trilogy “Kristin Lavransdottir” (1920-22) which depicts women’s life in Catholic Norway of the 13th and 14th centuries. Kristin is the beautiful and spoilt daughter of Lavrans, based on her late father, who is seduced by the handsome Erlend and marries him, thus ending up in a hate-love relationship which tears at both of them and which makes her bitter. They have many children and problems abound, but being the housewife Kristin is the strong pillar of the family. In the end she dies, reconciled with God, and even welcoming her death.

In this fictive, medieval character Sigrid Undset depicts her women ideal as the strong centre of the family and society. Women in her works are depicted as someone above men because they have an ability to bring order and save families by sacrificing all that the traditional feminist movement fought for, i.e. individual freedom. I would say that what has been seen as blatant reaction is turned upside down and used by her to lift women to a higher position that they find in our time.

She published many more books, but she also took part in historical events like e.g. the resistance against Nazism. The money she won with her Nobel Prize she gave away, part of it to a foundation for mentally challenged children. She also sold her Nobel Prize medal and gave the money to the relief effort for Finnish children. When Norway was ockupied by the Nazis she joined the Resistance, and as she was very outspoken against Germany she had to flee the country and not return until after the war. She lived in Brooklyn, New York, and made friends with e.g. Willa Cather whose writing I think she may have influenced.

After returning home to Norway she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav for her service to the country and for her distinguished literary work. She died in 1949 after having lost her mother, her daughter and her eldest son some ten years earlier.