Sigrid Undset's Time Warp
Visitors to Sigrid Undset's home in Lillehammer, Norway, said it was like stepping into another century.
Her restored house dated back to the end of the first millennium, and room after room was filled with antiques. The hostess herself dressed as a 14th-century matron.
Undset was nothing if not gung ho when it came to her preferences, whether it was her love of Scandinavian medieval history or of the Catholic Church. One she discovered as a child, the other she turned to as an adult.
Both passions fill the writings for which she received the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature.
"The truth is that we believed in nothing," Undset confessed about her early years. Yet by the end of her life, her faith had sustained her through the deaths of two of her children and the seizure of her home during the German invasion of Norway in 1940.
Born in Denmark in 1882, Undset was baptized in the state church — Lutheranism — but religion was not an important part of the family's life. In that household, science and history took center stage.
As a young girl, Undset enjoyed listening to her father, a noted archaeologist, hold lofty discussions with other scholars in their home. He saw her interest and encouraged her to read. That was why, by the time of his death at the age of 40 when she was only II, Undset was already well versed in Scandinavian medieval history and folklore.
Her father's death put a financial strain on the family and so, sacrificing her dream of attending the university, she became a secretary at the age of 16. For 10 years she supported her mother, two sisters and herself.
Undset began to write during her hours off. Her first attempt was a novel set in medieval times, and she was greatly disappointed when a publisher rejected it. Not that his refusal stopped her. Instead, she followed his recommendation to try writing contemporary fiction.
A shy young woman with few friends, Undset watched her co-workers intently for ideas. The new century brought many changes: more women in the Norwegian workforce, increased materialism and less-strict morals. Some of the women Undset studied suffered feelings of emptiness that she attributed to these new ways.
And so she wrote about them — and stuck out like a sore thumb. Other popular authors seemed to accept the changes as societal progress, ignoring the pain. Undset's fiction conveyed the idea that, as long as people refused to heed the spiritual side of life, they would suffer.
Yet Undset herself was not immune to making mistakes in her own private life. After her third successful book, she traveled to Rome, where she fell in love with a married man who had three children. Three years later he divorced his wife and married Undset. The couple had three more children but separated after six years. Then Undset, her two sons and a disabled daughter settled in a large home in the quiet town of Lillehammer.
(According to Undset, doctors could never pinpoint what her daughter's problem was. The child needed total physical care, seemed to tire easily and didn't walk. She had an extremely small vocabulary, but always somehow knew when her favorite festivals were coming up each year. The girl seemed to understand more than she could express.)
The move back to Norway gave Undset a quieter atmosphere in which to write. She also spent time considering the Catholic Church, first from an academic standpoint.
The devastation of World War I had led her to declare that only supernatural intervention could save humanity from itself. History convinced her that the Catholic Norwegians of the 14th century had centered their lives on God and the Church, and on the needs of family and community. Undset saw this as a better way, and as a far cry from the 20th-century emphasis on individualism. That meant that perhaps the Church wasn't a "picturesque ruin," as she had believed.
As she became more certain of these beliefs, she wanted to share them with others.
In 1920, she began writing "Kristin Lavransdatter." Its three volumes tell the story of a 14th-century girl: from happy childhood to rebellious teenage years, to unhappy marriage and motherhood, and finally to her repentance and death by plague in a convent. The books became bestsellers and were soon translated into many languages.
Meanwhile, Undset was moving closer to a formal declaration of faith. In Paris she met with Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), a Catholic philosopher — and convert — who specialized in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. On All Saints' Day 1924, Undset entered the Catholic Church, saying, "God has brought me in from the outposts."
After her conversion, the author expressed her Catholic beliefs quite clearly, both through her fictional characters and in nonfiction. There were critics who thought she overdid it.
Some of her views made her a target of the Norwegian feminist movement. She believed — preached may not be too strong a word — that the highest achievement a woman can attain is to be a good mother, and the worst, to be a poor one. Still, she did not deny that women had a right to work. Much of Undset's work took place when her children were asleep, since her daughter required so much care.
After writing another medieval saga, "Olaf Audunsson," Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Many were surprised when she donated all the prize money to a charity for parents of disabled children. Aware of Undset's own family situation, they thought she should keep it for herself.
By this point in her career, it didn't really matter that some people pooh-poohed the Catholic slant her writing was taking, but her other opinions brought more serious complications. During the 1930s, Undset condemned the actions of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. When Germany threatened to invade Norway, the Norwegian government — afraid for her safety — begged her to flee.
Undset's daughter died at the age of 23, shortly before the 1940 invasion, and her older son was killed in action soon afterward, just a few miles from their home. She and her remaining son traveled through Sweden to Russia and across the Pacific Ocean to the United States to wait out the war.
Undset continued to refute the errors of the Nazis during her five years in America, as she lectured and gave radio addresses around the country. When she returned home she was exhausted. Even so, she wrote a historical biography of St. Catherine of Siena (C.1347-1380) who, like her, had lived through war and upheaval.
Sigrid Undset died following a stroke in 1949. Her home still stands, although now it's surrounded by the park built for the 1994 Olympic Games.
That seems fitting, since during her years in the ancient house she had also shared her knowledge and love of medieval times at community festivals (such as the one held for Lillehammer's St. Swithin's Day celebration). Today she's also remembered for sharing that same knowledge and love with her children, too, not that it was always easy having such a zealot for a mother.
Undset borrowed costumes for plays and parades from the Maihaugen Museum (which still exists today). Her sons joined in the fun, even though the younger one was a bit embarrassed when, in acting out a folktale, she would wear an especially ragged dress and smear dirt on her face.
But he — like the visitors to her home — must have known she'd settle for no half measures when it came to looking like a character straight from the 14th century. And, in the same way, her readers knew to expect that same attitude when it came to her books and the teachings of the Church.
Kathryn Hagen lives in Rochester, Mich., and writes a column about the popes for The Leaven, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
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