Table of Contents
Early Life and Education
Sigrid Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark , and emigrated to Norway at the age of two, when her father received a post at the Museum of Antiquities which was attached to the University of Christiania. On account of her father’s interest in Antiquities, Sigrid learned about archeology, Norse sagas and Scandinavian folk songs from an early age. Due to her father’s early death, when she was 11, her family were not able to afford to send her to university.
After passing the intermediate school (Middelskole) examination, she took a one-year secretarial course, and, at the age of 16, got a job as secretary with a major German-owned engineering company in Kristiania (Oslo).
Whilst working, she began at the age of 16 to start writing in the evenings. She was influenced by Shakespeare, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the legends of King Arthur as well as the work of Scandinavian writers, such as Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Brandes. Having completed several manuscripts, she published her first novel – on Adultery – at the age of 25.
During the years up to 1919, Undset published a number of novels set in contemporary Kristiania. Her realistic period culminated in the novels Jenny in 1911 and Vaaren (Spring) in 1914. The first is about a woman painter who, as a result of romantic crises, believes that she is wasting her life, and in the end commits suicide. The other tells of a woman who succeeds in saving both herself and her love from a serious matrimonial crisis, finally creating a secure family.
Undset’s books sold well from the start, and after the publication of her third book, she quit the office job, and prepared to live on her income as a writer. Having been granted a writer’s scholarship, she set out on a lengthy journey to Denmark and Germany, and going to Italy, arriving in Rome in December 1909, where she remained for nine months.
Marriage and Religion
In 1912, she married the Norwegian painter A. C. Svarstad. They had three children together. She took care of his three children from his first marriage also. They settled in Lillehammer, Norway.
She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1924, induced by a crisis in faith after WWI and the difficulties of her marriage. Her marriage was dissolved as a result since her husband had been divorced before.In Norway Sigrid Undset’s conversion to Catholicism was not only considered sensational; it was considered scandalous, in particular since Norway was predominantly Lutheran.
During this period, Undset contributed to public debates on Women's Women's Suffrage of which she was critical, fearing for the moral decline that might ensue.
World War II
Sigrid Undset was forced by the Second World War and the Nazi invasion to leave Norway. She went to the United States but continued to support the resistance movement. After the war she returned to her country and received the Grand Cross of St. Olav for her writing and her patriotic endeavours. She donated her Nobel Prize on 25 January 1940 to the Finnish war effort.
She returned to Norway after the liberation in 1945, worn out. She lived for another four years, but she never wrote another word. Sigrid Undset died at the age of 67 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Kransen (The Garland), Husfrue (The Mistress of Husaby), Korset (The Cross); and Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken (1925 ) [The Master of Hestviken] and its sequel Olav Audunssen og hans børn (1927) [Olav Audunssøn and his Children].
Her best-known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a modernist trilogy about life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. The book was set in medieval Norway and was published from 1920 to 1922 in three volumes. Kristin Lavransdatter portrays the life of a woman from birth until death. Her later works are determined by the experience of her religious conversion and are chiefly apologetic in character. Gymnadenia (1929) [The Wild Orchid], Den braendende busk (1930) [The Burning Bush], Ida Elisabeth (1932), and Den trofaste hustru (1936) [The Faithful Wife] deal with contemporary subjects. Madame Dorothea (1939) is a historical novel. Her biography of Catherine of Siena was published posthumously in 1951. Sigrid Undset is the author of the autobiographical volumes, Etapper (1929 and 1933) [Stages on the Road] and Elleve aar (1934) [The Longest Years].