It was some time ago that Bill Bennett, on his

morning talk show, asked, “Who is Sigrid Undset?” I tried to call in and

help him out, but there wasn't time.

The fact that Bennett, an extremely erudite Roman Catholic, knew

nothing of Sigrid Undset, saddened me. (I'm not a Catholic myself, but

no man is an island, and all that).

Gone are the days when a popular writer like Ogden Nash could say,

in the midst of a light poem:

“Or you stand with her on a hilltop and gaze on a

winter sunset,

And everything is as starkly beautiful as a page from Sigrid

Undset….”

…and everybody would know what you were talking about.

That's a tragedy. Not just for Catholics (like Bennett) or Norwegian

buffs (like me), but for all lovers of great Christian prose.

Sigrid Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, on May 20, 1882. Her

father was a noted Norwegian archaeologist, who soon took the family to

Christiania (now Oslo) where he took a position with the University.

However, his early death left the family in difficulties, and Sigrid

ended up training to be an office worker, a life she hated, and depicted

in some of her earlier fictional works. Eventually she was able to

support herself by writing alone.

Although she dealt with the same questions about the role of women

in modern society as other female writers of her time, the conclusions

she drew were unconventional. She found herself drawn more and more to

Roman Catholicism and to the social order of medieval life. In 1924 she

converted to Catholicism (causing considerable scandal in Lutheran

Norway), and had her marriage, not recognized by the church, annulled.

The fullest fruition of her art and faith was two series of novels

about medieval Norway—a trilogy called Kristin Lavransdatter, and

a tetralogy published in English as The Master of Hestviken. For

these she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Kristin Lavransdatter (The

Wreath, The

Wife, and The

Cross) is a sort of anti-romance. All the standard elements of

traditional medieval romance are there—the beautiful, headstrong young

woman, the parents who want to marry her off to a dull friend of the

family, and the handsome knight who sweeps her off her feet—but Undset

takes the story beyond “happily ever after.” We see Kristin's further

life, as she gradually realizes that men who seduce young girls don't

necessarily make the best husbands, and learns that her parents loved

her very much, and wanted only the best for her. And her Heavenly

Father, even more.

The Master of Hestviken (The

Axe, The

Snake Pit, In

the Wilderness, and The

Son Avenger), turns to a male subject, a man of great courage,

steadfastness, and care for his family, who pushes his duty to God out

of his mind in order (he thinks) to protect his loved ones. His good

intentions are the road to hell for him. Undset traces each step on that

road with profound psychological understanding.

Undset is a cartographer of the soul, an author who brings our

ancestors to life and, through illuminating their motives and actions,

shines light on our own. Though the most Catholic of authors, she's not

for Catholics alone, but for all Christians, because our hearts are the

same, and our lust to have our own way (a recurring theme in her books)

is of a piece.

“I—I should not have struck you, my Kristin. I wish with

my heart I had not done it—I shall repent it, I trow, for as long as I

repented the last time. But you—you have taunted me because you deem I

forget too lightly. But you forget naught—no single wrong that I ever

did you. Yet I have tried—I have tried to be a good husband to you; but

that, I trow, you deem not worth remembrance….” (The Mistress of

Husaby, Charles Archer's translation.)

Celebrate her birthday by ordering one of her books. You'll thank

me.

A biographical page

on Sigrid Undset.

Undset's

own autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Committee.