Reading Sigrid Undset Today

Seventy years ago Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At 46 she was one of the youngest authors and only the third woman to be so honored. As the decades have passed, it has become ever more evident that Undset’s talent as a novelist places her, along with George Eliot, as one of the only two women meriting a place in the pantheon of the world’s greatest writers. And to Undset herself goes surely the distinction of being the premier Catholic novelist of either gender in this century.

At the Nobel award ceremony in Stockholm, Par Hallstrom, a distinguished author in his own right and a member of the Swedish academy, praised her for her remarkable re-creation of medieval life in her two major works, Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, and for her profound insight into the “complex relations between men and women.” But Undset’s two masterworks explore matters far deeper than just the relationship between men and women. She is concerned with that ultimate relationship in life—that of man and woman to their God.

Even so, Hallstrom’s evaluation has stood the test of time admirably. Undset’s two powerful novels, translated into 17 languages shortly after their original publication, have remained in print in English since 1925 (for the trilogy Kristin) and 1930 (for the tetralogy The Master). Vintage Books, a division of Random House, recently brought out Kristen in paperback with handsome new covers. And Penguin Classics has issued its own edition with a new translation by Tina Nunnally (awarded a prize by the American Translators Association for her translation of the best-selling Danish thriller, Smilla’s Sense of Snow). The Vintage edition of Kristen has sold 100,000 copies since 1989, while The Master, a much less well-known work in this country, still has sold some 60,000 during the same period.

The Writer Emerges

Still, in recent decades the fashionable but decidedly unfortunate move away from religion and traditional values in American life, combined with Undset’s Catholicism, may have constituted something of a barrier to her works being treated in women’s studies programs or taken up by establishment critics. By all rights, Undset’s wonderfully vivid portrayal of women as strong, capable, complex beings would, one might have thought, make her writings eminently attractive to women of today. Possibly better than any other writer, she depicts women as tremendously capable in dealing with practical matters, while also exemplifying maternal virtues. It is worth noting that inquiries into women’s studies programs at Georgetown University and Harvard College drew complete blanks on her as a subject. Not only were Undset’s novels absent from every reading list, but they were literally unknown to a number of professors.

Undset’s own road to the Church was long, and in some ways it seems more understandable in contemporary terms than in those of her day. Her father was a respected Norwegian archaeologist and her mother, an educated and independent-minded woman from an affluent Danish family, assisted her husband as a secretary and illustrator. Both parents were atheists who brought up their three daughters to share their way of thinking. The mother was startlingly progressive for the 1880s, sending her girls to the first and only coeducational school in Oslo and dressing them in boys’ breeches beneath their skirts.

The Scandinavian countries were notorious for their rigid Protestantism; the population was often repressed and repressive in their social behavior. Undset’s beloved father died at 43 when she was only 11, but he had introduced her at a very young age to the Norse sagas that she soon precociously learned to read in Old Norse and Old Icelandic. The vision of the world presented in these stories was to mark her most celebrated fiction in years to come.

With her father’s death, the family was left with almost no resources. Undset refused a scholarship to a university to avoid being pigeonholed as a future teacher, a profession to which she felt no inclination. Undset wanted to be a painter, but she had no money to attend art school. Instead, at 15 her mother sent her to a commercial academy. A year later, her hair still in long pigtails, she went to work as a secretary at the German Electrical Company in Oslo. She found the position dull and disagreeable, but for ten years it enabled her to support her mother and two younger sisters until they were old enough to become self-supporting.

To alleviate the daily tedium, Undset took to writing in the evenings, essentially putting in 18-hour days. When she was 20, she mentioned in a letter to a Swedish friend that she was absorbed in writing a novel set in the Middle Ages. Two years later, she sent her manuscript—an early form of what she would develop into The Master of Hestviken—to a leading publishing house, Gyldendal, only to get a cold rejection. “Don’t try your hand at any more historical novels,” wrote editor Peter Hansen. “It’s not your line.” The editor did, however, encourage her to try her hand at a more contemporary subject: “One can never tell!” Undaunted and determined, Undset did write another novel, Mrs. Marta Oulie, set in modern-day Norway. She sent it to a different publisher, who promptly accepted it for publication. The opening sentence, “I have been unfaithful to my husband,” guaranteed that the novel would be talked about in literary circles. Two years later, perhaps to show the editor at Gyldendal she was indeed capable of writing an historical novel, she produced Gunnar’s Daughter, which was set at the beginning of eleventh-century Norway.

The swiftly paced, 150-page novel (which Penguin Classics has just issued this year) is a story of extraordinary passion and violence, all the more so for having been written by a 26-year-old office worker with little experience of the world. Drawing on her intimate knowledge of the ancient sagas, Undset situated her tale at a time when the country was emerging from paganism and Christianity was just beginning to make inroads into daily life.

Gunnar’s Daughter

The Story of Viga-Ljot and Vigdis, as the novel is titled in Norwegian, tells of how the lives of a bold Icelandic warrior and a beautiful, highborn Norwegian maiden become entwined. Their story, however, is anything but a conventional historical romance. The elements of the novel are accessible to the modern reader: rape and revenge, civil and domestic violence, a marriage in trouble, and children made victims because of their parents’ misunderstandings. As Undset wrote to a friend while working on her first novel, she wanted to re-create the world she had found in the sagas, but to write of them realistically, so that “everything that seems romantic from here—murder, violent episodes, etc., becomes ordinary—comes to life.” Her descriptions of battles at sea are as powerfully realistic and convincing as those that portray the natural tenderness of a mother with her young child. There is not a trace of sentimentality to be found anywhere in Gunnar’s Daughter, as indeed there is not in any of Undset’s later writing.

The world she creates comes to life with a rare intensity. Blood vengeance was commonplace in ancient Norse times. The right of revenge usually devolved to the victim’s male kin, but should there be no male heir, a woman could take it upon herself to avenge the deed. Norse women were trained in manly stoicism because the murder of loved ones was something to be expected, and they knew that one day they themselves might be called on to avenge the murder of kinsmen.

Proud Vigdis is attracted to the dashing Icelandic warrior Viga-Ljot, who stays as a guest at her father’s house, but when her father rejects him as a suitor because he doesn’t want his daughter to go off to live with him in Iceland, the young warrior rapes her in the woods and leaves. Pregnant, she bears a son in secret and sets the baby out to die. (Exposure of newborns was an accepted practice in those times, although abortion was looked upon with horror.) The infant is rescued and Vigdis reluctantly accepts him, even though it means confessing her shame to her father. When Viga-Ljot comes back a year later, asking her to return with him to Iceland, she savagely stabs him, laying a curse on him: “May you have the worst of deaths—and live long and miserably—you and all you hold dear.”

Two years later, a neighboring lord makes light of her virtue to her father, and the old man attacks him only to be mortally wounded. Vigdis ties on her skis and travels through the night to a cabin where the lord and one of his men are staying. She kills a sleeping servant with one blow of her dagger. Then she wakes the lord, telling him, “True, I have lost my honor, since I have come to you in bed,” and strikes him with her knife three times. “And the last time she did not draw it out, but let go of the haft and leaned forward to watch him die. She drew her hands through the blood that poured from him and dried them on his hair.” True Viking violence.

Back home, she recounts to her dying father what she has done. Gunnar says, “You have now shown yourself a brave and manly woman—as I once hoped you would prove.” Her father sends her and her son off to save their lives. From a distance, she watches her family home go up in flames. “Look well, boy, that you may never forget it,” she tells her son.

Vigdis displays prodigious courage and fortitude, skiing through the icy night with the small child clutched to her body.

Time passes. The boy grows to manhood. She tells him of his father; when the boy says he would like to meet him one day, she says, “If you take after him—and if you are a son of mine, the end of that meeting must be that you brought me Viga-Ljot’s head and laid it on my lap.” As inexorably as in a Greek tragedy, her curse and her wish come to pass.

Undset’s Faith

In light of the two masterworks to come from Undset—in which Christian belief is so essential to those stories and to herself being received into the Catholic faith 15 years later—her portrayal of Vigdis converting to Christianity mainly as a favor to a kindly monk is interesting. “She was not very zealous in the faith, for she had much to see to on her estate.” Vigdis lives on for another ten years. Her son having delivered his father’s head to her, he leaves her, saying, “If I live, I will surely come back some day.” But he never does. She dies alone, mourning, “I could not have hated him so long—it was the worst of all, that I would have loved him than any other man.”

Undset borrowed not only from the Norse sagas, but from Scandinavian ballads as well. At least 20 such ballads have come down to us that recount tales of rape—though certainly not as Undset presents it—or attempted rape of a maiden, a theme not to be found in any of the sagas. Vigdis’s rage and fury at her rape and her anguish during her pregnancy and solitary childbirth are completely comprehensible in modern terms. Although the custom of leaving a newborn to die may have been very much part of the culture of those distant centuries, Vigdis’s angry desperation at her child’s birth is echoed even today in recent accounts we have seen on the evening news.

Viga-Ljot may have brutally taken advantage of Vigdis, but Undset makes the character of this rugged warrior understandable, even sympathetic. She shows how he had had earlier evidence of Vigdis’s interest in him. They had met alone in the woods together, kissed, and fondled on more than one occasion. More than once he told her he wanted to marry her. Even 20 years later, he tells her she is the only woman he has really loved. He admires her for her strength and courage, even when they are directed against him. But for Vigdis, justice is more important than love. Nominal Christian though she may be, her spirit is still anchored in the pagan world, far from the notions of forgiveness or yielding to a greater spiritual power.

Vigdis herself pays a terrible price for exacting her vengeance—dying alone without the presence of her only child or, more importantly, the comfort and support of dying in the faith. In a kind of terrible irony, Undset herself was to die in 1949, alone, in the middle of the night, and without the last rites of the Church. Her stoic nature had kept her from seeking any medical aid until it was too late. Of her three children by a talented if somewhat feckless artist (who may have inspired the character of Erland in Kristin Lavransdatter); the eldest died defending Norway against the Nazi invasion, a mentally handicapped daughter died at 20, and the youngest, a boy who accompanied his mother across Russia and Japan to the United States during the Second World War, seemed to have dropped completely out of her life.

Undset’s Life

In an age when the most intimate details of the lives of virtually all celebrity figures are spread throughout the press and across television screens, it is surprising to discover how little we actually know of Undset’s life. She wrote a memoir of her childhood in 1934, an account of her flight from Norway in 1942, and a memoir for children, Happy Times in Norway, published in English translation in 1942. For Twentieth Century Authors, published in 1940 at the height of the Russian invasion of Finland and only a few brief weeks before the Nazis crossed into Norway, Undset sent an autobiographical sketch to the editors. In an accompanying letter she wrote, “I have always hated publicity about myself. But as things are looking here in Fenno-Scandia at present—we may all be swallowed up and deported somewhere in Siberia by the Russian aggressors if Finland doesn’t get the necessary support in her fight for independence—I have come to the conclusion that I may just as well tell something about myself whilst I can.”

Of her marriage she speaks only of marrying a man with three children and soon having three of her own. Concerning her journey to the Catholic faith, she notes that “the war (World War I) and the years afterwards confirmed the doubts I always had about the ideas I was brought up on—(I felt) that liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is.” Simply and eloquently, Undset describes her coming to Catholicism as the arrival at her spiritual home:

By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness—his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace. Now it occurred to me that there might possibly be some truth in the original Christianity.

But if you desire to know the truth about anything, you always run the risk of finding it. And in a way we do not want to find the Truth—we prefer to seek and keep our illusions. But I had ventured too near the abode of truth in my researches about ‘God’s friends,’ as the Saints are called in the Old Norse texts of Catholic times. So I had to submit. And on the first of November, 1924, I was received into the Catholic Church.

Both Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken detail the long, often difficult lifelong road of the two eponymous protagonists, each equally strong-willed, to submit to a higher power and attain their final salvation. Given the torn fabric of our culture today, a fabric marked by so much that is ugly, wrong-headed, and destructive, Undset’s world, where values really matter, gives us a welcome opportunity for spiritual renewal.


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