Childhood & Early Life
Sigrid Undset was born on May 20, 1882 in Kalundborg, Denmark. Her father, Ingvald Martin Undset, was a Norwegian archeologist, who used to travel all over Europe in connection with his work. In course of this travel he went to Rome, where he met Sigrid’s mother Charlotte and got married.
Sigrid was born in her mother’s childhood home in Kalundborg. She was the eldest child among her parents’ three daughter. In 1889, when Sigrid was two years old, the family moved back to Norway due to her father’s illness. There they settled at Kristiania, now known as Oslo.
At Kristiania, Ingvald Martin Undset took up a job at the Museum of Antiquity. He knew that his days were numbered. He was intensely interest in history; his doctoral thesis being ‘The Beginnings of the Iron Age in Northern Europe’. He now tried to instill in little Sigrid his passion for history.
She was at first sent to a school run by one Mrs. Ragna Nielsen. It was a coeducational school and was committed to progressive educational ideas. However, little Sigrid did not like the atmosphere there and mentally resisted every move.
Her father died in 1893. The loss resulted in a financial turmoil for the family. Mrs. Ragna Nielsen offered to educate the three sisters free of cost. But at the age of 14, Sigrid decided to opt out and joined a commercial school.
Although Ingvald Martin Undset wanted his eldest daughter to follow his footstep the family’s financial situation did not allow for university education. Therefore, after passing out from school at 16, Sigrid undertook secretarial course for one year.
After completing her course, she joined an engineering company as a secretary and served the company for 10 years.
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Although Undset could not fulfill her father’s aspiration due to financial constraints she tried to accomplish it another way. While working at the office she began to study history and wrote a historical novel set up in medieval Denmark. She was 22 years old by the time it was complete; but could not find any publisher for it.
Wiser now, she took up contemporary Kristiania as her next theme. In 1907, she wrote an eighty page novel titled ‘Fru Marta Oulie’. The book is about a middle class woman who had been unfaithful to her husband. The book created a stir and very soon she began to be counted as a promising author.
In 1908, she published another book titled ‘Den Lykkelige Alder’ (The Happy Age). This book was also set in contemporary Kristiania and was well received. It was followed by several others on the same theme. Most of these novels were about working women; about their love life and their family relationship.
In 1909, Sigrid Undset left her office job. She then received a writer’s scholarship and went on a long trip, making short breaks at Denmark and Germany. She ultimately reached Rome in the month of December. It was the same city where her parents had met and she tried to retrace their footsteps.
She stayed at Rome for nine months. There she met many artists and writers of Scandinavian origin. Her would-be husband Anders Castus Svarstad was one of them. ‘Jenny’, which is considered to be her literary breakthrough, was written during that period and was published in 1911.
In 1912, she married Svarstad and lived in London and Rome before returning to Norway. In 1919, while she was carrying her third child Undset went to live in Lillehammer for a short period with her two children.
However, with the breakdown of her marriage, she decided to settle at Lillehammer for good. Within two years she had a large house of traditional Norwegian timber architecture built. Named ‘Bjerkebæk’, it became her home until the German aggression in 1940.
Undset now had time and opportunity to fulfill her father’s aspirations. In 1919, she started her famous historical trilogy ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’. The last volume was published in 1922.
Born to atheist parents she had been an agnostic till now. However, the First World War and the breakdown of her marriage created a crisis of faith in her. Two years later in 1924, she embraced Christianity and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
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Soon enough, she embarked on her next project. Written in four volumes ‘Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken’ and ‘Olav Audunssøn og Hans Børn’ were published from 1925 to 1927.
From 1929, she again started writing on contemporary Norway, especially its capital Kristiania. All these works contained string Roman Catholic elements. At the same time, she also published a few historical works and also translated quite a few Icelandic historical sagas into Norwegian language.
In 1934, she published an autobiographical work, ‘Eleven Years Old’. It depicts the first eleven years of her life. Later she started on a new historical novel set in 18th century Scandinavia. However, she could publish only the first volume ‘Madame Dorthea’ before the Second World War erupted.
Since early 1930s, Undset had strongly criticized Hitler and so When Germany invaded Norway, she along with her younger son fled to Sweden, which was neutral in the war. While her eldest son joined Norwegian army her daughter had by then passed away. Later in 1940, they left Sweden for the United States of America.
While living in exile, she tirelessly worked for the cause of the European Jews and also for the countries occupied by Axis forces through her writings and speeches. ‘Return to the Future’ (1942), and ‘Happy Times in Norway’ (1942) are two of her memorable works of this period. .
Sigrid Undset is best remembered for her trilogy ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’. Set in 14th century Norway, the book consists of three individual novels; ‘Kransen’ (The Wreath, 1920), ‘Husfrue’ (The Wife, 1921) and ‘Korset’ (The Cross, 1922).
The main protagonist of these novels is a woman called Kristin Lavransdatter. Undset portrayed the life in the Middle Age Norway through her experiences. The accuracy of her portrayal comes mainly from her study of Norse literature and culture, into which she had been initiated in her childhood by her father.
’Olav Audunssønn’ is another of her well-known work. Published in four volumes from 1925 to 1927, these books were set in Roman Catholic Norway. Very soon, the book was translated into English as ‘The Master of Hestviken’ and the English version was first published from 1928 to 1930.
Awards & Achievements
In 1928, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by the Swedish Academy. She was nominated by Norwegian psychologist and educationalist Helga Kristine Eng for her historical trilogy ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’.
In 1909 while staying in Rome, Sigrid Undset met Norwegian painter Anders Castus Svarstad. Since he was already married and had three children they had to wait until he could obtain his divorce.
Ultimately, the couple married in 1912 and had their first baby in 1913. Later they also had two more children, but separated before the last child was born. Ultimately, they divorced in 1927.
The couple’s eldest child, a son, was named after his father. He later joined the Norwegian armed forces and died in action in 1940 at the age of 27 fighting against the Germans in the Second World War.
Their second child was a daughter. She was disabled and died shortly before the outbreak of the war. Only the third child, a son, accompanied her to her self-imposed exile to the USA.
She came back from her exile in 1945 fully exhausted. She lived for four more years in Lillehammer, but did not take up her pen any more. Ultimately, she died on June 10, 1949 at the age of 67. She was buried beside her children in the village of Mesnali, 15 kilometers east of Lillehamme.