BORN: 1882, Kalundborg, Denmark
DIED: 1949, Lillehammer, Norway
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry
Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922)
The Master of Hestviken (1925-1927)
The Wild Orchid (1929)
The Faithful Wife (1937)
Sigrid Undset. Undset, Sigrid, photograph. AP Images.
Norwegian author Sigrid Undset is a dominant figure among Scandinavian novelists and one of the foremost literary proponents of Christian ethics and philosophy. Her major works, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922) and The Master of Hestviken (1925-1927), are skillfully rendered portrayals of medieval Norwegian life and have been praised as exemplary models of historical fiction, evidencing a detailed knowledge of and keen sympathy for their subject. On the strength of these works, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood Steeped in History. Born in Kalundborg, Denmark, in 1882, Unset was the eldest of three daughters of the renowned Norwegian archaeologist Ingvald Undset and his wife, Anna Charlotte. Ingvald Undset had come from Trondelag, an area of Norway articulately described in his daughter’s masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter. Anna Charlotte Undset, a reserved and proud woman, inspired respect in her daughter but not the deep affection that the child felt for her father.
At the age of two, Unset moved with her family to the city of Christiania (now Oslo), where her father was associated with the archaeological section of the University Museum. As Ingvald Undset’s health declined (he had caught malaria on an expedition to the Mediterranean), the family moved frequently, and Undset became intimately acquainted with many areas of the city of Oslo. As the daughter of an archaeologist, she acquired an acute sense of history. The Undset home was filled with books, and the child was encouraged by her father to read extensively, especially works of history and Old Norse sagas. When Undset was eleven years old, her father died, and the family experienced genuine poverty. Her autobiographical memoir, The Longest Years (1934), records memories of the first eleven years of her life. That she gave herself the name ‘‘Ingvild’’ in these memoirs suggests the strength of her attachment to and identification with her father.
Secretarial Work. Although Undset attended the liberal school of Ragna Nielsen and had the opportunity to enroll in the university, she chose at the age of fifteen to prepare for a secretarial career at the Christiania Commercial College. Her certificate from this school a year later helped her to obtain a position in the local office of the German Electric Company, where she worked for ten years. Undset’s intimate acquaintance with young working girls provided the material for many of her earliest works.
In her free time from her secretarial job, Undset turned her hand to writing. She submitted a historical novel to the Gyldendal publishing house in Copenhagen, only to be told that she should turn to modern themes that seemed more suited to her talents. Undset followed this advice, and her first contemporary social novel, Mrs. Marta Oulie, appeared in the fall of 1907. As Undset’s career was taking off, Norway was undergoing political change as the country gained its independence from Sweden in 1905, after spending much of the nineteenth century in forced union.
After the publication of three additional works of moderate success, Undset felt secure enough to quit her job for a full-time career as a writer. In 1909 she received a travel grant from the Norwegian government and went to Rome, where she met her future husband, the painter Anders Svarstad. Married in 1912, the couple lived first in London and later in Norway, where Undset continued to produce fiction, nonfiction, and translations.
Contemporary Fiction Sparks Controversy. The novel Jenny (1912), which caused a sensation in Scandinavian feminist circles, is the story of a promising young artist who commits suicide. Jenny has, along the way, had an affair with her fiance’s father, borne a child out of wedlock, suffered through the death of that child, and experienced frustration as a creative artist. Whether Jenny’s suicide is caused by her failure as an artist or by her failure in erotic and maternal relationships is open to interpretation. In any case, the work is the most successful of all of Undset’s social novels with contemporary settings. While her novels featured concerns of the time, World War I was not a topic she focused on despite its importance in the 1910s. Though Norway remained neutral in the conflict, its merchant marine suffered losses.
As controversial as some of her novels of contemporary life may have been, none of them could compare with Undset’s masterpieces of medieval life. Critics agree that it is the multivolume Kristin Lavransdatter and the Olav Audunsson series (The Master of Hestviken, 1925-1927), that have secured her place in literary history. Showing a mastery of style lacking in her novels of contemporary life, these works also reveal the understanding of vanished cultures and love of the past instilled in the writer by her father. Her intimate knowledge of the laws, culture, and history of earlier ages had given her a sense of the continuity of life. Despite the copious and meticulously accurate historical details that embellish these novels, there is nothing strange about the people who inhabit that distant world.
After the births of three children—Anders, Maren Charlotte, and Hans—Svarstad and Undset eventually became estranged, and their marriage was annulled when she converted to Catholicism in 1924.
Lillehammer and the War Exile. Remaining in Lillehammer, Norway, until 1940, Undset devoted herself both to her work, for which she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, and to her children. Maren Charlotte, who was born handicapped, lived only to the age of twenty-three. Anders, Undset’s eldest son, was killed in 1940 when German armies invaded Norway in 1940. While Norway had proclaimed its neutrality during the early days World War II, its waters were too strategically important for it to remain outside the war. Germany invaded in April 1940, and controlled the country by June. A government in exile was founded in England, led by King Haakon VII. With Hans, her only surviving child, Undset then made the long journey through Sweden to Russia, from there to Japan, and from there to San Francisco.
During the war, she channeled her considerable energies into the war effort, giving lectures, writing propaganda, and calling attention to the plight of occupied Norway. In August 1945, after the war’s end, she returned to her homeland, and in 1947 King Haakon VII conferred upon her the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav for service to her country. On June 10, 1949, Undset died in Lillehammer. Her life provided the impetus for her works: her religious faith, her pride in the past of her people, and her assessment of motherhood as woman’s most important calling are all mirrored in her imaginative works and clearly stated in her nonfiction.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Undset's famous contemporaries include:
George V (1865-1936): King of Great Britain, Protector of Ireland, and Emperor of India, George ruled from 1910 to his death, guiding his country through the tumultuous days of World War I.
Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924): Lenin was a Russian political thinker and revolutionary who led the October Revolution of 1917, the uprising that led to the establishment of the Bolshevik regime. Lenin served as head of the Soviet Union until his death.
Joan Miro (1893-1983): Spanish painter and sculptor, Mind's modernist, surrealistic works, in particular his public sculptures, left their mark on his native Barcelona and other Spanish cities. His sculptures in Barcelona include Woman and Bird (1982).
Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926): Arguably the first male film idol, American actor Valentino's good looks in such films as The Sheik (1921) made him internationally famous. His funeral was attended by an estimated one hundred thousand people, including politicians and dignitaries.
Marcel Proust (1871-1922): French novelist and critic, Proust is best remembered today for his opus In Search of Lost Time, published over a fourteen-year period beginning in 1913. Many critics consider it the greatest literary work of the modern age.
George Gershwin (1898-1937): American composer who, with his brother Ira acting as lyricist, penned some of the most memorable musical pieces of the twentieth century. Their musical comedies included Funny Face (1927) and Girl Crazy (1930).
Works in Literary Context
Although there is no clear chronological division between Undset’s novels of contemporary life and her works set in earlier historical periods (in 1909 she published a pastiche of the Icelandic saga, and contemporary social novels reoccur in the 1930s), most of her early writing was inspired by her knowledge of the working class of Oslo. Her interest in Scandinavian history and Norse legends primarily comes from the influence of her archaeologist father and his career. This influence compelled her to write accurate, compelling historical fiction.
Infidelity. Undset is a moralist, first of all, though she is certainly not by temperament an ascetic. She has a profound, brooding awareness of the domination of the flesh in the average human life, the central place of passion in the average human destiny. Mrs. Marta Oulie, for example, treats of infidelity in marriage. The novel, which is written in diary form, begins with the confession, ‘‘I have been unfaithful to my husband.’’ Undset’s only play, In the Gray Light of Dawn (1958), is likewise concerned with adultery, and this theme is prominent in Undset’s novels of the Middle Ages as well. Two collections of short stories, The Happy Age (1908) and Poor Fortunes (1912), address problems of adolescence, motherhood, and spinsterhood in the lower economic classes of Norwegian urban society.
Feminist Themes. Several later works also realistically treat problems of sexual fidelity and parenthood, stressing the importance of forgiveness and presenting the child as the element that can weld the most disparate parents together. Through these novels, Undset was placed squarely at the head of the women’s movement in Scandinavia, whether she wished to be in that position or not. An intelligent, creative working woman who also experienced marriage and motherhood, she could write eloquently of the problems that beset such women.
The question of whether Undset was a feminist or an antifeminist is a thorny one. Selective quoting can produce arguments for either side. Carl F. Bayerschmidt maintained that ‘‘Sigrid Undset was not a militant feminist, but neither was she an antifeminist. She believed that every woman should be free to practice an art or a profession or occupy herself in any form of work without losing the right to love and to establish a family.’’
Female Characters. Undset was particularly interested in women, and she gives realistic descriptions of countless different women, descriptions marked by great psychological insight and understanding. The women we meet through Undset are seldom soft and obedient. Kristin, for example, is strong and resourceful, while her husband, Erlend, despite his high position in society, shows a weaker and more tender nature. Nevertheless, the strong woman is not a fixed pattern in Undset’s books. There are strong women and weak women, hard women and soft, those who cannot cope with life, and those who surmount their difficulties and live full, rich lives. There are bitter women full of hate and revenge and women full of concern and thoughtfulness. As in life itself, Undset’s books take in the whole spectrum of women—and of men. Throughout her fiction, we find the same theme we find in Undset’s articles: woman is just as well endowed as man, she was not meant, by nature, to be a special carrier of ‘‘soft’ values. Differences of this sort are culturally and socially conditioned.
Undset’s heroines, after Jenny, are almost without exception not tragic characters. Most of them ultimately learn to adjust themselves to life, though only after a more or less severe struggle. This is true of Rose Wegner in Springtime, Undset’s most important work in the decade between Jenny and the publication of Kristin Lavransdatter. This is true also of most of the women characters in the two collections of short stories The Splinter of the Troll Mirror and The Wise Virgins. And this is preeminently true of Kristin in Kristin Lavransdatter.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Although Undset's role as a feminist author remains debatable, she wrote at a time of great flowering among other women authors who most definitely were writing with an agenda in mind. Here are some works that address women's place in society.
The Awakening (1899), a novella by Kate Chopin. This novella is the tale of an upper-class woman who longs to break free of the strict society she inhabits, and the price she must pay to do so.
''The Yellow Wallpaper'' (1892), a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Perhaps the first modern feminist text, this story, told in first person, concerns a woman confined to her room ''for her own good'' and her descent into psychosis as a result of her isolation.
Aurora Leigh (1856), an epic poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A nine-volume epic poem written in blank verse, this work chronicles the life and travels of its strong and capable heroine.
Works in Critical Context
Undset won a secure place in literary history as one of the foremost authors of historical novels and as the most prominent Catholic author Scandinavia has produced.
Carl F. Bayerschmidt, in his critical study Sigrid Undset, labeled the Norwegian novelist ‘‘one of the greatest realistic writers of the first half of the twentieth century.’’ A. H. Winsnes, in Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism, called the author ‘‘the Christian realist par excellence.’’ Critics believed that Undset’s works are powerful not only because of their moral message but also because of her mastery of technique. Few other novelists have so accurately painted background and setting or so completely banned romanticism from their works.
Undset’s critical reputation has waxed and waned over time. Her early works, especially Jenny, were well received upon their publication. By the 1930s and 1940s, on the strength of both her contemporary novels and historical fiction, she was regarded as one of the greatest realistic writers of the time. Because her writings are not particularly innovative stylistically or thematically, they became unfashionable, and critical interest lessened for a time. By the late twentieth century, interest was revived as critics reconsidered the value of the works of women writers. Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken have a secure reputation as masterpieces of the historical novel genre.
Historical Works. In general, critics of Undset’s era and of today have admired the sympathetic character portrayals and realism of her historical novels, especially the Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken series. In his presentation of the award at the ceremony in Stockholm, Nobel Committee chairman Per Hallstrom also praised Undset's depiction of the inner lives of her medieval characters. He noted briefly the concern of some critics that Undset had added fantasy to historical fact in her presentation of medieval psychological detail, but insisted, ‘‘the historian’s claim is not absolute: the poet has at least an equal right to express himself when he relies on a solid and intuitive knowledge of the human soul.’’ The critical reception of the Olav Audunsson novels was positive, but the main character was generally viewed as a less interesting personality than Kristin Lavransdatter.
As Winsnes pointed out, however, Undset has been called ‘‘the [Emile] Zola of the Middle Ages.’’ Very few other writers have understood so fully the past and its connection with the present. Winsnes noted that ‘‘history is Sigrid Undset’s muse. No one since [thirteenth-century Icelandic poet and historian] Snorri Sturluson has presented medieval Norway with such power.''
Responses to Literature
1. From a young age, Undset was attracted to the Middle Ages. Why do you think she always felt more comfortable with that bygone era? Do you think she held a romanticized idea of the period? Why or why not? Use evidence from Undset's writings to support your assertion in essay form.
2. Kristin Lavransdatter has been hailed as an early feminist work. Do you agree with this assessment? What elements of the story, if any, do you think give it a feminist tone? Write an essay with your conclusions.
3. In a presentation, address these questions: How would you characterize the mother-daughter relationships in At Eleven? How do they relate to Undset's overall view of women and their relationships?
4. Discuss the role of religion and Catholicism in Undset's works in a paper. How did Undset's conversion to Catholicism influence her writing, and vice versa?
Bayerschmidt, Carl F. Sigrid Undset. London: Twayne, 1970.
Dunn, Margaret, Sister. Paradigms and Paradoxes in the Life and Letters of Sigrid Undset. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.
McFarlane, James Walter. Ibsen and the Temper of Norwegian Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Winsnes, A. H. Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism. Translated by P. G. Foote. Lanham, Md.: Sheed & Ward, 1953.