Sigrid Undset - Biographical
My father's family came from Østerdalen. The first ancestor of ours of whom anything at all was known was one Peder Halvorsen who, in 1730, lived in Grytdalen in the Sollien valley of the river Atna where some men from Østerdalen had been allowed to settle and farm the land. My father's folk remained there until my grandfather, Halvor Halvorsen, came to Trondhjem as a non-commissioned officer and became warden of a workhouse. He took the name of Undset from a hamlet in which my grandmother had lived when she became a widow.
My father, Ingvald Martin Undset, obtained his doctorate in 1881 with a thesis on The Beginnings of the Iron Age in Northern Europe. In the same year he married my mother, Charlotte Gyth of Kallundborg, whose family had, for some obscure reason, settled in Denmark toward the end of the eighteenth century. Since most of my father's life consisted of travelling to almost every part of Europe, he set up a temporary home at Kallundborg. It was there that, in 1882, I first saw the light of day - the eldest of three sisters. In 1884 my father moved to Norway to take up a post at the Museum of Antiquities which was attached to the University of Christiania. I was sent to a school run by Mrs. Ragna Nielsen because my father was already aware that his days were numbered, and he was anxious for me to acquire a good education and follow in his footsteps. Mrs. Nielsen's school was co-educational and heavily committed to progressive educational ideas. It played an important role in shaping my character, inspiring me with an indelible distrust of enthusiasm for such beliefs! It was not that I disliked Mrs. Nielsen or suspected her of not being so noble-minded or attached to her principles as she appeared to be. No, it was those very principles which filled me with boundless scepticism; I knew not why either then or for a long time afterwards. Many years later I was to find some kind of an answer in the words uttered by St. Augustine concerning the leader of the Donatists: «securus judicat orbis terrarum». At the time, however, my only reaction was to roll myself up into a tight ball of resistance and it was thus, hedgehog-wise, that I went through my school years.
My father died in 1893 and Mrs. Nielsen offered my mother free education for all of us three children. Then when I was about fourteen, a memorable thing happened. Mrs. Nielsen called me into an empty classroom and told me that though she would keep her promise to my mother, «You, dear Sigrid, show so little interest in the school and there are so many children who would dearly love to be in your place and enjoy a free education, that I am asking you now: are you sure you want to take your entrance examinations?» «No, thank you», was my reply. Mrs. Nielsen looked somewhat startled but all she said was, «Very well then, you must now decide about your future like a grown-up person». I am afraid that my behaviour that day was more akin to that of a small animal! Mrs. Nielsen was as good as her word where my sisters were concerned, but this was one of the few decisions in my life I have never regretted.
My mother had no choice but to send me to a commercial school in Christiania. I did not like it there but it had one great advantage over my old school; no one there expected me to like anything!
Later on, I went to work in an office and learned among other lessons to do things I did not care for, and to do them well. I remained there for ten years - from the age of 17 until I was 27. Before I left this office, two of my books had already been published - Fru Marte Oulie in 1907, and Den lykkelige alder (The Happy Age) in 1908. After leaving the office job, I went to Germany and Italy on a scholarship.
I have published a number of books since, my last two novels being set in the Middle Ages. They are Kristin Lavransdatter, which appeared in three volumes (192O-1922): Kransen (The Garland), Husfrue (The Mistress of Husaby), Korset (The Cross); and Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken (1925 ) [The Master of Hestviken] and its sequel Olav Audunssen og hans børn (1927) [Olav Audunssøn and his Children].
In 1912, I was married in Belgium to the Norwegian painter A. C. Svarstad. I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1924, and my marriage was then dissolved, since my husband had earlier been married to a woman who is still living. We have three children.
Since 1919, I have lived in Lillehammer.
Biographical note on Sigrid Undset
Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was forced by the Second World War and the Nazi invasion to leave her native Norway. She went to the United States but continued to support the resistance movement. After the war she returned to her country and received the Grand Cross of St. Olav for her writing and her patriotic endeavours. Her later works are determined by the experience of her religious conversion and are chiefly apologetic in character. Gymnadenia (1929) [The Wild Orchid], Den brænnende busk (1930) [The Burning Bush], Ida Elisabeth (1932), and Den trofaste hustru (1936) [The Faithful Wife] deal with contemporary subjects. Madame Dorothea (1939) is a historical novel. Her biography of Catherine of Siena was published posthumously in 1951. Sigrid Undset is the author of the autobiographical volumes, Etapper (1929 and 1933) [Stages on the Road] and Elleve aar (1934) [The Longest Years].
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Sigrid Undset died on June 10, 1949.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1928
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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.