Sigrid Undset (UHN-seht) was born in 1882 to Ingvald Undset, a Norwegian archaeologist and college professor, and Charlotte Gyth, Danish daughter of the mayor of Kalundborg, Denmark, where Sigrid was born. The family lived there only two years before moving to Norway, where Ingvald Undset could be near museums and universities. Sigrid was a precocious child who readily gained appreciation for history through her father’s studies and her exposure to archaeological objects in the home. She was familiar with the Icelandic sagas, as well as classic writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. Sigrid was eleven when her father died, causing Sigrid, her mother, and her two sisters to adjust to reduced economic circumstances. Unable to afford a college education, she took a one-year secretarial course. Starting at age sixteen, she worked for ten years for an electrical engineering firm in Christiania (renamed Oslo in 1925). During those years of employment, she began writing for publication.
Undset met a Norwegian painter, Anders Castus Svarstad, in Rome. He was a married man with three children at the time. They had a three-year affair before he obtained a divorce. They married in 1912 and had three children of their own. Undset supervised a large household, which included her three stepchildren, as well as her children with Svarstad. It was not an easy time, as mental disability affected one of the stepchildren, as well as her middle child, a daughter. Her husband was not helpful in supporting or managing the family, and the couple separated in 1919. Then pregnant with her third child, Undset took her family to live at a farm outside Lillehammer. The marriage to Svarstad ended. There are many parallels between Undset’s married home life and that of her best-known fictional character, Kristin Lavransdatter. Two of Undset’s children predeceased her. Her mentally disabled daughter died just before World War II, and her eldest son was killed resisting the Nazi occupation of Norway in April, 1940. Norway’s postage stamp honoring Sigrid Undset features a portrait of her painted by Anders Svarstad.
Undset developed increasingly strong religious beliefs, culminating in her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1924. Once nominally Lutheran, she became convinced...
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