Sigrid Undset: Biography

Bibliography (selected), Sigrid Undset

(English titles in italics if translated - see also our Sigrid Undset page)

  • 1907 Fru Marta Oulie
  • 1908 Den lykkelige alder (short stories)
  • 1909 Fortællingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis -Gunnar's Daughter
  • 1910 Ungdom (play)
  • 1911 Jenny - Jenny
  • 1912 Fattige skjæbner (short stories)
  • 1914 Våren
  • 1915 Fortællinger om kong Artur og ridderne av det runde bord
  • 1917 Splinten av troldspeilet - Images in a Mirror
  • 1917 Tre søstre (essays)
  • 1918 De kloge jomfruer (short stories)
  • 1919 Et kvindesynspunkt (essays)
  • 1920–22: Kristin Lavransdatter (trilogy) - Kristin Lavransdatter (The best translation is by Tiina Nunnally, 2005)
    1. Kransen (1920) The Bridal Wreath
    2. Husfrue (1921) The Mistress of Husaby
    3. Korset (1922) The Cross (also: The Wreath)
  • 1921 Vårskyer
  • 1925 Sankt Halvards liv, død og jærtegn
  • 1924-27 Olav Audunsøn i Hestviken - The Master of Hestviken
    1. The Axe
    2. The Snake Pit
    3. In the Wilderness
    4. The Son Avenger
  • 1929 Gymnadenia - The Wild Orchid
  • 1930 Den brændende busk - The Burning Bush
  • 1930 Hellig Olav, Norges konge (essays)
  • 1931 Sigurd of hans tapre venner - Sigurd and his brave companions. A tale of medieval Norway
  • 1932 Ida Elisabeth - Ida Elizabeth
  • 1934 Elleve aar (autobiography) - The Longest Years
  • 1936 Den trofaste hustru - The Faithful Wife
  • 1937 Norske helgener (non-fiction) - Saga of Saints
  • 1939 Madame Dorthea - Madame Dorthea
  • 1945 True and Untrue, and Other Norse Tales (edited and compiled by Sigrid Undset)
  • 1945 Tilbake til fremtiden (memoar) - Return to the Future
  • 1947 Lykkelige dager (memoar) - Happy Times in Norway

Published posthumously

  • 1951 Caterina av Siena (non-fiction) - Catherine of Siena
  • 1952 Artikler og taler fra krigstiden (essays)
  • 1955 Sigurd og hans tapre venner
  • 1968 I grålysningen (written in 1911)
  • 1972 Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne (play, written 1927)
  • 1973 Prinsessene i Berget det blå (childrens book written 1928)
  • 1979 Kjære Dea (letters)
  • 1992 Fred på jorden (short stories)
  • 2001 The Unknown Sigrid Undset (ed. Tim Page; new translations by Tiina Nunnally - contains Jenny and more)

Sigrid Undset was born May 20, 1882, Kalundborg, Denmark, and died June 10, 1949, Lillehammer, Norway. She was an amazing writer and is mostly known today for her historical fiction novels set in medieval Norway and her feminist novels. Some of her writings were quite controversial and considered very explicit at the time when they were written. Often her heroines face tragic consequences when they are unfaithful for their true inner self or when they challenge traditional gender roles.

Sigrid Undset received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She did not deliver a Nobel lecture, but said in her brief acceptance speech "I write more readily than I speak and I am especially reluctant to talk about myself."

Background

Her father was a well known Norwegian archaeologist, Ingvald Undset. Her mother, Anna Charlotte Gyth Undset, was Danish. The family moved to Kristiania (Oslo) in Norway in 1884. Sigrid was a gifted child. Her home life was steeped in legend, Sigrid Undsetfolklore, and the history of Norway. Her father also taught her to read Old Norse. When her father became seriously ill, she spent much time reading for him. This is supposed to be how she got to learn so much about Norwegian history, including the Viking era and the medieval ages in Norway. Both this influence and her own life story are constantly present in her works.

She knew that her mother needed money, and started to work in the office of an electrical engineering firm at the age of 17, and worked there for 10 years before she married, bore children, and began to write. She started writing while doing this job.

Sigrid Undset's first manuscript, a historical novel, was returned from a publisher around 1905 with the following words: "Never try a historical novel again. You're not capable of this kind of writing. You might try and write something modern. You never know!"

Sigrid Undset was deeply moved by Shakespeare, enthusiastic about Chaucer, attracted to the legends of King Arthur. But she also immersed herself in the work of Scandinavian writers, such as Ibsen, Strindberg, Brandes, and English authors such as the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen. She thus acquired a sound knowledge of the art of writing, preparing herself for what she felt from an early age to be her "fate" in life.

Early novels

Her early novels deal with the position of women in the contemporary unromantic world of the lower middle class. Not surprisingly, Sigrid Undset was also a frequent participant in debates in newspapers and elsewhere, and she also, in a addition to her books, wrote a large number of newspaper and journal articles.

Undset's second novel, Gunnar's Daughter (1909), was an imitation of Icelandic saga and earned her a government scholarship. She left her job and devoted herself entirely to writing.

Marriage

Sigrid Undset

In 1912 Sigrid Undset married the Norwegian painter, Anders Castus Svarstad. She had met him in Rome where she had moved after her second novel, and had a passionate affair with the then still married Svarstad.

Undset returned with Svarstad to Norway. Svarstad continued his career as an artist, Undset published several books, took dutifully care of the home, and raised five children - three of them from his previous marriage. They separated in 1919 and Sigrid Undset settled on a farm in Lillehammer in Gudbrandsdal.

Most famous works

Sigrid Undset's most famous works, then and now, are her multi-volume historical novels about medieval age Norway.

Undset's first masterpiece, from the 1920s, is the fabulous trilogy Kristin Lavransdottir. Delightfully written, it re-created a woman's life in the devout Catholic Norway of the 13th and 14th centuries. The first volume, The Bridal Wreath, is about Kristin's passage to adulthood. Kristin is the very proud and beautiful daughter of a prosperous landowner. She marries an "unworthy man", Erlend, for love. "She understood not herself why she was not glad - it was as though she had lain and wept beneath a warm covering, and now must get up in the cold. A month went by - then two, now she was sure that she had been spared this ill-hap - and, empty and chill of soul, she felt yet unhappier than before. In her heart there dawned a little bitterness toward Erlend. Advent drew near, and she had heard neither from or of him; she knew not where he was."

The Mistress of Husaby and The Cross dealt with Kristin's marriage, the love and hate relationship with her husband, and her final reckoning with God and succumbing to the Black Death.

This powerful and excellent novel was followed by a tetralogy, translated into English as The Master of Hestviken (1924-27). This is also a medieval tale. More than anything, this was the novel which earned her the Nobel prize. The main person in the books is the proud and unyielding Olav who has committed murder. He kills the lover of his fiancée - which he chooses not to confess.

A common theme for the two major historical novels is how "the first sin" take on a life of their own and cast long shadows over and into the protagonists life.

Divorce, religion and war

Undset converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1924, and in her later novels, in which she returned to contemporary themes, her new religion continues to play an important role.

In 1939 Sigrid Undset lost both her mother and daughter. When the Germans occupied Norway in April 1940, Undset joined the Resistance. The Nazi authorities banned her books. In 1940 her elder son, Anders, was killed during combat. As an outspoken critic of the Nazis, Undset was forced to flee to Sweden and from there to the United States. She lived in exile in the United States, where her lecture tours gained much publicity. At the end of the war she returned to Norway. Undset was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav in 1947.

Sigrid Undset - the writer

In her work Sigrid Undset combines knowledge of history with psychological analysis and a powerful style. With the 'domestic epic', a sweeping drama set against a carefully studied social background, she broke a new ground. Undset turned away from the sentimental style of national romanticism in an attempt to re-create the realism of the Icelandic sagas and write so vividly, that "everything that seem romantic from here - murder, violence, etc becomes ordinary - comes to life."

In her personal life Undset devoted herself to medieval interests - she restored house dating from the year 1000 and dressed in the gown of a Norse matron of the Middle Ages. In Lillehammer Undset lived a reclusive life, often refusing to open the doors of her house to journalists.

Books about Sigrid Undset - selected

Kristin: A Reading, by Andrew Kristin - A reading, Andrew LytleLytle.The author turns his creative insight to a relatively overlooked literary classic, Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset's Saga of Kristin Lavrandsdatter. Undset's epic trilogy of Kristin Lavransdatter and 14th-century Norway "embraces more of life, seen understandingly and seriously, than any novel since Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov" according to Commonweal. Lytle's interpretation illuminates each of the major characters in the trilogy. Especially appealing is his exploration of the complex moral nature of the saga's heroine.

Sigrid Undset, une biographie, by Gidske Anderson

The Art ofThe Art of Compassion, by Yola Miller Sigerson Compassion, Yola Miller Sigerson. Sigrid Undset received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She was the third woman to be so honored. Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, Sigrid Undset's highly erotic, meticulously researched depictions of life in medieval Norway have been translated into almost every language.

Undset probed the seemingly irreconcilable multiple roles demanded of women as individuals, wives, and mothers, and she was fervently outspoken about their need for sexual fulfillment. Her great artistry, psychological insight, and compassion for human fallibility enabled her to treat ordinary people with a kind of dignity and respect not often found in literature.

At Undset's request, her family has, until recently, protected her private life from public scrutiny. But surviving relatives and friends and her Norwegian and American publishers have been most helpful. Lengthy interviews with Alfred A. Knopf and her editors have provided many personal insights and anecdotes. Letters to Willa Cather, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Hudson Strode and Dorothy Day as well as quotes from her books that were not available in English appear here for the first time.

A good book for anybody wanting to understand Sigrid Undset better!

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