An extraordinary woman: The life of Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset

Photo: O. Væring / Nasjonalbiblioteket
Portrait of Sigrid Undset from 1911, probably taken in the studio of her husband-to-be, the painter Anders Svarstad.

Mogens Pedersen
Denmark & Oregon

In 1928, Sigrid Undset became the first Norwegian woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. She is one of only three Norwegian prize winners. She had just completed her two medieval mega-sagas: Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. The prize was awarded primarily for Kristin Lavransdatter, which is also her best-known work. Both titles have remained continuously in print since first published.

An amazing writer, Sigrid Undset was also an extraordinary woman.

Childhood and education
Sigrid Undset was as Norwegian as they come. She was, however, born in her grandparents’ home in Kalundborg, Denmark. This is hardly enough to claim her as Danish, although her mother was Danish and young Sigrid spent many summer holidays with her maternal grandparents.

The daughter of the mayor of Kalund­borg, Sigrid’s mother had married the renowned Norwegian medievalist and archaeologist Ingvald Undset. His work and research took him all around Europe, and had it not been for his sudden illness during a stay in Rome, Sigrid would have been born in Italy.

But the couple had to travel back to Denmark, where Ingvald found temporary work and received treatment for his condition, probably Parkinson’s disease. After only two years, the young family moved to Kristiania (Oslo).

Each parent had a profound influence on Undset. Her mother shared her fondness for Danish literature, especially the old folk songs and the stories of Danish writer Steen Steensen Blicher. From her father, Undset learned about Nordic medieval history and archaeology, but also about historic research. In her memoir, Eleven Years, she describes her early childhood. Her father died when she was only eleven, hence the title.

Undset’s parents were atheists and she had no exposure to religion in her home.

Her father’s death left the widow with a meager pension that did not allow her to fund her three daughters’ educations. After only seven years of school, Undset took a secretarial course and found employment with a German engineering firm in Oslo. Employed by the firm for 10 years, she helped her mother care for her sisters. She did not enjoy her work, but later took pride in having learned to do it well.

Typing would prove useful to her as a writer, a career she desperately wanted. Und­set had already started writing and had gotten her first rejections. In 1907, she made her debut with the novel Fru Marta Oulie. The opening sentence reads: “I have been unfaithful to my husband.”

The line was a scandal in conservative Oslo. Her best work from this period is Jenny (1911).

Marriage, divorce, and conversion to Catholicism
After the publication of her first two books, the Norwegian government awarded her a travel scholarship and she went to Rome in 1909. This began a chain of events in her life—trying and tragic, but formative.

In Rome Undset met and fell in love with Anders C. Svarstad, a Norwegian artist. Svarstad was 13 years her senior and married to her childhood friend, with whom he had three children.

Svarstad divorced his wife and married Undset in 1912. During the following years, they had three children. The challenges of motherhood would test her to the limit.

The middle child, Tulla, was mentally handicapped and proved to be demanding in care. Things grew more complicated when Undset learned that the mother of Svarstad’s other three children had them placed in an orphanage.

She decided to adopt all three, one of whom was also mentally handicapped.

Her marriage to Svarstad ended in 1924. In that same year, Undset converted to Catholicism. She had made a long spiritual journey from the atheism of her childhood to a strong faith built on grace, dogma, and mystery—concepts that are all present in the novel she wrote in the early 1920s: Kristin Lavransdatter.

The last 25 years
After her conversion, Undset’s writing took a distinctly Catholic direction. She became the most renowned and outspoken defender of the church in Europe. Many of her books explored the process of conversion. While writing novels, she also developed her skills as a brilliant essayist.

During the 1930s she joined the fight against Nazism and tyranny and published a multitude of essays and articles. Her works were banned in Germany. When the Wehrmacht invaded Norway in April of 1940, she had to flee to Sweden.

After a dramatic night-time border crossing on foot, she made her way to Stockholm. There, she learned that her oldest son had been killed in combat not far from their home in Lillehammer.

Despite this blow, Und­set continued her journey through Finland and the Soviet Union to Japan. She crossed the Pacific to San Francisco and traveled to New York, where she continued her fight against the Germans and for Norway in articles and speeches.

After her return to Norway, she wrote her last book, a biography of Saint Catherine of Siena. It was published posthumously.

Tiina Nunnally’s excellent 2005 translation of Kristin Lavransdatter to English has introduced Sigrid Undset’s work to many new readers. A large international following confirms the power of her writing.

Danish historian Mo Pedersen is a lifelong admirer of Sigrid Undset, particularly her seminal Kristin Lavransdatter. He has lectured to many Danish audiences about her works and her life. He and his wife divide their time between rural Denmark and Oregon in the U.S.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.