Sigrid Undset, Norwegian Nobel Prize-Winning Novelist

Sigrid Undset (Norwegian, May 20, 1882 – June 10, 1945) was the author of thirteen novels that have been translated into nearly all major languages. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for “her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.”

Her medieval epics Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunsson (also known as The Master of Hestviken) have been recently reprinted and freshly translated by scholar Tiina Nunnally.


Early life and writings

Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark and her family moved to Norway when she was a toddler. Her devoted parents were intellectuals. Her father was an esteemed archaeologist, and her talented mother often illustrated his publications.

Undset’s youthful imagination was enriched by frequent visits to the Oslo Museum and her father’s familiarity with Norwegian history and folklore. Sadly, her father died when she was just eleven.

At age nineteen, Undset wrote of her longing to write: “Someone can have so much love for art and such understanding of what art is that in the morning she burns what she feverishly wrote the night before because she hasn’t been able to blow the breath of life into the people who haunt her heart.”

Undset didn’t wish to pursue a teaching career, as she considered her own behavior like that “of a small animal.” Instead, she worked in an office for ten years. She published her first book when she was twenty-five, then traveled to Germany and Italy on a scholarship. Her early novels were contemporary and didn’t receive the international acclaim of her later epics.

Gunnar’s Daughter (1909) is a gem among her early work; set in Norway as the Viking Age is fading and Christianity gains a foothold, the novel’s medieval setting and its morally complicated, strong-willed heroine is a preview of her later masterpieces.

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Sigrid Undset as a young woman

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Marriage and conversion

In 1912, at the age of thirty, Undset married the artist Anders Castus Svarstad. Thirteen years her senior, his first marriage and contentious divorce undoubtedly influenced the character of Erlend, the profligate lover of the eponymous heroine of her Kristin Lavransdatter novels.

Undset and her husband had three children, one of whom had mental disabilities; her husband had another disabled child from his first marriage. Their marriage crumbled and was annulled in 1927.

Though raised by atheist parents, Undset was drawn to Catholicism and converted in 1924, at a time when Catholics were still regarded with great suspicion. Her new faith redirected her writing, and the daily conflict between right and wrong choices, and the influence of religion on history, marriage, and sexuality would be recurrent themes in her subsequent novels.

Christianity arrived quite late to Norway and Undset often explored the clash between organized religion and paganistic practices in her medieval novels. (Undset’s biography of St. Catherine of Siena would be published posthumously in 1951, praised for its extensive use of primary sources and focus on the saint’s humanity.)

Despite Undset’s adoption of a conservative faith and her distrust of the growing women’s movement she was no prig. She continued writing multifaceted female characters who committed acts of violence and revenge and never shied away from depicting religious hypocrisy.

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Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

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Kristin Lavransdatter

Undset’s later works are renowned for their scope and historical detail. Perhaps unusual for such a religious writer, she wrote with a lack of moralism and with empathy about her flawed characters; she painted human frailty with a compassionate brush. Her masterworks are arguably The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross, which form her medieval Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (1920 – 22).

Kristin is born into aristocratic privilege, the apple of her virtuous father’s eye. Despite being a strong-willed girl, she possesses deep reservoirs of loyalty and love. Kristin has a close bond with Brother Edvin, who hopes the sensitive maiden will enter the church.

She is betrothed to a dull neighbor and then nearly raped by a jealous childhood friend. After recovering from the attack and subsequent gossip, she is seduced by Erlend Nikulausson.

He is an older, devastatingly alluring knight who has been excommunicated by the church and lives with a vengeful mistress. Kristin’s defiance of her father by pursuing marriage with Erlend sets off a series of consequences that reverberates over decades and across three novels.

The Kristin Lavransdatter saga is a marvelous examination of what has changed and remained the same in the lives of women since the Middle Ages.

The novels vividly depict patriarchy, assault, sexism, and women’s struggle for autonomy and survival. Kristin is a woman with an extraordinarily complex inner life and character: she is both reckless and unselfish, ruthless and tender-hearted, lustful and pious.

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Sigrid Undset in 1923

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Nobel Prize and exile

In 1928, based on the strength of Kristin Lavransdatter and the tetralogy Olav Audunsson (1925 – 1927), Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, only the third woman to be granted the honor. She humbly accepted it, promptly donated all the prize money to charity, then became a lay Dominican—a member of the Catholic Order of Preachers.

Undset quietly continued writing, returning to contemporary novels. Then, the Nazis invaded Norway in April, 1940. Due to her intellectualism and religious convictions, Undset despised the Nazis. Now in her fifties, she became involved with Norway’s underground movement.

After two of her children died, she fled Norway, staying briefly in Sweden. She spent the remainder of the war years in the United States, writing and touring to raise awareness of the Nazi occupation of her home country.

Undset lent her fame to publicly and vociferously protest the murder of a Danish Lutheran pastor and playwright Kaj Munk, who was executed by the Nazis. During the war Undset also befriended the Florida-based American author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling) and joyfully returned to Norway after the Allied victory and five years in exile.

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Sigrid Undset in 1932

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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Later life and legacy of Sigrid Undset

After her return, Undset received the Grand Cross of St. Olav for her writing and patriotism, particularly her support of resistance against the Nazis; the honor meant she was appointed to Norway’s order of knights. Restored to her beloved home in Lillehammer, Undset never wrote again and quietly passed away at the age of sixty-seven.

Tiina Nunnally, Undset’s recent translator, praises her books for being written “in a straightforward, almost plain style, yet she can be quite lyrical, especially in her descriptions of nature.”

Her epics are noteworthy for the wide array of flawed, vivid characters and the plethora of accurately rendered medieval settings. Gunnar’s Daughter, Olav Audunsson, and Kristin Lavransdatter are emotional and unforgettable journeys that will transport the reader to the Middle Ages.

Today, Sigrid Undset’s Home is a museum in Lillehammer, where visitors can get tours of this notable author’s house and gardens.

Contributed by Katharine Armbrester, who graduated from the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women in 2022. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood, and loves periodicals, history, and writing.

More about Sigrid Undset

Further Reading and Sources

Selected Novels (in English translation)

  • Marta Oulie (1907)
  • Gunnar’s Daughter (1909)
  • Jenny (1911)
  • Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) 
         The Wreath
         The Wife
         The Cross 
  • The Master of Hestviken (1925-27; translated and republished as Olav Audunsson 2020 – 2023)
        The Axe (republished as I. Vow)
        The Snake Pit (II. Providence)
        In the Wilderness (III. Crossroads)
        The Son Avenger (IV. Winter)
  • The Wild Orchid (1931)
  • Ida Elisabeth (1933)
  • Catherine of Siena (1951)

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