Born In: Kalundborg, Denmark
Died On: 10 June 1949
Career: Novelist, Activist, Nobel Laureate
Known as one of the most widely acclaimed Norwegian writer of her times, Sigrid Undset was known to have combined her knowledge of the history and her talent for writing. Her most noted work, the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, is a modernist’s take on life in Scandinavia during the middle ages. This is also the work of hers that earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. She was highly hailed as a modernist writer and explored themes like stream of consciousness, which is rather typical of her contemporaries all over the world. Born to a distinguished archeologist, she took an active interest in the history of Europe and was at home at the seat of European historical pride, Rome. Kristin Lavransdatter, in fact, maps the life of a woman from birth to death. In fact, Nobel Prize wasn’t the only way in which she was honoured – a crater on the planet Venus was named after her and she has featured in Norwegian as well as Swedish postage stamps.
Sigrid was born to an archeologist father, Ingvald Martin Undset and a homemaker for a mother named Charlotte Gyth; she was the oldest of the three daughters that the couple had. She was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, which was her mother’s birthplace. When she was two years old, the family moved to Norway permanently, since her father was facing an illness that was consuming him. This illness, however, did not prevent him from sharing his extensive knowledge on history with his oldest daughter. She was raised on a good share of Norse sagas and Scandinavian folk songs and legends. Undset was all of eleven when her father died at the age of forty, as he couldn’t survive the illness. This left her, her mother and her two younger sisters to support each other on very slim means. This loss had a profound impact on the whole family, especially Sigrid as she saw her academic dreams had to be sacrificed for supporting the family. Abandoning all hopes of being able to go to university for higher studies, after she cleared the intermediate school examination, she enrolled into a one-year secretarial course, which, at the tender age of sixteen, landed her a job as secretary with a large German-owned engineering company in Kristiania (known now as Oslo). There was no option for her but to earn money to help her mother and her two younger sisters. This job, though it lasted ten long years and earned her position of trust in the firm, was one of her pet peeves and made her feel wasted as it left her absolutely no time to pursue what was her first love – writing.
Since working at the office took up most of her time during the week, Sigrid would stay up late at night to write or wait till the weekends to be able to relax and pursue her writing. She wanted to write a novel set in the Nordic middle Ages, but struggled with the subject of such a novel. At the same time, she extensively read every kind of literature that she could chance upon, from Norwegian writers to English literature of the time of Shakespeare. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were just as attracted to her just as much as the modernist and iconoclastic works of Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg or the feminist writings of The Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. At the age of twenty-two, she was ready with the manuscript of what would be her first novel, which was set in Medieval Denmark and clearly belonged to the romantic school of thought. It’s very opening sentence scandalized the reader – “I have been unfaithful to my husband” – which were spoken by the protagonist of the novel. A keen observer of human idiosyncrasies, she took another four years to come up with another novel Jenny, which is about a promising artist, a painter, who commits suicide when she finds her life wasted after a romantic crisis.
Though she was not born there; Sigrid had a close relationship with Rome; she was to be born there while her parents lived there in 1882. Just before she was born, however, her father illness became extremely serious and her parents had to travel north in haste, and settle down at Kalundborg, where she was born. When she visited Rome during 1909, she met Anders Castus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter, with whom she was to get married about two or three years later. Though she was almost 30 then, most likely, he was the first man she had ever loved and wanted to marry. Svarstad was nine years older to her, married and had three children of his own in Norway. The two seem to have made a good pair instantly, though it took Svarstad nearly three years to wrap up his divorce to his first wife.
The two got married in 1912, and went to stay in London for the first six months of their marriage. Once there, Svarstad resumed his painting, while Undset began to develop a newfound interest in English arts and literature, which, it is said, were to bring into her life a decisive and momentous change. When Sigrid was carrying their first child, they returned to Rome, where she gave birth to a baby boy in January 1913. This baby boy was named after his father.
As can be expected out of a woman, marriage and children meant a lot to Sigrid, who loved spending her time with her children or taking care of the household. However, to the artist in Sigrid, it was binding and seemed to affect her creativity. Till the two got divorced in 1919, Sigrid was to take care of the whole house full of two of her own children from him and also the children that he had from the first marriage, which must have been quite a daunting task for Sigrid. She had to cope with two mentally challenged children, one daughter of her own, and one son of Svarstad’s. When, in 1919, she was carrying their third child, Sigrid moved to Lillehammer in southeast Norway, taking her two children with her. The idea was that she should take a rest at Lillehammer and move back to Kristiania as soon as Svarstad had their new house in order. This, however, was not to be as their marriage began to break down and after the birth of her third child in 1919, she made Lillehammer her home, which was also the place where she completed the most celebrated work in her career as a writer – the Kristin Lavransdatter
Though she was brought up by atheist parents and remained a secular agnostic for most of her life, she turned to Roman Catholicism in the later part of her life. She was also an active critic of Hitler and the Nazi regime and when Germany invaded Norway in 1940, she was forced to flee. She even lost her oldest son to the invasion, as he was a Second Lieutenant in the Norwegian Army. She returned to Norway in 1945 after it was freed, and stayed until her death in 1949.
1882: Sigrid Undset was born
1893: Her father died, succumbing to illness
1898: Quit school and began working as a secretary for an office
1904: Published Fru Marta Oulie, a novel about an unfaithful wife
1911: Published Jenny, a novel about a painter who commits suicide
1914: Published Vaaren about a woman overcoming a serious matrimonial crisis
1909: Visited Rome following her parents’ footsteps, where she met Anders Castus Svarstad
1912: Married Svarstad and moved with him to London
1913: Gave birth to her first child with Svarstad
1919: Separated from Svarstad, started work on Kristin Lavransdatter
Between 1920 and 1927: Published the three volume of Kristin and four volumes of Olav
1924: Was received into Catholicism
1928: Received the Nobel Prize for Kristin
1934: Published Eleven Years Old, her autobiography
1940: Forced to flee and go into exile, after Germany invaded Norway
1945: Returned to Norway after it was liberated
1949: Sigrid Undset died at the age of 67.