Amundsen diary reveals his innermost world
Following in the footsteps of Roald Amundsen
During the celebration of Roald Amundsen’s 150th birthday, the new edition of his private diary was released, and it was announced that Marthe Brendefur from Sunnmøre had been selected to follow in Amundsen’s footsteps to the South Pole, winning out over 350 applicants. When the announcement was made on July 16, there were loud outbursts of joy on the stairs to Uranienborg, Amundsen’s home at Svartskog outside of Oslo.
The Antarctic Heritage Trust in New Zealand has invited young people from both Norway and New Zealand to join the expedition, which is being organized in collaboration with Ousland Explorers and Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions.
The expedition, which heads out in November, will be about 621 miles in length and is in part funded by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.
Brendefur is not unfamiliar with tough conditions. With a background in the Norwegian Armed Forces, she has skied across the Finnmarksvidda, Hardangervidda, and Greenland.
“The South Pole has been a diamond that has shone down there for many, many years. It is life-changing to be able to travel there,” Brendefur told NRK.
She could also enjoy securing a copy of Roald Amundsen’s Private Diary 1924-1925 and attending a birthday party in wonderful summer weather.
In addition, she was one of the first to see the new exhibition in the tenant house on the property. The small house was previously occupied by a couple who worked as tour guides for 44 years here at Amundsen’s home, which is today a museum open to the public.
Amundsen’s special diary
Amundsen was born in Borge, between the towns of Fredrikstad and Sarpsborg, on July 16, 1872, and grew up in Oslo on Uranienborgveien behind the castle there. Thus, he christened the beautiful house built in Swiss chalet style he bought in 1908 “Uranienborg.”
Now, the small tenant house on the property, with its view over the fjord, is exhibiting some very special items. Here you can find a secret leather bag, among other things. Visitors can participate in a guessing game about what the bag contains, hanging up their answers on Post-It Notes.
Amundsen’s first great achievement was to be the first to sail across the treacherous Northwest Passage in the waters north of Canada in 1906. But he made his mark in the history books when he became the first to reach the South Pole in 1911 after a dramatic race with the English explorer Robert Falcon Scott.
On June 18, 1928, Amundsen disappeared without a trace in the hunt for the missing Italian explorer—and his rival—Umberto Nobile, although three pieces of wreckage were found.
However, the diary found at Uranienborg is not about Amundsen’s polar experiences. This private diary is filled with declarations of love for a woman who had fascinated him.
The diary consists of two volumes, one with Amundsen’s handwriting and the other a transcribed version.
Anders Bache, a consultant at the Museums in Akershus, worked with Norway’s national library on the transcription.
“Packed with pictures, biographical information, and explanatory notes, [this] is a completely unique edition,” Bache said.
He continued to report that the diary is selling as fast as the cinnamon rolls from the Svartskog Café concession trailer.
Bache has read the hundreds of letters and discovered new objects hidden in nooks and crannies at Uranienborg.
But the diary has been made available only to a few.
“The first edition is not large, and up until now, it is only for sale at Amundsen’s home,” said Bache.
At the top of the hill, at the idyllic Svartskog Café, the Amundsen expert, author, and professional consultant had just given a lecture about Amundsen.
“In the story of Roald Amundsen, 1924 is a special year, because this is the year he himself called ‘the most embarrassing, the most humiliating, and, by and large, the most tragic episode in my life,’” said Bache.
Amundsen started writing this very special diary, a declaration of love for a married woman, in 1924.
“He reveals, yes, outright exposes himself, in his loss and his jealousy,” Bache said. There was also his bankruptcy and his complicated relationship with his brother Leon.
The love letters
It was inside Uranienborg that the love letters were found. Several are reproduced in the book Polar Love (Gyldendal), written by Bache and Sigri Sandberg. Those who have seen the big 2019 movie Amundsen: The Greatest Expedition will recognize themes from the diary. (See “The man vs. the myth” by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, April 23, 2021.)
The love stories consisted of three women, all who wanted to marry Amundsen. Two of them were married and one divorced: Sigrid Castberg (Sigg), Kristine Bennett (Kiss) and Elisabeth Magids (Bess).
But the story starts already with Kamilla Schiørn, who was only 15 years old when she fell in love with Roald Amundsen, christened Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen. He was then a pale 11-year-old boy.
The diary’s “Kiss,” Kristine Elisabeth Gudde Bennett, was a married woman, and the relationship was top secret, because of her position in society. Amundsen dedicated his book Nordost-Passagen to Kiss, using a code: her date of birth. The feelings must have been strong, at least on his part.
He wrote both letters and diaries about the expeditions and his private life. This diary was submitted to the University Library (now the National Library of Norway) in 1940.
“So, it has a long history behind it, but has never been published in its entirety in this way before,” Bache adds.
Although the diary’s Kiss had visited Uranienborg, another woman was standing on the steps of Uranienborg when he disappeared in the ice. Amundsen first met Bess Magdis in June 1922, when they were both passengers on the SS Victoria from Seattle to Nome, Alaska.
But now it is Marthe Brendefur who sits on the stairs at Uranienborg. In her hands, she holds the diaries, in anticipation of her upcoming expedition in which she will follow the footsteps of Roald Amundsen.
Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall
This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.