Celebrating Sigrid Undset: Norwegian Writer

Sigrid Undset was a Norwegian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for which she was nominated by Helga Eng, member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. She was born on May 20, 1882 in Kalundborg, Denmark, but her family moved to Norway when she was two years old. She grew up in the Norwegian capital, Oslo (or Kristiania, as it was known until 1925). She fled Norway for the United States in 1940 because of her opposition to Nazi Germany and the German invasion and occupation of Norway, but returned after World War II ended in 1945. She died on June 10, 1949.

Her best-known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy about life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, portrayed through the experiences of a woman from birth until death. Its three volumes were published between 1920 and 1922. The title was Fru Marta Oulie, and the opening sentence (the words of the book’s main character) scandalized readers: “I have been unfaithful to my husband.”

After Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, Undset was forced to flee to neutral Sweden. Having strongly criticized Hitler since the early 1930s her books were banned in Nazi Germany and she feared becoming a target of the Gestapo. Her home Bjerkebæk in Lillehammer was requisitioned by the Wehrmacht and occupied by the Germans as an officers’ quarters.

Undset’s daughter, Maren Charlotte, suffered from some mental and emotional disorders and died shortly before the outbreak of the war. Her eldest son, Anders Svarstad was a member of the Norwegian Army and was killed in action April, 20 1940.

Undset went to the United States with her youngest son, Hans Benedict. While there she voiced her opposition to Hitler and raised funds for the Norwegian resistance. She also wrote and edited three books for children: Happy Times in Norway, Sigurd and His Brave Companions, and True and Untrue and Other Norse Tales, all published in translation by the University of Minnesota Press and carried by Ingebretsen’s.

Undset returned to Norway after the liberation in 1945 at the age of 67 in Lillehammer, Norway, where she had lived from 1919 through 1940. Although she lived another four years she never published another word. Undset is buried in the village of Mesnali, 15 kilometers east of Lillehammer, with her daughter and son who died in battle. The grave is recognizable by three black crosses.

Besides the Noble Prize, a crater on the planet Venus was named after Undset (latitude 51.7, longitude 60.8, diameter 20 km). She was depicted on a Norwegian 500 kroner note and a two-kroner postage stamp from 1982. Neighboring Sweden put her on a stamp in 1998.

Bjerkebæk, Undset’s home in Lillehammer, is now part of the Maihaugen museum. The farmhouse was listed in 1983. Efforts to restore and furnish the houses as they were during the time of her occupancy were begun in 1997. You can read about it and see photos here.

You can read more about Sigrid Undset at:

Nobel Prize