The Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was internationally acclaimed for the historical novel "Kristen Lavransdatter." She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928.
Sigrid Undset was born on May 20, 1882, in Kalundborg, Denmark, the daughter of a distinguished Norwegian archeologist and a Danish mother. She grew up in Oslo in a closely knit family where her interest in history and literature was early awakened. Her father died when she was 11, leaving the family in financial difficulties. Her first 11 years are movingly described in the autobiographical novel The Longest Years (1934). She had intended to study painting but was forced to work in an office for 10 years, until she began to earn enough from her books to quit and devote herself to writing.
Sigrid Undset's authorship was a reaction against the Norwegian literature of her contemporaries. On the basis of her experiences among the working women of Oslo— whose rootless lives seemed to contrast so sharply with her own homelife—she came to believe that most of the new liberal ideals and freedoms were illusory and that a fulfilling life could only be based on a sense of personal responsibility.
From the beginning until Kristen Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset's fiction deals almost exclusively with contemporary women in their search for values that will give their lives meaning. Her fortunate heroines are those who find something greater than their own egos—a strong, enduring love, children, a home and, finally, religious faith. The strength of the best of these novels and stories lies in their vivid realism, their compassionate objectivity, and Sigrid Undset's remarkable gift for characterization. The outstanding work of this period is the novel Jenny (1911), shocking in its time for its bold erotic descriptions.
Kristen Lavransdatter (1920-1922) is Sigrid Undset's masterpiece, one of the great historical novels in world literature. Its greatness lies in the way she brings to life a distant age and yet shows us the universally human beneath the medieval forms. The rich and complex Kristen dominates the novel, in her rebellion, her joys and suffering, and her gradual growth as a woman.
In 1924 Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism. Her authorship from this time on directly reflects her religious convictions. The two-volume novel The Master of Hestviken (1925-1927) is much more tendentious than Kristen, although it contains many powerful scenes. After these historical novels, Sigrid Undset returned to novels of contemporary life, now with a clear Catholic message: The Wild Orchid (1929), The Burning Bush (1930), Ida Elisabeth (1932), The Faithful Wife (1936), and Madame Dorothea (1939).
As one of Norway's most prominent anti-Nazi writers, Sigrid Undset was forced to flee to America after the German invasion. While there she worked actively for Norway's cause and also wrote a book about her flight, Return to the Future (1942), and a book of memoirs, Happy Times in Norway (1942). Sigrid Undset died at her home at Lillehammer on June 10, 1949.
Further Reading on Sigrid Undset
For a discussion of Sigrid Undset's life and work see Harald Beyer, A History of Norwegian Literature (1964); Alrik Gustafson, Six Scandinavian Novelists (1966); and Carl F. Bayerschmidt, Sigrid Undset (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Brunsdale, Mitzi, Sigrid Undset, chronicler of Norway, Oxford England; New York: Berg; New York: Distributed in the US and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1988.
Dunn, Margaret, Sister, Paradigms and paradoxes in the life and letters of Sigrid Undset, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994.