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
And everything is as starkly beautiful as a page from Sigrid
…and everybody would know what you were talking about.
That's a tragedy. Not just for Catholics (like Bennett) or Norwegian
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
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
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
on Sigrid Undset.
own autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Committee.