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,...
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