Sigrid Undset

Born(1882-05-20)20 May 1882[1]
Kalundborg, Denmark[1]
Died10 June 1949(1949-06-10) (aged 67)
Lillehammer, Norway
NationalityNorwegian, Danish
Notable awardsNobel Prize in Literature
(m. 1912; dissolved 1927)
  • Ingvald Martin Undset (father)[1]
  • Anna Marie Charlotte Nicoline née Gyth (mother)[1]

Sigrid Undset (Norwegian pronunciation: [ˈsɪ̂ɡːɾiː ˈʉ̂nːseːt]; 20 May 1882 – 10 June 1949) was a Danish-born Norwegian novelist. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.[2]

Born in Denmark and raised in Norway, Undset had her first books of historical fiction published in 1907. She fled Norway for the United States in 1940 because of her opposition to Nazi Germany and the German invasion and occupation of Norway, but returned after World War II ended in 1945.

Her best-known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy about life in Norway in the Middle Ages, portrayed through the experiences of a woman from birth until death. Its three volumes were published between 1920 and 1922.

Early life

Undset as a young girl

Sigrid Undset was born on 20 May 1882 in the small town of Kalundborg, Denmark, at the childhood home of her mother, Charlotte Undset (1855–1939, née Anna Maria Charlotte Gyth). Undset was the eldest of three daughters. She and her family moved to Norway when she was two.

She grew up in the Norwegian capital, Oslo (or Kristiania, as it was known until 1925). When she was only 11 years old, her father, the Norwegian archaeologist Ingvald Martin Undset (1853–1893), died at the age of 40 after a long illness.[3]

The family's economic situation meant that Undset had to give up hope of a university education and after a one-year secretarial course she obtained work at the age of 16 as a secretary with an engineering company in Kristiania, a post she was to hold for 10 years.[4][5]

She joined the Norwegian Authors' Union in 1907 and from 1933 through 1935 headed its Literary Council, eventually serving as the union's chairwoman from 1936 until 1940.[6]


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While employed at office work, Undset wrote and studied.[5] She was 16 years old when she made her first attempt at writing a novel set in the Nordic Middle Ages. The manuscript, a historical novel set in medieval Denmark, was ready by the time she was 22. It was turned down by the publishing house.

Nonetheless, two years later, she completed another manuscript, much less voluminous than the first at only 80 pages. She had put aside the Middle Ages and had instead produced a realistic description of a woman with a middle-class background in contemporary Kristiania. This book was also refused by the publishers at first but it was subsequently accepted.[5] The title was Fru Marta Oulie, and the opening sentence (the words of the book's main character) scandalised readers: "I have been unfaithful to my husband".

Thus, at the age of 25, Undset made her literary debut with a short realistic novel on adultery, set against a contemporary background. It created a stir, and she found herself ranked as a promising young author in Norway. During the years up to 1919, Undset published a number of novels set in contemporary Kristiania. Her contemporary novels of the period 1907–1918 are about the city and its inhabitants. They are stories of working people, of trivial family destinies, of the relationship between parents and children. Her main subjects are women and their love. Or, as she herself put it—in her typically curt and ironic manner—"the immoral kind" (of love).

This realistic period culminated in the novels Jenny (1911) and Vaaren (Spring) (1914). The first is about a woman painter who, as a result of romantic crises, believes that she is wasting her life, and, in the end, commits suicide. The other tells of a woman who succeeds in saving both herself and her love from a serious matrimonial crisis, finally creating a secure family. These books placed Undset apart from the incipient women's emancipation movement in Europe.

Undset's books sold well from the start, and, after the publication of her third book, she left her office job and prepared to live on her income as a writer. Having been granted a writer's scholarship, she set out on a lengthy journey in Europe. After short stops in Denmark and Germany, she continued to Italy, arriving in Rome in December 1909, where she remained for nine months. Undset's parents had had a close relationship with Rome, and, during her stay there, she followed in their footsteps. The encounter with Southern Europe meant a great deal to her; she made friends within the circle of Scandinavian artists and writers in Rome. [7]

Marriage and children

In Rome, Undset met Anders Castus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter, whom she married almost three years later. She was 30; Svarstad was thirteen years older, married, and had a wife and three children in Norway. It was nearly three years before Svarstad got his divorce from his first wife.

Undset and Svarstad were married in 1912 and went to stay in London for six months. From London, they returned to Rome, where their first child was born in January 1913. A boy, he was named after his father. In the years up to 1919, she had another child, and the household also took in Svarstad's three children from his first marriage. These were difficult years: her second child, a girl, was mentally handicapped, as was one of Svarstad's sons by his first wife.

She continued writing, finishing her last realistic novels and collections of short stories. She also entered the public debate on topical themes: women's emancipation and other ethical and moral issues. She had considerable polemical gifts, and was critical of emancipation as it was developing, and of the moral and ethical decline she felt was threatening in the wake of the First World War.

Undset at work at Bjerkebæk
Bjerkebæk, Undset's home, now part of Maihaugen museum

In 1919, she moved to Lillehammer, a small town in the Gudbrand Valley in southeast Norway, taking her two children with her. She was then expecting her third child. The intention was that she should take a rest at Lillehammer and move back to Kristiania as soon as Svarstad had their new house in order. However, the marriage broke down and a divorce followed. In August 1919, she gave birth to her third child, at Lillehammer. She decided to make Lillehammer her home, and within two years, Bjerkebæk, a large house of traditional Norwegian timber architecture, was completed, along with a large fenced garden with views of the town and the villages around. Here she was able to retreat and concentrate on her writing.[8]

Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy and The Master of Hestviken tetralogy

After the birth of her third child, and with a secure roof over her head, Undset started a major project: Kristin Lavransdatter. She was at home in the subject matter, having written a short novel at an earlier stage about a period in Norwegian history closer to the Pre-Christian era. She had also published a Norwegian retelling of the Arthurian legends. She had studied Old Norse manuscripts and Medieval chronicles and visited and examined Medieval churches and monasteries, both at home and abroad. She was now an authority on the period she was portraying and a very different person from the 22-year-old who had written her first novel about the Middle Ages.

It was only after the end of her marriage that Undset wrote her masterpiece. In the years between 1920 and 1927, she first published the three-volume Kristin, and then the 4-volume Olav (Audunssøn), swiftly translated into English as The Master of Hestviken. Simultaneously with this creative process, she was engaged in trying to find meaning in her own life, finding the answer in God.

Undset experimented with modernist tropes such as stream of consciousness in her novel, although the original English translation by Charles Archer excised many of these passages. In 1997, the first volume of Tiina Nunnally's new translation of the work won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in the category of translation. The names of each volume were translated by Archer as The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, and by Nunnally as The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross. Subsequent translation of the Hestviken tetralogy by Nunnally are retitled Olav Audunssøn (1):Vows (The Axe), …(2) Providence, (The Snake Pit), …(3) Crossroads (In The Wilderness), and …(4) Winter (The Son Avenger).


Both Undset's parents were atheists and, although, in accord with the norm of the day, she and her two younger sisters were baptised and with their mother regularly attended the local Lutheran church, the milieu in which they were raised was a thoroughly secular one.[9] Undset spent much of her life as an agnostic, but marriage and the outbreak of the First World War were to change her attitudes. During those difficult years she experienced a crisis of faith, almost imperceptible at first, then increasingly strong. The crisis led her from clear agnostic skepticism, by way of painful uneasiness about the ethical decline of the age, towards Christianity.

In all her writing, one senses an observant eye for the mystery of life and for that which cannot be explained by reason or the human intellect. At the back of her sober, almost brutal realism, there is always an inkling of something unanswerable. At any rate, this crisis radically changed her views and ideology. Whereas she had once believed that man created God, she eventually came to believe that God created man.

Beginning around 1917, Undset developed a passionate interest in the writings of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson,many of whose writings she was to translate into Norwegian.[10]

However, she did not turn to the established Lutheran Church of Norway, where she had been nominally reared. This is because, according to Geir Hasnes, Undset had always considered the Lutheran Church "anemic" and "detested the fact that every minister seemed to preach his personal version of Lutheranism."[11]

She was received into the Catholic Church in November 1924, after thorough instruction from the Catholic priest in her local parish. She was 42 years old. She subsequently became a lay Dominican.

It is noteworthy that The Master of Hestviken, written immediately after Undset's conversion, takes place in a historical period when Norway was Catholic, that it has very religious themes of the main character's relations with God and his deep feeling of sin, and that the Medieval Catholic Church is presented in a favorable light, with virtually all clergy and monks in the series being positive characters.

In Norway, Undset's conversion to Catholicism was not only considered sensational; it was scandalous. It was also noted abroad, where her name was becoming known through the international success of Kristin Lavransdatter. At the time, there were very few practicing Catholics in Norway, which was an almost exclusively Lutheran country. Anti-Catholicism was widespread not only among the Lutheran clergy, but through large sections of the population.[citation needed] Likewise, there was just as much anti-Catholic scorn among the Norwegian intelligentsia,[citation needed] many of whom were adherents of socialism and communism[citation needed] The attacks against her faith and character were quite vicious at times, with the result that Undset's literary gifts were aroused in response.

For many years, she participated in the public debate, going out of her way to introduce the ongoing Catholic literary revival into Norwegian literature. In response, she was swiftly dubbed "The Mistress of Bjerkebæk" and "The Catholic Lady".

Undset's essays about Elizabethan era English Catholic martyrs Margaret Clitherow and Robert Southwell were collected and published in Stages on the Road. Furthermore, Undset's Saga of Saints told the whole of Norwegian history through the lives of Norwegian Saints and Venerables.

In May 1928, Undset travelled to England and visited G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, both of whose writings she was later to translate into Norwegian. According to legend, Undset once walked into the office of the manager of the monolithic Aschehoug publishing company. Undset then threw a copy of Chesterton's The Everlasting Man on the manager's desk and exclaimed, "This is the best book ever written! It has to be translated into Norwegian!" Whether or not the story is merely apocryphal, Undset's own translation of The Everlasting Man was published in 1931.[12]

Later life

At the end of this creative eruption, Undset entered calmer waters. After 1929, she completed a series of novels set in contemporary Oslo, with a strong Catholic element. She selected her themes from the small Catholic community in Norway. But here also, the main theme is love. She also published a number of weighty historical works which put the history of Norway into a sober perspective. In addition, she translated several Icelandic sagas into Modern Norwegian and published a number of literary essays, mainly on English literature, of which a long essay on the Brontë sisters, and one on D. H. Lawrence, are especially worth mentioning.

In 1934, she published Eleven Years Old, an autobiographical work. With a minimum of camouflage, it tells the story of her own childhood in Kristiania, of her home, rich in intellectual values and love, and of her sick father.

At the end of the 1930s, she commenced work on a new historical novel set in 18th century Scandinavia. Only the first volume, Madame Dorthea, was published, in 1939. The Second World War broke out that same year and proceeded to break her, both as a writer and as a woman. She never completed her new novel. When Joseph Stalin's invasion of Finland touched off the Winter War, Undset supported the Finnish war effort by donating her Nobel Prize on 25 January 1940.[13]


When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, Undset was forced to flee. She had strongly criticised both Nazi ideology and Adolf Hitler since the early 1930s, and, from an early date, her books were banned in Nazi Germany. She accordingly knew her name was on a list of those to be rounded up in the first wave of arrests and had no wish to become a target of the Gestapo. She accordingly fled to neutral Sweden.

Her eldest son, Norwegian Army Second Lieutenant Anders Svarstad, was killed in action at the age of 27, on 27 April 1940,[14] while defending Segalstad Bridge in Gausdal from German troops.[15]

Undset's sick daughter had died shortly before the outbreak of the war. Bjerkebæk was requisitioned by the Wehrmacht, and used as officers' quarters throughout the Occupation of Norway.[citation needed] Undset's library had already been secretly divided between her closest local friends. The books were hidden at great risk throughout the Nazi occupation and were returned to her after the Liberation of Norway.[16]

In 1940, Undset and her younger son left neutral Sweden then crossed the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian Railroad before arriving as a political refugee in the United States. There, she untiringly pleaded occupied Norway's cause and the plight of European Jews in writings, speeches and interviews. She lived in Brooklyn Heights, New York. She was active in St. Ansgar's Scandinavian Catholic League and wrote several articles for its bulletin. She also traveled to Florida, where she became a close friend of novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Following the Gestapo's arrest and summary execution of Danish Lutheran pastor and playwright Kaj Munk on 4 January 1944, the Danish resistance newspaper De frie Danske printed protests from many famous Scandinavian intellectuals, including Undset.[17]

Return to Norway and death

Undset returned to Norway after the liberation in 1945. She lived another four years but never published another word. Undset died at 67 in Lillehammer, Norway, where she had lived from 1919 through 1940. She was buried in the village of Mesnali, 15 kilometers east of Lillehammer, where also her daughter and the son who died in battle are remembered. The grave is recognizable by three black crosses.



The Roman Catholic Diocese of Oslo in close collaboration with the Dominican Order in Norway have started initial steps in investigating and opening a possible sainthood cause for Sigrid Undset.[21][22] Once her cause is initiated, she will become the second post-reformation Norwegian candidate for sainthood after Venerable Karl Maria Schilling.[23][24]



Other works

Cultural impact

Sigrid Undset and the plot of Kristin Lavransdatter are important elements in the 2006 Academy Award-winning animated short film, The Danish Poet.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Fødte Kvindekøn". Kirkebog. 1880–1892 (in Danish). Vor Frue Sogn (Kalundborg). 1882. p. 166. Doktor philosof Ingvald Martin Undset og Hustru Anna Marie Charlotte Nicoline, født Gyth, 26 Aar 1/2((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  2. ^ Bliksrud, Liv (28 September 2014). "Sigrid Undset". Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  3. ^ Solberg, Bergljot (28 September 2014). "Ingvald Undset". Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  4. ^ Anderson, Gidske. "Sigrid Undset". Go Norway. Archived from the original on 28 February 2021. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Pedersen, Mo (25 July 2017). "An extraordinary woman: The life of Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset". The Norwegian American. Archived from the original on 22 March 2018. Retrieved 21 March 2018.
  6. ^ "Undset, Sigrid". Nordic Women's Literature. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  7. ^ "Biography of Sigrid Undset".
  8. ^ "Bjerkebæk". 28 September 2014. Retrieved 11 November 2017 – via Store norske leksikon.
  9. ^ Sparrow, Stephen (2003). "Sigrid Undset: Catholic Viking"
  10. ^ Geir Hasnes, Sigrid Undset and the Saints, "The Northern Muse: Celebrating Sigrid Undset", November/December 2021, St Austin Review, pages 4-7.
  11. ^ Geir Hasnes, Sigrid Undset and the Saints, "The Northern Muse: Celebrating Sigrid Undset", November/December 2021, St Austin Review, pages 4-7.
  12. ^ Geir Hasnes, Sigrid Undset and the Saints, "The Northern Muse: Celebrating Sigrid Undset", November/December 2021, St Austin Review, pages 4-7.
  13. ^ The Winter War 1939—1940 Archived 2 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine The Finnish Defence Forces, 1999.
  14. ^ Voksø, Per (1994). Krigens Dagbok – Norge 1940–1945 (in Norwegian). Oslo: Forlaget Det Beste. p. 33. ISBN 82-7010-245-8.
  15. ^ Ording, Arne; Johnson, Gudrun; Garder, Johan (1951). Våre falne 1939–1945 (in Norwegian). Vol. 4. Oslo: Norwegian government. pp. 272–273.
  16. ^ Geir Hasnes, Sigrid Undset and the Saints, "The Northern Muse: Celebrating Sigrid Undset", November/December 2021, St Austin Review, pages 4-7.
  17. ^ "KAJ MUNK IN MEMORIAM". De frie Danske (in Danish). January 1944. p. 6. Retrieved 18 November 2014. Munk var en overordentlig modig Mand og er nu mere end nogensinde før i Spidsen for Danmarks Frihedskamp. Hans indsats i Kampen for Friheden har skænket ham udødelighed. Han er blevet et af de store Navne i Danmarks Historie
  18. ^ "Nomination Database". Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  19. ^ "Sigrid Undset's home Bjerkebæk (Maihaugen)". Archived from the original on 30 July 2015. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  20. ^ "LN-NGY | Boeing 737-8JP | Norwegian | JetPhotos". JetPhotos. Retrieved 15 August 2017.
  21. ^ Claudio Toscani. "Sigrid Undset". Santi e Beati. Retrieved 24 October 2023.
  22. ^ Stephen Sparrow. "Sigrid Undset: Catholic Viking". Catholic Education Resource Center. Retrieved 24 October 2023.
  23. ^ Anne Barbeau Gardiner. "Fearless Defender of Truth". Retrieved 24 October 2023.
  24. ^ Causes Under Consideration – Hagiography Circle

Other sources