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.)

Selma Lagerlöf Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Swedish literature was following the lead of the realistic movement. The style and subject matter had been set by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Émile Zola, and serious artists were seeking ways to express the latest scientific discoveries in literary form. Into this cultural situation came a woman whose sensibility had been shaped by the folk legends of agrarian Sweden and who was not at all concerned with demonstrating scientific truths in literature. With The Story of Gösta Berling, Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf (LAH-gur-lurv) began a long career as Sweden’s leading Romantic novelist.

One of a large family, Selma, born at Mårbacka on November 20, 1858, was a sickly child. At the age of three she was stricken with a disease, possibly poliomyelitis, that left her lame for the rest of her life. Unable to play with the other children, she read all the books on her father’s large estate and absorbed the folk legends of Värmland from her grandmother and the servants. At fifteen she began to write poetry; at twenty-two she went to Stockholm to study for a teaching career. In 1882 she entered the Royal Women’s Superior Training Academy and in 1885 began teaching at a girls’ school at Landskroiva in Skåne.

Thinking about the legends of her Värmland home, in 1890 she began writing The Story of Gösta Berling in her spare time. She reworked the material many times, even experimenting with a poetic version,...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Selma Lagerlöf Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf was born on November 20, 1858, at Mårbacka in Värmland, Sweden. Her parents, both members of aristocratic families, had moved to the estate of Mårbacka after Selma’s father, Lieutenant Erik Gustav Lagerlöf, had failed to inherit the important post of Regimental Paymaster from his father. Lieutenant Lagerlöf became a gentleman farmer with many progressive ideas, few of which proved practical. Lack of success at farming seemed relatively unimportant to the Lieutenant, who, according to various memoirs, was a true son of the gay-hearted Värmland gentry. Among other celebrations held at Mårbacka, Lieutenant Lagerlöf’s annual birthday party, enlivened by pageants, theatricals, poetry recitations, dancing, and singing, became a social affair famous throughout the province. Adolph Noreen, later a noted philologist, attended some of these holiday affairs at Mårbacka and remembers how Lieutenant Lagerlöf, in his office as host, made everyone feel “what an unspeakable happiness [it was] just to live!” Selma herself, as her fiction widely attests, shared this exuberant perspective. Her father’s character plays a part in her creation of the cavaliers in Gösta Berling’s Saga.

As a child, the future writer was more aware of such doings than other children because she was more observer than participant. At the age of four, the little girl had been stricken by a paralysis that left her lame, although she regained the ability to walk. The special care dictated by her condition allowed her to ripen her natural inclination for intellectual and imaginative pursuits. Lagerlöf later noted that the greatest sorrow of her childhood came with the death of her grandmother, who, as she remembered, had told her stories “from morning until evening.” Other family members, particularly a sister of Lagerlöf’s father, were also gifted storytellers.

Tales told from memory and read aloud at night—from local legend, from Hans Christian Andersen, and from Scandinavian sagas—were the essence of Selma Lagerlöf’s early education; neither she nor her sister attended school. By early adolescence, Lagerlöf had determined that she would be a writer. During...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Selma Lagerlöf Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)
ph_0111228242-Lagerlof.jpg Selma Lagerlöf Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf (LAH-gur-lurv) was born at Mårbacka in Värmland, Sweden, on November 20, 1858, the daughter of Lieutenant Erik Gustav Lagerlöf, member of a landed family, and Louisa Wallroth Lagerlöf, whose father was a well-off ironmonger. Selma was the fourth of five children. The large Lagerlöf household also included an aunt and a beloved grandmother, who was always telling stories to the children gathered around her. Although Selma was only five when her grandmother died, she was to write of that loss as the profoundest sorrow of her life.

At three, Selma was struck by what was probably infantile paralysis. For some months, she was unable to walk, and despite two periods of therapy in...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Selma Lagerlöf Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Selma Lagerlöf broke free of the literary conventions of her era to write works that she believed reflected country life as she knew it. Her rural characters may depend for their survival on hard work in the everyday world, but they are keenly aware of the power of the unseen, the supernatural, the spiritual.The lasting popularity of Lagerlöf can be attributed in part to her skill as a storyteller, as seen in her accuracy in the minutest matters, in her adeptness in plotting, and in her ability to develop vivid characters. Her works are also valued because of their underlying optimism. When many writers lament that life is meaningless, it is refreshing to read about human beings who, despite their shortcomings, can be transformed...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Selma Lagerlöf Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Lagerlöf was born on November 20, 1858, on her family’s farm estate, Mårbacka, in the province of Värmland, Sweden. She was tutored at...

(The entire section is 499 words.)