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Sigrid Undset (UHN-seht) was the daughter of Ingvald Martin Undset, a distinguished Norwegian archaeologist, and Anna Charlotte Gyth from the Danish town of Kalundborg. As a child, Sigrid lived with her mother’s family while her father conducted research in Mediterranean countries. When he became a lecturer at the University of Norway, the family moved to Christiania (now Oslo), where two additional daughters were born. Undset was deeply influenced by her father’s work and applied his scientific rigor to an exploration of medieval culture in Norway. She was educated at a private academy under the direction of the considerate Fru Ragna Nielsen, who permitted Sigrid and her sisters to remain at the school after their father died and financial resources were limited. Despite the expectations of her mother and instructors, Undset had little interest in a university education; she preferred a career as a painter. She enrolled in a business school, however, in order to help support her family.

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For ten years, Undset held a clerical position, which, although monotonous, gave her considerable insight into working-class women and their family and social relationships, material that she began to use for short stories and her first novel. During these years as an office worker, her study of Scandinavian folklore became more intense, and she wrote a novel based on Norse legends. However, it was not until the publication of Jenny in 1911 that Undset received widespread recognition as a compelling novelist. The success of this novel allowed her to commit herself to a writer’s career.

In 1912 she married A. C. Svarstad, a Norwegian painter with three children from a previous marriage. Undset and Svarstad had three children together, but after ten years together they agreed to a separation as Undset became more and more imbued with Roman Catholicism. She was convinced that the only true visionaries of history were the Christian saints. Because her husband had married her while divorced, Undset’s marriage was annulled by the Roman Catholic Church, which she joined as a convert from Lutheranism in 1924.

During the following decade, Undset’s greatest books were published. The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross became the famous trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, issued as a single volume in 1929. This signature work is often considered a timeless masterpiece, and it has been translated into several languages. In 1928 Undset received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy recognized her intimate knowledge of medieval laws, culture, and history, majestically portrayed as a powerful continuity of life; they also noted her ability to weigh the civilizations of the past against those of the present, especially with regard to human fortitude and spirituality. Undset’s other magnum opus is The Master of Hestviken, a tetralogy set in the Middle Ages. This collection comprises The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger.

Undset remained a prolific writer throughout the 1930’s; numerous short stories, essays, memoirs, historical studies, and contemporary novels were published with regularity until the outbreak of World War II. Chief among these are Saga of Saints and Men, Women, and Places. Much of her later writing reinforces her deep and abiding attachment to Roman Catholicism. Because she was a strong advocate of religious and racial tolerance, the German Nazi propaganda criticized her ideas. Nevertheless, she remained in Norway and volunteered as a government censor until her oldest son was killed during the defense of Norway during the German invasion. She escaped through Sweden with her younger son (her daughter had died a few years before) and made her way to the United States, where she lived through the war years, giving occasional lectures.

Upon her return to Norway, King Haakon VII bestowed upon her the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav, making her the first woman commoner to receive such an honor. In her final years, Undset lived quietly at Lillehammer in a house dating back to Viking times until she died after suffering a paralytic stroke. She collected old lace and other Norse antiques and spent much of her time contemplating those aspects of Norwegian history that amplify the preoccupations and revelations of womanhood.


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Sigrid Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, on May 20, 1882. Her father, Ingvald Undset, a famous Scandinavian archaeologist, had reacted against the provincial surroundings of his rural boyhood at sterdal in Norway and the confining atmosphere of Norwegian Lutheranism. Undset’s beautiful and intellectual mother, Anna Charlotte Gyth, had been reared by an indulgent Danish aunt and retained both the air of a grande dame and a rationalistic outlook after her marriage to Ingvald Undset, already not a well man. Not surprisingly, Sigrid Undset received only perfunctory religious training as a child.

In 1884, the Undsets moved to Christiania (now Oslo), where Undset’s liberal parents allowed her to follow her own precocious interests. Her father’s illness often shadowed the childhood memories she recorded in The Longest Years, which ends at his death when she was eleven, but her home was filled constantly with the atmosphere of the Middle Ages. She often read aloud to her father from medieval texts, perhaps only half understanding but wholly spellbound by the stern power and the splendor of Old Norse poetry, as in the Hávar#x00F0;ar Saga, which she read to him the day before he died:

Drag Þú mér af hendihring enn rau#x00F0;a,faer Þú enni enguIngibjorgu.Sá mun hennihugfastr tregi,er ek eigi kemtil Uppsala.(Draw from my armthe ring so red,carry it backto Ingibjorg.It will be to hera deep-set grief,when I return notto Uppsala.)

At sixteen, Undset began to support herself and her family. Her ten years in an Oslo office made her familiar at first hand with the day-to-day struggles of ordinary women. She educated herself by reading voraciously, not only of Norway’s past but also of the history of all Western Europe; in addition, she read widely in English literature. Her first literary attempt, a long medieval novel that later evolved into The Master of Hestviken, was rejected, and she turned to the problems of modern women, opening Fru Marta Oulie with the theme of marital conflict that she never abandoned in her fiction: “I have been unfaithful to my husband.”

The first phase of Undset’s literary activity extended through World War I as she unflinchingly portrayed women torn between their desire for independence and their yearning to be fulfilled in love and marriage. In 1912, she had married the divorced artist Anders C. Svarstad in Belgium. Despite his impetuosity, he was highly sensitive to color and artistic technique, a quality he shared with Undset. While rearing their three children and Svarstad’s three from his former marriage, Undset wrote continuously, describing herself occasionally as “a bad housewife” and criticizing the egotistic materialism of the times that led to the evasion of responsibility. She saw the unwed, self-sufficient woman as abnormal: “A woman can become nothing better than a good mother, and nothing much worse than a bad one.” The moral position she was developing by 1918 depended on woman’s traditional role: “The normal human beinghas always had a central shrine, the fireside of his home, and from there he has kindled all his altar-fires.”

As she worked on her great medieval novels, Undset was increasingly drawn to the altar of the Roman Catholic Church, which she already considered in 1918 “the bearer of those ideals which cannot die.” Her marriage was disintegrating under insurmountable stresses, and in 1925, shortly before her formal conversion, it was annulled: “I had nothing else to do butask to be instructed in all that the Catholic Church taught as true.”

Between the two world wars, Undset firmly fixed her criticism of contemporary culture on her religious ideals. Many commentators feel the fiction she wrote during this time was impaired by her attempts to solve all human problems through the Catholic faith alone, but her essays reveal a concurrent preoccupation with the incommensurability of God and humans, the basic theme of all of her writing. By 1938, she was also able to acknowledge and praise D. H. Lawrence’s recognition of “the consequences of the mechanisation of our existence—a slow death from the loss of our vital warmth.”

Nazism for Undset was only one manifestation of that menace, and in her last novel, Madame Dorthea, she concentrated on the eighteenth century in the rationalistic spirit she had inherited from her mother. On her way to the United States during World War II, Undset traveled across the Soviet Union, which she later assessed as “a nationalist and imperialist stateunder the thumb of Josef Stalin.” One of Undset’s last works was the deceptively childlike memoir Happy Times in Norway, a celebration of traditional, home-centered Norwegian culture. Upon Undset’s death in 1949, she was hailed as a Christian universalist, a relentless enemy of pseudoliberalism and irresponsible individualism.

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