Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf

The Swedish author Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf (1858-1940) is noted for her ability to recreate a world of legend in an apparently simple, naive style. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.

Selma Lagerlöf was born on November 20, 1858, on the estate Ma°rbacka in Värmland. In 1884 her father's illness forced the sale of the home, an event which would continue to affect her. She worked as a country schoolteacher for nearly 10 years, struggling at the same time to find a form in which to retell the legends she had heard as a child. She finally wrote them in her own way, ignoring the time's demand for realism, and published them as Gösta Berling's Saga in 1891. This work, set in a brilliantly evoked Värmland landscape, is a series of melodramatic, often fantastic stories organized around Gösta Berling, a despairing, defrocked minister. It is marked by vivid realism of description but also shows the influence of romanticism, the Bible, and Thomas Carlyle.

The Saga is an independent contribution to the "neoromantic" reaction of the 1890s against naturalism. It further departs from naturalism—as does most of her work—in its emphasis upon personal responsibility and its undogmatic, earthy Christianity. The book was not a critical success until it was warmly reviewed by Georg Brandes, the man most responsible for the literary fashions Lagerlöf defied. Gradually it has become a world classic.

Lagerlöf's second masterpiece is the two-volume novel Jerusalem (1901-1902), based on the true story of a group of Swedish peasants who, seized by religious fervor, sold their farms and went to the Holy Land to devote their lives to good works. The first volume is the more successful, evoking the shattering experience of a people who abandon their homes and traditions for the unknown. Her third masterpiece is The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906-1907), written as a Swedish geography for children, one of the world's most popular children's books.

From the turn of the century on, Lagerlöf's literary output was impressive, both in quantity and quality, and her fame grew steadily until she became Sweden's most famous writer. Of her other books available in translation, the following deserve mention. In The Miracles of Antichrist (1897) and Christ Legends and Legends (both 1904), folk material she collected is used to build her own stories, blending the real and the fantastic. Gripping psychological novels are The Tale of a Manor (1899) and The Emperor of Portugallia (1914). Also available are her three books of memoirs, autobiographical classics: Ma°rbacka (1922), Memories of My Childhood (1930), and The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf (1932).

Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1909 and used the money to buy back her beloved childhood home, Ma°rbacka, where she lived, wrote, and farmed from 1910 until her death on March 16, 1940.

Further Reading on Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf

Studies in English of Selma Lagerlöf's life and work are Walter Berendsohn, Selma Lagerlöf (1927; trans. 1931); Hanna A. Larsen, Selma Lagerlöf (1936); Alrik Gustafson, Six Scandinavian Novelists (1940; 2d ed. 1966); and Folkerdina deVrieze, Fact and Fiction in the Autobiographical Works of Selma Lagerlöf (1958).

Additional Biography Sources

Lagerlöf, Selma, Marbacka, Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint Co., 1975, 1924.

Lagerlöf, Selma, Memories of my childhood: further years at Marbacka, Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint Co., 1975, 1934.