Don’t miss this bio of author Sigrid Undset
New in English
Some years ago I read Kristin Lavransdatter, that classic trilogy of historical novels written by Sigrid Undset. . I remembered being magically transported to Norway of the Middle Ages, and later came to appreciate Undset’s historical and ethnological accuracy when I took Scandinavian history in college.
Undset’s books were unusual for the time because they’re told from the perspective of a strong, female main character. Undset’s familiarity with human nature, especially the nature of the heart, rang true for me—Norway and the rest of the world have and will continue to change, but how humans relate to each other remains the same.
I appreciated Undset’s books even more when I recently read Inside the Gate: Sigrid Undset’s Life at Bjerkebæk by Nan Bentzen Skille. The book was published in Norwegian 2003 and just this year it was translated to English by Tiina Nunnally and published by the University of Minnesota Press.
In this biography, it’s Bjerkebæk, Undset’s estate in Lillehammer, that takes center stage. It was here that Undset studied Norse sagas, folklore, and the wide range of medieval literature that enabled her to write her historical novels. Undset’s life at Bjerkebæk as a daughter, wife, and mother, and deep religious faith, profoundly influenced her writing. Bjerkebæk was a fundamental part of her life, where she built her writing studio, planted her garden, raised her children, and oversaw the household—in a time when women had few choices.
Freedom was important for Undset: the freedom to live a life of your own choosing, to own property and a home, to be financially free, free of nationalism, free of bigotry,and to be free to choose your own religion separate from the State. She achieved all of these at Bjerkebæk, which was not only her haven but her fortress.
Undset closeted herself in the writing studio she had built separate from the main house, so she could concentrate on her writing. But she always struggled with the guilt of not being fully available to her children as they grew up. That challenge of being a breadwinner, working long hours, and at the same time running a household and raising children is a much more familiar challenge to us these days, but no less difficult.
One of joys of the book Inside the Gate is the many photographs and drawings of Undset, her children, the property at Bjerkebæk, and various memorabilia. The author reconstructs several key events in Undset’s life, such as a child’s confirmation party, detailing who likely attended, what they ate (Skille used old store receipts), and what Undset was writing about at the time. You might even say that Skille researched and wrote Undset’s story in Gudbrandsdalen just as Undset researched her novels and wrote about Kristin Lavransdatter.
You’ll want to read this book to learn about Undset’s conversion to Catholicism, how she was awarded the Nobel Prize and the Grand Cross of St. Olav, and her campaign in the U.S. against the Nazis. And how Undset struggled with her invalid daughter Mosse, who suffered from multiple sclerosis or Rett syndrome—we’re not sure exactly.
Thanks to the efforts of the author, you can visit Bjerkebæk today in Gudbrandsdalen, which was restored by the open air museum at Maihaugen in Lillehammer. But if you can’t make it to Norway, the photos and descriptions in this book are next best thing.
Eric Stavney is graduate of the UW Scandinavian Studies Department and cohosts the Scandinavian Hour on KKNW 1150AM, Saturdays at 9 a.m. Pacific at 1150kknw.com/listen.
This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.