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.
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...
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