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Sigrid Undset in this Vale of Tears

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 19, 2008

Sigrid Undset (1882 – 1949) is regarded by many to have been the greatest novelist who ever lived. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 primarily for her signature work, Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy focused on the life of a Catholic woman in medieval Scandinavia. Undset herself had converted to Catholicism in 1924. From a few years before her conversion until her death at age 67, she strove to make the deepest realities transparent to the world as only a fully-committed Catholic can.

In a 1999 article in Crisis, Helen Alvare, a former director in the USCCB’s pro-life secretariat, had this to say about Undset and her great novel: “Any young woman under my influence will get a copy of Kristin to read the day she turns 16. And every young woman to whom I have recommended Kristin in the past year has reacted to it as if she had discovered a new world.” The reason is that the novel

demonstrates — no, that's not strong enough — it makes us feel the relationship between our sexual selves and the rest of our lives, powerfully, and that is exactly what's needed to challenge current prevailing attitudes, which can be summed as: “As long as it's consensual, what I do sexually is nobody's business.”

Undset the Novelist

Kristin Lavransdatter concerns the life of a headstrong young woman who falls passionately in love with a married nobleman, eventually conspiring with him to kill his wife, and then marrying him. She gradually perceives her wrong, does penance and struggles to raise a proper family, learning to cope with her husband’s weaknesses, and ultimately helping her community through the Black Death. Kristin suffers much in the dark unraveling of her sin, but through it she finds meaning and redemption. The trilogy is not for the faint-hearted; none of Undset’s work is. But it is a masterful portrayal of human experience, including spiritual experience, which leads ultimately through temptations and trials to self-understanding, wholeness and Christ. Without displaying the least didacticism (the bane of so many would-be moral writers), Undset captures in a single dramatic story everything that is most important about a purposeful life.

The same is true of her other great work, The Master of Hestviken. A tetralogy (four books making up a single novel), Master focuses on the life of Olav Audunssøn, whose course is set by his murder of a man whom he meets by chance while returning home after some years’ absence, and who unknowingly boasts to Olaf of his seduction of Olaf’s intended bride. Olav too finds redemption in the end, but it does not come easily. In both novels, Undset also excels at recreating the world of medieval Scandinavia, that is to say a world which was increasingly Christian but in the context of strong residual pagan influence. It is perhaps no wonder that her work can speak so powerfully to us today.

Helen Alvare said she recommends Kristin Lavransdatter to 16-year-old girls, and that they respond powerfully to it. I am not sure most could handle either the searing pain or the profound depth. Sixteen-year-old boys would certainly seldom be ready. When I read Master in my thirties, and then tried to tackle Kristin immediately following, I had to put the trilogy down for a time; the wrenching, interior suffering of her characters was almost too much. My point is that these are not books for children. Undset is always concerned to portray the whole of life, the whole of reality, including the intricate relationships between the interior life and exterior circumstances, the deep consequences associated with virtue and vice, the interplay between sin and grace. I recommend coming to her novels with some life experience, especially some experience of interior struggle.

Undset the Convert

Sigrid Undset grew up in Norway when it was officially dominated by an enervated State-controlled Lutheranism which had already largely abandoned belief in the divinity of Christ, and was unofficially driven by secular free thinkers among the cultural elites. She herself adopted something of the modern view of feminism and sexual relations, and ended up in a very bad liaison with a self-centered artist. This was not a real marriage, as Undset came to understand later, but it gave her three children of her own in addition to three children from her husband’s previous marriage. Her struggles to reconcile the prevailing ideas of her day with her own experience, and with her desire for genuine love and deep commitment, most definitely helped to shape a growing appreciation for the great questions of life and an increasing perception that only the Catholic Church had any answers. She was received into the Church in November of 1924 at age 42, but not until she had brought herself to repudiate her own illicit union—though not, of course, her children.

In the years before her conversion, Undset began first to question and then to dispute the relativism and skepticism of her age. Fr. Stanley Jaki, the well-known Catholic physicist, theologian and winner of the Templeton Prize, turned his attention in his 80’s to these aspects of Sigrid Undset’s writing, which too many literary critics overlook, namely her commitment to Catholicism and to truth generally—the unshakeable conviction that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, which shaped so much of her work (see Jaki’s book, Sigrid Undset’s Quest for Truth). Jaki’s study is somewhat disjunctive and annoying because he is even more interested in showing how wrong everyone else is, both then and now, than in giving us a well-drawn portrait of Undset, but the book calls strong attention to Undset’s impatience with the reigning relativist orthodoxies of her time.

The idea of toleration, for example, was even then being widely cited as the reason for rejecting all strong convictions. As Undset put it:

As any slightly alert person can see, unlimited tolerance between people is impossible. One can try to set up boundaries for the areas in which tolerance is possible between people and where it is a duty. Or one can employ the idea of tolerance as a working hypothesis and give the wandering stream of intolerance free play…. One cannot escape dogmas—those who hold most firmly to dogmas today are those whose only dogma is that dogmas should be feared like the plague. [emphasis added]

This was part of her spirited response to a Lutheran archbishop’s unfortunate criticism of Catholics. Her apologetical writings were generally picked up and published immediately, often in both Norwegian and English, and read widely by serious Catholics both at home and abroad. Undset also disputed the notion that all “progress” was necessarily linear and good, as most people seemed to think, and that there was no longer any need for authority. Undset knew that each human person was a battleground in which the drama of good and evil was enacted anew. Everywhere she looked, she saw people eager to follow this or that authority in one bad direction or another (often in the name of liberty), and she saw all too clearly that human nature has an innate need for an authority that can make it possible to know and follow the truth.

In this context, she was quick to see the absurdity of the Lutheran Church in Norway, which was beholden to the State not only for financial support but for all its doctrines and even the very ordination of its ministers. She encountered her first sense of religion as both living and relevant in the atmosphere of those sects which dissented from the State religion, but in time she came to understand that the only real Church must be one that continued to make present throughout history what Christ had begun when, as the pre-existing Son of God, he became man, entered history, and taught with authority. The introductory statement in her essay on “My Reasons for Converting” is priceless, and should be quoted at length:

People who stubbornly hold fast to the hope that it is impossible to find absolute truth have persuaded themselves that life would lose all of its charm, we would lose our freedom, if there existed a truth—a single one—that contains all the other truths, and if they cannot be contained in it, then they are not true. Most of us have felt at some time that it is intolerable that two times two always makes four. If, to begin with, we accept this boring dogma, on this basis a whole part of one’s individual growth and proficiency can be developed. If one reserves to himself the freedom to deal and count from a personal conviction that two times two makes five or nothing or seven, one must take the consequences—among them other people’s reprisals if this conflicts with their interests when accounts are settled by this subjective table of multiplication.

Even so, we all know, in any case as a passing feeling, the longing for a dream world where two times two equals whatever we want it to. Of course the freedom of dreamland is also an illusion—in fact the number of types of dreams and combinations of dreams is not unlimited, and the life of dreams follows certain laws to a higher degree than most people would think. But what one doesn’t know doesn’t bother one. This is how we think; it might mean a beautiful freedom if we could move into a world where people decide for themselves the nature and properties of things. In the reality into which we are born, the nature and properties of things are already given, everything is joined together by laws. For humans as they are, there is only one possibility for freedom—they must find their way through this whole network of causes and connections. And the attempt to find a path ends only too often in becoming entangled and getting hung up in it.

We can only attain one kind of freedom in this world—that which Our Lord describes when he says, “The truth will make you free.” But when this truth is acknowledged and so is set free, then the deterministic factors in life no longer can bind a person in chains, and then one cannot keep this freedom through anything less than an unending struggle against the powers from which one has escaped—first and foremost, the temptation to look back and long for one’s old, romantic dream world where two and two can be whatever, and one can decide for himself what shall be untrue.

To this extent, it is understandable that modern man exerts all his strength to escape from the authority of the Church.

Undset and the Saints

Sigrid Undset found this recognition that two times two makes four embodied in the lives of the saints. It is perhaps not surprising that a great novelist should have a special appreciation of saints, for such men and women are concrete, tangible examples of that struggle for union with God which represents the only true freedom. Undset always had a keen appreciation for the spiritual drama within what may be described, from the outside, as the ordinary life. This is reflected in her Saga of Saints, a history of those saints who had helped shape Christianity in Norway, in which she permits holiness to shine through without denying or obscuring the struggles and difficulties of the Church. It is also evident in her book Stages on the Road, a collection of essays on Ramon Lull, Angela Merici, Robert Southwell and Margaret Clitherow.

As an aside, it is worth noting that these last two essays are about English martyrs. Those of us in the English-speaking world are fortunate that Sigrid Undset was introduced into English society when she took up residence in England with her artist-husband for six months in her early thirties. She read widely in English history and English letters, establishing ties that she would never break. She was later significantly influenced by English authors, especially Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson. All of this was aided, of course, by the fact that Norwegian is the native language of only a very small number of people worldwide, and so Norwegian authors who wish to be part of a larger discourse must inevitably seek to be translated. They also often translate works from other languages into Norwegian, as Undset did for some significant English Catholic writings. In any case, we are fortunate that so much of her work was rapidly translated into English and widely circulated in that language.

But to return to this question of saints, I first came to know Sigrid Undset in graduate school when, in doing some research on several late medieval figures, I came across her outstanding biography of Catherine of Siena. I was immediately captivated by how real and alive St. Catherine seemed in Undset’s highly accurate portrayal, written with her characteristic novelist’s touch, and avoiding any preoccupation with scholarly disputes. It was Undset’s hagiography that led me to her novels. Given the themes of her novels, the two are very closely connected.

Indeed, I like to think they are so closely connected that, by the time of her death, Sigrid too was a saint. In mid-life she left behind the world for the Church, and just before World War II she was left behind by the death of her only daughter. Then, she who had so vigorously criticized Nazism was forced to flee or be imprisoned when the Nazis invaded her town of Lillehammer. In the process, she also lost her older son, who died just a mile or two from the family home—a Norwegian gunnery officer attempting to hold the Germans back. During the war she found refuge in the United States with her remaining son, where she unceasingly pleaded the case of both her native land and of European Jews. When she returned to Norway, she was decorated both by her country and by the Vatican, but she had no further use for worldly honors. She spent her last years writing of St. Catherine, and lived increasingly as St. Catherine had lived, separated from her friends in a room reserved for her among the Dominican sisters of Katarinahjemmet. Seemingly she desired friendship only with Christ.

This, in the last analysis, is the secret of Sigrid Undset’s greatness. Were she only immensely talented and possessed of great insight she might not have surpassed Dostoevsky. But for Undset the pre-eminent human drama was also a divine drama: On one side is the Father’s initiation of redemption and the Son’s entrance into history; on the other is each person’s attachment to the wrong things, an ineffable yearning for the freedom of the children of God, and a little-understood yet still desperate thirst for grace. This drama works itself out in uncounted ways, an often discordant composition of both the gold and the dross of daily life, resonating at every level of being, and altering—for good or ill—everything we touch. In Undset, then, we find the consummate Catholic author, seeing life both steadily and whole, and unveiling for us its deep and ultimate meaning as we read.

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