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Romantic Subversion: The Forgotten Life and Work of Novelist Sigrid Undset
“Do you remember, Aunt, you once told me that it’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.”
“You didn’t dare because it was sin,” said Fru Aashild.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Kristin. “I’ve done many things that I thought I would never dare do because they were sins. But I didn’t realize then that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people.”
—from The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset, translated Tiina Nunnally
“You should have told me about her earlier,” my friend said to me. “This is a wonderful writer.”
I couldn’t deny my sin. He’s a Catholic; I’m an ethnic Norwegian. It should have been common ground for us. I have another friend who thanks me to this day for introducing him to Sigrid Undset.
Undset (1882–1949) won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature for her novels, primarily the historical trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, and the tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, sagas of life in medieval Norway.
Yet today, who has heard of her? Feminist critics, who might be expected to champion her, dislike her Catholicism. Catholic critics seem to have forgotten her. I myself am a Lutheran pietist. I first picked her books up out of historical curiosity, but I came to love her as I love Tolkien.
Sigrid Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, in 1882, the daughter of a Norwegian archaeologist. When she was only eleven, her father’s death plunged her family into poverty. There would be no university education for Sigrid, but rather a career as a secretary, a life she loathed. In her spare time, she educated herself and honed her writing talent.
Her first novel, Fru Marta Oulie (Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal, as it is styled for English-language readers), a tale of adultery, was published when she was twenty-five. It caused a scandal but made her reputation as a flaming young literary talent.
Her 1911 novel, Jenny, scandalized not only the bourgeoisie but the left as well. It tells the story of a career woman who has an affair and gives birth to a sickly baby, who dies. In despair, Jenny kills herself. Feminists found this story dangerously reactionary.
Like one of her own characters, Sigrid Undset followed her heart, confronted the consequences, and learned. Enabled by a government grant to live abroad, she began an affair in Rome with a married Norwegian painter, Anders Castus Svarstad. They married in 1912, after his divorce, and divorced in turn in 1919. By that time, they’d moved back to Norway, where their third child was born. Their second child, a daughter, was mentally handicapped. When Sigrid learned to her horror that Svarstad’s ex-wife had placed her children by him in an orphanage, Sigrid adopted them. One of these was also mentally handicapped. (Years later, when she received her Nobel Prize, she would donate the entire sum to children’s charities.)
But her greatest scandal was her conversion to Roman Catholicism.
The Greatest Scandal
Norway in the early twentieth century, with its Lutheran state church, was not a friendly place for Catholics.
Sigrid, however, relished a fight. Liberalized Lutheranism had no appeal. She’d grown increasingly disillusioned with feminism and modernism. Both the Communists and the Fascists had built their ideologies on corrupt pseudo-science. Evangelicals seemed indifferent to doctrinal truth, and in any case they made little art. In the medieval Church she saw a beauty and a peace she found nowhere else. She also relished the verities of Catholicism, its insistence on orthodox doctrine. She made it her project to portray the truths she’d discovered in literature—literature that would be unsparing in its moral realism.
The Wreath, the first novel in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, sounds at first blush like a garden-variety medieval romance. In the fourteenth century, a beautiful and headstrong young woman defies her parents’ wishes and rejects the dull boy they want her to marry. Instead she succumbs to a handsome knight with a shady past. The next two books, The Wife and The Cross, take us where romance seldom goes, far beyond the happily-ever-after scenario. As Kristin grows in wisdom and humility, she realizes that the kind of man who’ll seduce a betrothed girl is not likely to make a good husband. She becomes wise because she must, and humble because she’s not a fool.
For a taste of Undset’s prose, here’s a snippet from The Wreath. It describes the aftermath of a family tragedy:
The light dazzled Kristin as she stood in the courtyard. She thought that most of the day had passed while she sat in the dark winter house, but the buildings were light gray and the grass was shimmering, as glossy as silk in the white midday sun. Beyond the golden lattice of the alder thicket, with its tiny new leaves, the river glinted…. The mountainsides rose up in a clear blue haze, and the streams leaped down the slopes through melting snow. The sweet, strong spring outside made Kristin weep with sorrow at the helplessness she felt all around her.
Less well known is the four-book series The Master of Hestviken (The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger), about Olav Audunsson, a thirteenth-century Norwegian man.
Again, Undset subverts romantic tradition. Olav loves a girl, Ingunn, though their parents will not consent to their marriage. But when he returns from exile to find her seduced and pregnant, he kills her seducer. Then, contrary to law and custom, he keeps the killing secret, even from his confessor. He rationalizes that telling the truth would harm Ingunn’s reputation. Later he tells himself that his silence will protect the illegitimate son. But he learns—too late—that the losses they all suffered through his guilty silence and sourness of spirit outweighed any troubles the truth might have caused.
“I too was young then,” Olav went on, “not many years older than you are now, Cecilia. And ’twas not so grave a thing as this. My deed—I know not if it were a crime; myself I thought to have right on my side. But I concealed it. At first I thought, when the time came that I could do so, I would make confession, repent, and purge my sin. Now the time for that is long past. It has corrupted me, and all that I have touched and taken in my hands has been tainted with my corruption.”
(Translation by Arthur G. Chater)
Undset herself considered The Master of Hestviken the best of her works, and I’m not sure she wasn’t right.
How Sigrid Undset Synthesized History and Psychology
Sigrid Undset’s medieval books combine expert historical knowledge with profound psychological insight. In Kristin’s rebellion and reconciliation, we seem to trace some of the author’s own spiritual struggles. It looks very much as if in the wild days of her youth, when she was practicing “free love” in the approved “bohemian” style, she was in fact learning hard and painful spiritual lessons. In depicting Kristin’s errors in remorseless detail, Undset appears to be making a kind of public confession.
Kristin herself is the actual villain of the Trilogy, even as she is its heroine. The lesser villains, people who do wrong to her and others, receive the same sympathy she gets. A prime example is Sigrid’s husband, Erlend. He’s handsome and dashing, physically brave, and well-meaning. But Sigrid’s father, Lavrans, sees in Erlend what Kristin does not—he is a “weak boy” who will fail her in the end and leave her unsupported. Which is what happens. Ironically, the neighbor on whom she comes to depend for help is the very man she rejected as a girl. Happy endings are simply not for this world.
Sigrid Undset fled Norway during the German invasion in 1940. A fierce critic of the Nazis, she could guess what would have been her fate under the occupation. Even as she escaped toward the Swedish border, her oldest son, Arne, an officer in the Norwegian army, was killed in action. After a journey across Russia (which she found filthy and enervated) to Japan, she sailed to America, settling in Brooklyn Heights, New York. There she advocated for the Norwegian government in exile and pled the cause of Europe’s Jews. After the liberation in 1945, she returned to her home to Lillehammer, where she concentrated on writing a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, the fourteenth-century mystic who herself was a gifted prose stylist in her native Tuscan tongue. Undset’s biography was published posthumously. She died in June of 1949 and is buried in a nearby village.
There’s a popular saying on the left: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That applies just as well to Sigrid Undset, but from the obverse.
If she’d remained a well-behaved leftist, thinking the right thoughts and writing the right sorts of books, she might have an honored place in college curricula today. But the work she left behind would have been nothing so wonderful.
Sigrid Undset possessed courage of a rare and exalted sort: the courage to admit when one has been wrong and to convert, literally to “turn around.” What could be more relevant to our intemperate, impatient, and absolutist times than this passage from her wartime memoir, Return to the Future?
Patience is a maligned virtue, perhaps because it is the most difficult of all virtues to practice. It has been slandered, distorted, represented as something negative; the placid submission of the wronged and suffering to ruthless oppression and evil fate. It is in reality the virtue which has made it possible for man to win most of the lasting values he has achieved in this world: the courage to turn back when one sees that the way one has chosen does not lead to the chosen goal, but to something else.
About the Author
Lars Walker is a fantasy novelist and Norwegian translator. His latest book is The Elder King.