Selma Lagerlöf Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Lagerlöf was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1909) and the first woman to be elected to the Swedish Academy (1914). During her lifetime, she was loved throughout the world because of both her gift for storytelling and her idealism, which was a welcome change from the pessimistic realism dominating her period. Since her death, she also has been increasingly recognized as a preserver of the folkways and traditions of rural Sweden.

Early Life

Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf was born at Mårbacka in rural Värmland, Sweden, on November 20, 1858, the fourth of five children. Her father, a navy officer, and her mother often read to the children, old sagas, for example, and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. From travelers, from workmen, from an old housekeeper, from an aunt, and above all, from her grandmother, Lagerlöf heard folktales and legends told with such convincing detail that the children could not deny their truth.

When she was three, Lagerlöf was paralyzed, evidently by an attack of infantile paralysis. Although she later became able to walk again, she was lame throughout her life. In an attempt to find a cure, she was sent for two winters to relatives in Stockholm. There she saw the world of power and fashion, so unlike Mårbacka; there, too, in her uncle’s library, she discovered the great romantic writer Sir Walter Scott, whose fascination with the lives and the traditions of humble rural people may well have influenced Lagerlöf’s own attitudes toward the rich material of Mårbacka.

From the age of seven, Lagerlöf had intended to be a writer. When her father died, leaving only debts, which eventually necessitated the sale of her beloved Mårbacka, Lagerlöf’s road to higher education was blocked. It was a chance encounter with the feminist Eva Fryxell which sent Lagerlöf on to school. After Fryxell heard one of Lagerlöf’s occasional poems read at a wedding, Fryxell advised the talented young girl to become enrolled in a teachers’ college. It was during her time there, when Lagerlöf was twenty-two, that she suddenly found her material: the stories of Värmland that she had heard in childhood and, in particular, the saga of the Värmland cavaliers. She worked on this story at first tentatively, then, settling into a poetic prose that was very different from the popular analytical, realistic style, she knew that she had found her voice. During her final years at college and her first years in the classroom, Lagerlöf continued work on the cavaliers’ story. In 1890, she submitted five closely related chapters in a novella contest and won first prize for her entry. As a result, a patron and friend arranged for her to have a year’s leave of absence from teaching. During that time, Lagerlöf completed Gösta Berlings Saga (1891; The Story of Gösta Berling, 1898; also as Gösta Berling’s Saga, 1918), the novel that brought her popular and critical success.

Life’s Work

Gösta Berlings Saga was the story of a group of appealing but rascally rogues led by a defrocked pastor, Gösta Berling. These rogues have descended upon Ekeby Manor as permanent guests, to the dismay of the mistress of the manor, who believes in hard work, frugality, and responsibility. Like an epic, the work develops episodically; each of the twenty-three chapters relates a different adventure. The work is unified, however, by the central conflict between the free spirits, directed by the devil, and the strong woman, who must order her world.

Even though the public liked the work, critics carped about the fanciful material and the poetic style, which suggested a return to Romanticism, which had become thoroughly unpopular. Not until two years after the publication of the novel, when the influential Danish critic Georg Brandes wrote a review praising it, was Lagerlöf’s reputation really established in her native country. The next year, a collection of short stories sold well, and, in 1895, Gösta Berlings Saga went into a second edition. Now Lagerlöf could quit her teaching job and devote herself to her chosen profession.

With a stipend from King Oscar II, Lagerlöf was able to travel, and, as she went through Europe, to Italy, and later to Jerusalem, she was always alert to ideas for future works. In Italy, she heard a story about peasants’ veneration of a counterfeit figure, and the result was her second novel, Antikrists mirakler (1897; The Miracles of Antichrist, 1899). In 1897, she moved to Dalecarlia, an area near Värmland; there she was told of a group of peasants who the preceding year had become convinced that the end of the world was at hand, had sold all of their belongings, and had moved to Jerusalem, where many of them had died. Curious about the episode, Lagerlöf traveled to Jerusalem with her best friend, Sophie Elkan, and interviewed the survivors. The result was a two-volume work, Jerusalem I:I Dalarne (1901; Jerusalem, 1915) and Jerusalem II:I det heliga landet (1902; The Holy City: Jerusalem II, 1918).

While she was writing these complex works, Lagerlöf was also bringing forth simpler short novels as well as collections of short stories, perhaps the most popular of which was Kristuslegender (1904; Christ Legends, 1908), a collection of stories about Christ, which brought Lagerlöf to the attention of Americans. In 1906, she ventured into children’s literature at the request of the Swedish National Teachers’ Society, who hoped with her help to interest children in Swedish geography and...

(The entire section is 2334 words.)