Sigrid Undset: Sin, Sainthood and Sanity

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was a model of women’s achievement both in her writing and her personal life. Writing at a time when female authors were known for fluff romances, her stories were taken seriously – and she even didn’t have to change her name to George (as in Sand or Eliot).

Undset was young, attractive, and successful. After earning fame in her native Norway, she had enough money to leave a stifling office job. It wasn’t long after that she achieved international recognition as well, being translated into English as early as 1920.

She was unafraid to depict themes of lust and scenes of violence. And happy Hollywood endings? Not. Yet, neither did she shock for the sake of sensationalism. Sin is simply sin – it’s not a likable word, it’s not a likable thing.

Even so, she lived life something like the heroines of her novels. She fell in love with a friend’s husband and, after his marriage broke up, she married him. Undset was later shocked to discover that the rejected wife had fallen into such poverty that her children were in an orphanage – casualties of her pursuit of happiness.

Then, in 1924, a strange thing happened. Sigrid Undset became a Catholic.

“Is there something which we ought to have known and have never been told and is that why we do such terribly stupid things with our lives?” asks Ida, a character from one of her stories. What Undset ought to have known, indeed no one ever told her. Her parents loved and cared for her but as agnostics, they could not give her Faith. She had to go out and seek it herself.

Her father was a medieval historian. He did pass on this passion to his daughter, immersing her in the Norse sagas. Though an unbeliever, her mother brought her regularly to a Lutheran church.

Life as an church-going agnostic with an extensive knowledge of medieval Catholic culture would scramble the brains of most children. But it seems to have deepened Undset’s hunger for the one immutable way.

It also gave her a healthy intellectual skepticism about the popular ideas of her time. Here she describes her schooling:

I was sent to a school run by Mrs. Ragna Nielsen because my father was already aware that his days were numbered, and he was anxious for me to acquire a good education and follow in his footsteps. Mrs. Nielsen’s school was co-educational and heavily committed to progressive educational ideas. It played an important role in shaping my character, inspiring me with an indelible distrust of enthusiasm for such beliefs!

It was not that I disliked Mrs. Nielsen or suspected her of not being so noble-minded or attached to her principles as she appeared to be. No, it was those very principles which filled me with boundless skepticism; I knew not why either then or for a long time afterwards. Many years later I was to find some kind of an answer in the words uttered by St. Augustine concerning the leader of the Donatists: “Securus judicat orbis terrarum.” (Translation: The secure judgment of the whole world.)

At the time, however, my only reaction was to roll myself up into a tight ball of resistance and it was thus, hedgehog-wise, that I went through my school years.

After her father’s death, the headmistress offered Undset the chance to quit, seeing as she had so little interest in her studies. Perhaps the lady meant it as a challenge, a superior saying “wise up” to an inferior. Instead it ran as an exchange between two adults – though Undset was just sixteen. She quit and never regretted it. It was the first of many courageous decisions not to compromise her integrity.

Swimming against the tide is never easy and Sigrid Undset’s conversion to Catholicism must have been the most difficult of all.

It meant giving up the man with whom she had three children. It meant doing all in her power to heal the family which she helped to break. She got custody of the children of the first family and raised them with her own. One of them was mentally disabled as was one of hers. No, it couldn’t have been easy.

Her conversion also meant that she did not fit into her own culture. She was not a member of the Christian majority – Lutheran. Nor was she understood among secular intellectuals. She was a perplexing individual on both sides of the divide. She didn’t seem to care about her own bodily well being. She did risky things like write against the Nazis. She did strange things like give away all of her Nobel Prize money. Soon she was labeled: The Catholic Lady – by neighbors who obviously did not share her gift for words.

The same sort of people are still scratching their heads.

Perhaps that is why (it is claimed) Undset’s work is absent from most university Women’s Studies departments.

It is curious. I checked the course offerings at Harvard and Yale myself as well as googling the terms “Undset women’s studies department” and came up empty. To be fair, I did find her in Scandinavian Studies.

Is she is absent simply because she does not fit in? She had tried the bohemian life and found it wanting. Her literary genius is undisputed, yet the themes don’t seem to make sense. Her heroines do not find fulfillment in a man – well and good, yet they often find it in sacrificial family life – not what we want to hear. And the overarching theme makes us uncomfortable: the Self as god is a dealer of death.

Even in her early novel Jenny (1911), published thirteen years before her reception into the Church (in fact while still in the relationship) it is clear that Undset just isn’t buying the lie that seeking our own desires is the way to happiness. Jenny is a tale of a soul’s restless quest for true and faithful love.

In 1928, Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her thousand page trilogy Kristen Lavransdatter.

The novel portrays the life from birth to death of a medieval woman – a fully developed complex character, surrounded by a host other complex characters – capable of deep spiritual longing, passionate desire, and criminal self-centeredness. Due to her father’s brand of home education, Undset delivers a vivid picture of the culture and landscape of medieval Norway – with its prevailing Christian piety and bizarre remnants of paganism. It sounds heavy but it’s as gripping as Lord of the Rings.

We owe Jenny and Sigrid Undset’s other stories set in modern times to the short-sightedness of one publisher. He told Undset that she had no talent for medieval sagas.

It seems funny now. Yet, perhaps it was Providential. Undset was still young and learning about life. She developed her voice and her extensive talent in character sketching through her modern stories. When she did finally turn to Kristen Lavransdatter, she gave us flesh and blood characters – every bit as human and conflicted as modern man and in need of that mystery which at once fills the self and empties the self, called Redemption.

Many words have been written on her Nobel Prize winning work. But one line from an Amazon reviewer sums it up: “The book was pretty good, but WHY IS KRISTIN SUCH AN IDIOT?” It’s actually a good question.

Undset answers it when says, “In a way we do not want to find Truth — we prefer to seek and keep our illusions.”

Then she explains what led her to give up her own illusions. “I had ventured near the abode of truth in my researches about God’s friends……So I had to submit.”

She had to submit. Really?

The character of Kristen shows us just how easy that submission is. Her father is a saint – devout, pure, just, kind and honest. She also has a spiritual father who is a saint. Brother Edvin is humble, simple, poor, and charity straight through. Indeed under their influence, Kristen does long to be a friend of God. She is prepared to live a life of virtue, in obedience to her father who knows what is best for her. Then she falls in love with Erland – a rash, infamous adulterer, who in spite of all his faults, loves her.

Kristen slouches towards perdition. At once a friend of God and a rebel, a sinner working out salvation with fear and trembling… not to mention, deception, adultery, blood and betrayal. Then comes repentance, sacrifice, loneliness and final perseverance. It’s a tale of grace that patiently unfolds over a lifetime. It is the drama of Christian life writ large.

That is what Undset was seeking to show and seeking to live. If it is a dangerous life, at least it is a sane one.

“By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness — his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace.”

That is what forms the basis for all of Undset’s writing. It doesn’t matter if her characters spring from a medieval village dominated by strict Catholic morality or work in a sterile office building dominated by the almighty Norwegian kroner.

Undset’s meditation on the saints as fully developed humans inspired her personal life and gave depth to her fictional characters. It gave her direction. It led her off the wide road of despair trod by so many literary lights of her day (Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Zelda Fitzgerald). It led her to sanity and it led her to salvation.

This article first appeared in The Latin Mass Magazine, Winter 2010.

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