Mountain View

Overview

Sigrid Undset (20 May 1882 10 June 1949) was a Norwegian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, but her family moved to Norway when she was two years old. In 1924, she converted to Catholicism. She fled Norway for the United States in 1940 because of her opposition to Nazi Germany and the German invasion and occupation of Norway, but returned after World War II ended in 1945.

Her best-known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy about life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, portrayed through the experiences of a woman from birth until death. Its three volumes were published between 1920 and 1922.

 

Early life

Undset as a young girl

Sigrid Undset was born on 20 May 1882 in the small town of Kalundborg, Denmark, at the childhood home of her mother, Charlotte Undset (1855-1939, ne Anna Maria Charlotte Gyth). Undset was the eldest of three daughters. She and her family moved to Norway when she was two.

She grew up in the Norwegian capital, Oslo (or Kristiania, as it was known until 1925). When she was only 11 years old, her father, the Norwegian archaeologist Ingvald Martin Undset (18531893), died at the age of 40 after a long illness.

The family’s economic situation meant that Undset had to give up hope of a university education and after a one-year secretarial course she obtained work at the age of 16 as a secretary with an engineering company in Kristiania, a post she was to hold for 10 years.

She joined the Norwegian Authors’ Union in 1907 and from 1933 through 1935 headed its Literary Council, eventually serving as the union’s chairman from 1936 until 1940.

Writer

While employed at office work, Undset wrote and studied. She was 16 years old when she made her first attempt at writing a novel set in the Nordic Middle Ages. The manuscript, a historical novel set in medieval Denmark, was ready by the time she was 22. It was turned down by the publishing house.

Nonetheless, two years later, she completed another manuscript, much less voluminous than the first at only 80 pages. She had put aside the Middle Ages and had instead produced a realistic description of a woman with a middle-class background in contemporary Kristiania. This book was also refused by the publishers at first but it was subsequently accepted. The title was Fru Marta Oulie, and the opening sentence (the words of the book’s main character) scandalised readers: “I have been unfaithful to my husband”.

Thus, at the age of 25, Undset made her literary debut with a short realistic novel on adultery, set against a contemporary background. It created a stir, and she found herself ranked as a promising young author in Norway. During the years up to 1919, Undset published a number of novels set in contemporary Kristiania. Her contemporary novels of the period 19071918 are about the city and its inhabitants. They are stories of working people, of trivial family destinies, of the relationship between parents and children. Her main subjects are women and their love. Or, as she herself put itin her typically curt and ironic manner”the immoral kind” (of love).

This realistic period culminated in the novels Jenny (1911) and Vaaren (Spring) (1914). The first is about a woman painter who, as a result of romantic crises, believes that she is wasting her life, and, in the end, commits suicide. The other tells of a woman who succeeds in saving both herself and her love from a serious matrimonial crisis, finally creating a secure family. These books placed Undset apart from the incipient women’s emancipation movement in Europe.

Undset’s books sold well from the start, and, after the publication of her third book, she left her office job and prepared to live on her income as a writer. Having been granted a writer’s scholarship, she set out on a lengthy journey in Europe. After short stops in Denmark and Germany, she continued to Italy, arriving in Rome in December 1909, where she remained for nine months. Undset’s parents had had a close relationship with Rome, and, during her stay there, she followed in their footsteps. The encounter with Southern Europe meant a great deal to her; she made friends within the circle of Scandinavian artists and writers in Rome.

Marriage and children

In Rome, Undset met Anders Castus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter, whom she married almost three years later. She was 30; Svarstad was nine years older, married, and had a wife and three children in Norway. It was nearly three years before Svarstad got his divorce from his first wife.

Undset and Svarstad were married in 1912 and went to stay in London for six months. From London, they returned to Rome, where their first child was born in January 1913. A boy, he was named after his father. In the years up to 1919, she had another child, and the household also took in Svarstad’s three children from his first marriage. These were difficult years: her second child, a girl, was mentally handicapped, as was one of Svarstad’s sons.

She continued writing, finishing her last realistic novels and collections of short stories. She also entered the public debate on topical themes: women’s emancipation and other ethical and moral issues. She had considerable polemical gifts, and was critical of emancipation as it was developing, and of the moral and ethical decline she felt was threatening in the wake of the First World War.

Undset at work at Bjerkebk

Bjerkebk, Undset’s home, now part of Maihaugen museum

In 1919, she moved to Lillehammer, a small town in the Gudbrand Valley in southeast Norway, taking her two children with her. She was then expecting her third child. The intention was that she should take a rest at Lillehammer and move back to Kristiania as soon as Svarstad had their new house in order. However, the marriage broke down and a divorce followed. In August 1919, she gave birth to her third child, at Lillehammer. She decided to make Lillehammer her home, and within two years, Bjerkebk, a large house of traditional Norwegian timber architecture, was completed, along with a large fenced garden with views of the town and the villages around. Here she was able to retreat and concentrate on her writing.

Kristin Lavransdatter

After the birth of her third child, and with a secure roof over her head, she started on a major project: Kristin Lavransdatter. She was at home in the subject matter, having written a short novel at an earlier stage about a period in Norwegian history closer to the Pre-Christian era. She had also published a Norwegian retelling of the Arthurian legends. She had studied Old Norse manuscripts and Medieval chronicles and visited and examined Medieval churches and monasteries, both at home and abroad. She was now an authority on the period she was portraying and a very different person from the 22-year-old who had written her first novel about the Middle Ages. What had happened to her in the meantime has to do with more than history and literature; it has just as much to do with her development as a person. She had experienced love and passion. She had been in despair over a sick world in the throes of the bloodbath of the First World War. When she started on Kristin Lavransdatter in 1919, she knew what life was about.

It is life’s mystery, as she knows it from her own experience, that she writes about in Kristin Lavransdatter. That is why these 1,400 pages, as well as the 1,200 on Olav Audunssn, are timeless. All of her characters, however minor, are every bit as complex and multifaceted as characters in Shakespeare. In addition, Undset placed them in a time and place which similarly springs to life. It is the city of Oslo she knew so well, the Gudbrand Valley that she loved, and her father’s Trndelag region.

It was only after the end of her marriage that Undset grew mature enough to write her masterpiece. In the years between 1920 and 1927, she first published the three-volume Kristin, and then the 4-volume Olav (Audunssn), swiftly translated into English as The Master of Hestviken. Simultaneously with this creative process, she was engaged in trying to find meaning in her own life, finding the answer in God.

Undset experimented with modernist tropes such as stream of consciousness in her novel, although the original English translation by Charles Archer excised many of these passages. In 1997, the first volume of Tiina Nunnally‘s new translation of the work won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in the category of translation. The names of each volume were translated by Archer as The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, and by Nunnally as The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross.

Catholicism

Both Undset’s parents were atheists and, although, in accord with the norm of the day, she and her two younger sisters were baptised and with their mother regularly attended the local Lutheran church, the milieu in which they were raised was a thoroughly secular one. Undset spent much of her life as an agnostic, but marriage and the outbreak of the First World War were to change her attitudes. During those difficult years she experienced a crisis of faith, almost imperceptible at first, then increasingly strong. The crisis led her from clear agnostic skepticism, by way of painful uneasiness about the ethical decline of the age, towards Christianity.

In all her writing, one senses an observant eye for the mystery of life and for that which cannot be explained by reason or the human intellect. At the back of her sober, almost brutal realism, there is always an inkling of something unanswerable. At any rate, this crisis radically changed her views and ideology. Whereas she had once believed that man created God, she eventually came to believe that God created man.

However, she did not turn to the established Lutheran Church of Norway, where she had been nominally reared. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 1924, after thorough instruction from the Catholic priest in her local parish. She was 42 years old. She subsequently became a lay Dominican.

It is noteworthy that The Master of Hestviken, written immediately after Undset’s conversion, takes place in a historical period when Norway was Catholic, that it has very religious themes of the main character’s relations with God and his deep feeling of sin, and that the Medieval Catholic Church is presented in a favorable light, with virtually all clergy and monks in the series being positive characters.

In Norway, Undset’s conversion to Catholicism was not only considered sensational; it was scandalous. It was also noted abroad, where her name was becoming known through the international success of Kristin Lavransdatter. At the time, there were very few practicing Catholics in Norway, which was an almost exclusively Lutheran country. Anti-Catholicism was widespread not only among the Lutheran clergy, but through large sections of the population. Likewise, there was just as much anti-Catholic scorn among the Norwegian intelligentsia, many of whom were adherents of socialism and communism. The attacks against her faith and character were quite vicious at times, with the result that Undset’s literary gifts were aroused in response. For many years, she participated in the public debate, going out of her way to defend the Catholic Church. In response, she was swiftly dubbed “The Mistress of Bjerkebk” and “The Catholic Lady”.