The queen of literature

Sigrid Undset: Norways Queen of Literature.

Sigrid Undset: Norway's Queen of Literature.

Sigrun Slapgard, biographer of Sigrid Undset, delivers her lecture “Sigrid Undset and Her Writing Compatriots: Voices of Norwegian Dissent” in Tacoma, Wash. on Nov. 3

By Christy Olsen Field

Norwegian American Weekly

Nobel prize laureate and arguably Norway’s most famous female writer Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is an icon in Scandinavian literature. Her epic modernist trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter” earned her the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, and her other fictional works are highly acclaimed. However, Undset’s legacy extends beyond the realm of literature—she was a tireless and outspoken voice of dissent against fascism and the Nazi movement during the World War II era.

Sigrun Slapgard, international reporter and biographer, published “Dikterdronningen: En biografi om Sigrid Undset” (The Queen of Literature: A biography of Sigrid Undset) in 2007. As an experienced reporter for NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Company) and author of three biographies, Slapgard was chosen as the guest lecturer for Pacific Lutheran University’s annual Bjug Harstad Endowed Memorial Lecture in Tacoma, Wash. She brought her perspective as a female journalist and writer to focus on Norwegian women’s voices of opposition, particularly on Sigrid Undset, whom Slapgard called the “literary lioness of the world.”

Slapgard spent time to discuss the 20th century life of Sigrid Undset, who is well-known for her fiction set in the Middle Ages. Undset’s dreams of a university education were dashed when her father died, and she became a secretary at 16 for a German-owned engineering company in Kristiania (now Oslo) and wrote in her free time.  She despised secretarial work, and spent her free time writing. The success of her first three novels allowed her to quit her job and write full time. At this time, Undset met Anders Castus Svarstad, a married Norwegian painter. The two eventually married, but the marriage fell apart and Undset left her husband with her two children while expecting her third.

Sigrid Undset’s advocacy for women’s liberation made her unpopular in certain circles. Standing at six feet tall, Undset’s commanding presence made quite an impact, especially the male-dominated Norwegian Writers Union (which she later chaired). Her outspoken voice against the Nazi regime made her unpopular in Germany, where her books were banned and subject to book burnings. In April 1940, Undset fled Norway to escape the growing threat of the Nazi regime.

During the time period of World War II, she traveled around the United States, becoming a sought-after speaker. She was also enlisted by Eleanor Roosevelt, and worked on secret operations to save the Jews of Europe. Slapgard noted that Undset used her position as a Nobel laureate to guilt Sweden into granting travel documents to 700 Hungarian Jewish women and children.

Sigrid Undset was a free spirit of the North, and worked hard to be an advocate for those without a voice. Slapgard emphasized that Undset paid a very high price for her dissent—she never wrote another novel before her death in 1945. However, she fought for the truth, and left a powerful legacy in Norwegian history.

Slapgard’s thorough research and access to previously confidential documents makes her a leading authority on Sigrid Undset, and her book “Dikterdronningen” adds new depth to Sigrid Undset, the lioness of Norwegian literature.

For more information about “Sigrid Undset: Dikterdronningen,” visit

This article was originally published in the Nov. 13 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe and for more information, call us toll-free at (800) 305-0217 or email

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