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In the Light of Suffering

Written by: Anne Birgitte Rønning |

At the age of twenty, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is already declaring: “[…] it’s an artist that I want to be, a woman artist, and not a pen-wielding lady.” And a woman artist is what she became. Her writing career spans forty years and thirty titles, mainly short stories, novels, biographies, and essays – the crowning achievement being her major novels on the medieval characters Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunssøn, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, and which won her widespread international fame.

Slott-Møller, Harald (1864-1937): Portrait of Sigrid Undset, 1923. Oil on canvas. Aschehougs Forlag, Oslo

Her writing investigates the condition of being a woman, particularly the terms on which a modern woman was expected to live her life and the options she had for creating meaning and substance to her existence. Her pen is motivated by the belief in a human ability to improve and update fundamental conditions of life. It is as if a thread runs through her work exploring a female power of creativity, not just in art but also in everyday life. At the same time there is a strong sense of deep scepticism as regards human potential to improve conditions alone and of the need to see the individual human life as part of a greater whole – a coherence that Sigrid Undset found when she converted to Catholicism in 1924. This outlook on life is projected in a sense of emptiness in her early works and of grace in the later ones.

Sigrid Undset views life as a pilgrimage, during which the one who seeks will find the answer. And her writing provides many answers – based on the widely different contexts she puts to the test socially, geographically, and temporally. Her heroines are women from the fourteenth century to the twentieth century, from the remotest regions of Norway to Italy, from the poorest, lowest class to the freeholder’s daughter. Sigrid Undset depicts societies in crisis, and her writing entails a sharp critique of civilisation.

More than any of her contemporary writers, Sigrid Undset understood how the woman’s development of self was connected with desire. She wrote impassioned depictions of the destructive consequences for, primarily, the women themselves, but also for children, husbands, families, and thereby, ultimately, for society as such. And yet she constantly projected the truth that development of self and its potential free fall was on the twentieth-century female agenda. That was the route taken by women in the Nordic area, and in Sigrid Undset’s work they could read about the strong inner necessity and also about an intense anxiety for the consequences.

The paradox was crystal clear and programmatic in her writing from the outset, in the early work Fru Marta Oulie (1907; Mrs Marta Oulie), her slim but inescapable first published novel.

Writing to Atone

When Mrs Marta Oulie, the eponymous heroine of Sigrid Undset’s debut diary novel (1907), sits down to write her story, she is motivated by a feeling of having committed a violation of all the values meant to characterise the mature and responsible woman: “I know of no one whose life has gone so to pieces as mine. And thus it must be caused by something within me.” She is a well-educated, modern woman who has had every opportunity in front of her, but she has now – through the “ethical fall” of infidelity – brought herself into a situation where everything seems wasted. She has longed for freedom outside her drab married life, but is paralysed by a desperate sense of guilt, which is increased by her husband’s illness and subsequent death and by the fact that her fourth child is the product of an extramarital affair. In her diary, when seeking insight into the forces that have driven her, she interprets them as something destructive within her, and she pushes herself into even greater self-torment by rejecting marriage with her former lover, who offers her a life of security, happiness, and respect. The possibility of rebuilding self-esteem can only be realised through penance. Writing down her experiences is part of a purging process, but by being simultaneously therapy and penance, the purging is deeply ambivalent. She turns over thoughts of her own guilt, and she opens the wounds – just like her former pupil who wanted to tear the bandages from a bleeding injury in order to see what it really looked like.

Idealism and ethical demands are absolute in her world. The important thing is to make up one’s mind about the natural instincts and impulses, take a position on them as either good or evil, and then deploy one’s volition and proceed accordingly. Although she is a deeply sensual writer, in Sigrid Undset’s universe sexual desire and artistic urge are both coupled with decline, and they are thereby catalogued under forces that must be kept in check. Should women seek their own gratification in love or in art, they are forsaking potential motherliness and thereby contribute to the deceit of the times and the decline of society. Sigrid Undset’s female characters are simultaneously seeking love, freedom, and authority. The conflicts between these areas prompt the young Sigrid Undset to write novels and short stories about the life of women and the artistic calling.

The young Marta in Fru Marta Oulie has grown up in the class of public officials; her father died early, and she was brought up in a female world that recalls Sigrid Undset’s own upbringing.

Art and Love

Her successful first published novel was followed by the short story collection Den lykkelige alder (1908; The Happy Age). The two key women here are the actress Uni Hirsch and talented Charlotte Hedels, who wants to be a writer. Both have great artistic ambitions and are prototypes of Jenny, a character who came to life two years later in the novel of the same name.

The adult Marta Oulie’s ‘original sin’ is a typical starting point. Novels and short stories alike find their incentive in situations of rupture or need, in lost innocence and social instability. The depiction of Charlotte Hedels in Den lykkelige alder (1908; The Happy Age) holds a camouflaged self-portrait. Her appearance is described as “made for wholesome and calm happiness, with her luxuriant glossy hair and her curvaceous slender figure” – which could be the caption on a portrait of the author in her young days! Charlotte is the eldest of three sisters; their mother is the widow of a public official who died prematurely (Sigrid Undset’s father died when she was eleven years old). Charlotte Hedels, too, has to get an office job to help out her mother financially, even though she desperately wants to write about the town, the women’s lives, about the respectable hard-workers, about human longing and restlessness. A creative agenda that closely corresponds to that of the young Sigrid Undset.

Jenny (1911) was Sigrid Undset’s major breakthrough, and is often regarded as a masterpiece along with the medieval trilogy about Kristin Lavransdatter. Jenny Winge, the most moving and tragic of all her female characters, involves a new resolution of the conflict between the artist’s calling and the woman’s role.

Jenny has one single goal in life: to preserve her self-esteem. She wants to feel “pure and strong […] to be honest, diligent, courageous, self-sacrificing, and disciplined.” It is noteworthy that her aspiration is not one of artistic achievement – she is, in a way, herself the artwork to be perfected. Beauty is the highest value; it is cultivated in the artist milieus of Italy, in visual arts, in architecture, and in nature. Joy derived through the senses, intoxication through freedom, and perfect beauty have a liberating effect on the young, frosty painter. Jenny experiences sexual desire as the longing for beauty.

Her idealisation of all spheres of life stems from her relationship with her deceased father, the authority from whom she and her mother sought advice before they made decisions. Like another General Gabler in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1890), he had directed their lives from his portrait. Now Jenny awaits “a husband she could look up to, someone whose authority she could feel”. And he appears: first in the form of Helge Gram, thereafter in the form of his father, Gert Gram. But neither men live up to Jenny’s ideal. Her son, fathered by Gert Gram, lives for but a few weeks, a period during which Jenny has a brief experience of happiness – as mother. The maternal role could have been combined with her painting activities: “He was going to lie in his baby carriage and sleep under the apple trees – and I was going to work.” This was not to be; Jenny ends her own life having felt unfathomable degradation – that of being raped, and what was to her the immeasurable misery of having forsaken her ideals.

Caspersson, Anna (1861-1961): Bröllop i Italien. 1922. Private collection

Jenny had gone to Italy in order to learn and to live with art and among artists. Helped by her stepfather, she had made a break with the traditional expectations of a woman’s life. Both he and her biological father are dead, and she fills the vacuum left by these authoritarian father figures with an idealisation that becomes the motive force in her creative power. The happy Jenny appears at the moments when she is at one with her art – outdoors at her easel, in a free space with neither physical obstacles nor psychological and social inhibitions. When Jenny becomes attached to Helge Gram, however, the art is devalued. Helge is no ideal figure, and at an early stage her reaction to his actions is one of surprise and aversion. The connection between art and love is broken, and the man as ideal is written off. At the same time, art as form of existence becomes problematic.

The child born to Jenny and Gert Gram could have forged a new creative ideality – a connection between art and mother’s love. But the infant dies. In Jenny painting and childbirth can be seen as two equal methods of creativity. And, according to Jenny, the two can be performed on parallel lines. Motherhood is, nevertheless, given priority: it becomes the very prerequisite for creativity. In its attitudes to art, love, motherhood, and ideal contexts, however, the novel is full of contradictions. Jenny was a recognised painter before she had a child, and she remains an artist for as long as she lives in the illusion, the belief that what has been lost can be recreated. When the illusions break, and the ideal pictures collapse, Jenny’s creativity dries up.

Sigrid Undset, on the other hand, goes on. The ‘artist issue’ is abandoned, but its inherent contradictions lead to new types of novels and women. In Jenny the ‘free’ female artists – in the South and in Norway alike – receive no sympathy. They are stupid, ill-natured, gossipy, and often mannish. The artists’ circles are decadent and mouldering. As type, Jenny is the last independent woman artist from Sigrid Undset’s pen. The female creative urge is converted and tailored to the domestic forum – as aestheticisation of the home, culinary art, cultivation of flowers, and needlework.

The Good Mother

Sigrid Undset’s descriptions of the good mother paint a counter-picture to the contemporaneous disintegration and subversion of norms. Jenny’s brief period as a mother points towards this viewpoint. In Vaaren (1914; Spring), marriage is seen as empty and pointless if it is not the setting for children. But the novel also shows that the symbiotic mother-child relationship can cause irreparable damage to the child. The mother who uses the child to reinforce her own self-image, and as an antidote to boredom, will raise dependent and neurotic children. ‘The good mother’ is in no way linked with biological motherhood, as can be seen in the story “Gunvald og Emma” (Gunvald and Emma) from Fattige skjæbner (1912; Miserable Fates).

Emma represents all the agencies of penance that Sigrid Undset could see in 1912 for decay and disintegration: motherliness and solicitude, a sense of history, a sense of family line and responsibility. Being a mother involved a duty to these qualities. Equally, it involved having chosen a way of life most conducive to qualitative improvement. This is expressed with greatest clarity in the major novel Ida Elisabeth (1932). Ida Elisabeth had got into trouble and married a man who was not in the least mature or ready for responsibility. He asks for a divorce, and she now lives alone with her children, a good life of sewing, housekeeping, and diligence. But even though Ida Elisabeth’s relationship to infantile and incompatible Frithjof has ceased on a sexual level, she is stuck in her ethical obligations to him and his family.

In her final major modern novel, Den trofaste hustru (1936; The Faithful Wife), Sigrid Undset presents a new angle on the modern woman’s problems in the person of Natalie Norgaard. She leads an apparently happy life in her childless marriage with Sigurd. For her, as for other of Sigrid Undset’s women, work is the source of meaning and coherence, and it becomes her only fixed point and energy in life when her husband fathers a child with his young mistress. At the end of the novel the two get together again, in joint responsibility for Sigurd’s motherless child and for the orphaned child Natalie has taken into her home. The title of the novel indicates that the circle is complete: the contemporary works started with Marta Oulie’s confession – “I have been unfaithful to my husband” – and conclude with the faithful wife. Issues facing the modern woman – sexual love, longing for freedom, and fidelity – have been scrutinized by the pen.

The religious interpretation sensed in the novel is far more explicit in the two works generally referred to as Undset’s ‘conversion novels’: Gymnadenia (1929; Eng. tr. The Wild Orchid) and Den brennende busk (1930; Eng. tr. The Burning Bush). The central character here is a man, Paul Selmer; his upbringing and personal development lead him to Catholicism. Sigrid Undset converted in 1924; at the same time her marriage, which had been contracted in 1912, was dissolved. By then she had already spent several years living alone in Lillehammer with her three biological children, while also taking on some of the responsibility for her husband’s children from his first marriage. Her personal experience as a single parent can be traced in much of her writing.

The Independent Women of History

The need to subject oneself to forces greater than the single individual – as Jenny says: “[…] voluntarily serve something or someone that you value more than yourself” – is a through-going theme in Sigrid Undset’s writing. But in order to elaborate on it, and put together the theme of self-realisation and acceptance of authority, she had to embark on a long detour via the Middle Ages. She had to return to a time when secular and ecclesiastical authorities were both unshakable.

From the very outset of her literary activities, Sigrid Undset had turned to historical material; even though her early manuscripts were not published, we know from her correspondence with Andrea Hedberg that the characters and issues in them were to be carried forward into her major works about Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunssøn, (Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22), Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken (1925), and Olav Audunssøn og hans barn (1927; Eng. tr. of the two as The Master of Hestviken).

In Sigrid Undset’s first historical novel, Fortellingen om VigaLjot og Vigdis (1909; The Tale of Viga-Ljot and Vigdis; Eng. tr. Gunnar’s Daughter), the story is set against the dramatic backdrop of the Viking era. Vigdis and Viga-Ljot’s story is one of passion and fascination and a rape that results in a child. The Icelander Viga-Ljot travels to Norway, where he spends some time before returning to Iceland, leaving behind a disgraced woman, Vigdis. Her rape, her debasement, and her child fill Vigdis’s every waking hour, and she pursues a hard and fast project: one day her son will slay his father in order to avenge her. This projected revenge gives the book direction: Viga-Ljot has a troublesome emotional and family life in Iceland; once a widower, he sails forth from Iceland, encounters Ulvar Vigdissønn (his son) in Scotland and, after a final meeting with Vigdis, he accepts the fate determined by his love. “[…] long have I yearned that my head might lie in her lap”, he says, dying at the hands of his son. Vigdis, for her part, discovers that Viga-Ljot’s blood-stained severed head does not bring her the satisfaction she had expected.

In turning to historical material, Sigrid Undset aimed at ‘filling in’ and bringing history alive. Fortællingen om VigaLjot og Vigdis is a saga pastiche, in which the style remains but is complemented by psychological motivation alien to the ancient sagas. In the two major ‘medieval’ novels she develops a particular form of historical realism in which the pastness of history is brought out in, among other things, everyday life manifested via kitchen utensils, buildings, and customs. In terms of politics, the storylines in these novels are played out in relatively stable eras and settings: after the civil wars and before the Black Death ravaged the country. Her manner of portraying people and places according to her imagination and feel for the material is always kept within the framework of the actual facts as accounted for by specialist subject historians. The key conflicts are played out in everyday life and in the minds of the characters: in what Sigrid Undset regarded as eternal and immutable human nature. A few historians nonetheless criticised her rendition of the medieval Catholic soul.

Subjects addressed in Fortellingen om VigaLjot og Vigdis crop up in Undset’s other historical tales: it is not easy to integrate eroticism in a life spent with husband and children; sons come between their mothers and fathers, and women have to shoulder the job of breadwinner when the men are absent from everyday life. In Sigrid Undset’s final novel, Madame Dorthea (1939; Madame Dorothea), the husband simply disappears. The story takes place in the eighteenth century, and Madame Dorthea is a comfortably-off woman from the higher social strata. However, intense forces are at large, as is evident right from the outset of the novel: “As she opened the door a gust of wind tore it out of her hand and flung it inwards with a crash, nearly throwing her off her feet […]”. The reader, like Dorthea, is left not knowing whether her husband has died – the Second World War brought chaos to Sigrid Undset’s own life, and the sequel to the story was never written.

Between Vigdis and Dorthea we find the most famous and most complex of Sigrid Undset’s historical female characters, Kristin in Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22). The story is set in the first half of the fourteenth century and follows Kristin from her early years as a little girl growing up on her father’s farm, through her marriage with Erlend Nikulaussøn, ending with her widowhood and death in a convent in Nidaros (now Trondheim) during the Black Death. Kristin and Erlend’s love story is one about two very different personalities drawn together by sensual desire, but with little ability to pull together in everyday life, and it is again the woman, Kristin, who demonstrates her strength in taking responsibility for and care of the estate and its workers, and especially of their children.

The woman’s position as promoter of values is bound up with the particular family logic that obtains in Sigrid Undset’s fictional universe – where gender is distributed precisely among the characters. Men ascribed positive, often ‘soft’ values, are exclusively fathers of daughters, while the strong women are mothers of sons. It is as if Sigrid Undset never completely ventures into the conflict-ridden mechanisms of solicitude and mirroring in a relationship between father and son, between mother and daughter.

Daughter, Mother, and Mistress

Aae, Hjalmar: Henriette with Karen, Odensegade, c. 1901. Photograph. Kvindemuseet, Århus

The passing on of cultural virtues from father to daughter, and the mothers’ wish to pass them on to their sons, also bears on the tension between eroticism and motherliness that is present in all Sigrid Undset’s writing. The dramatic stories in her historical novels allow this to be worked up anew. It is also in relation to this conflict that Kristin Lavransdatter has Sigrid Undset’s most complex and nuanced female character. Kristin is a sensual woman and she abandons herself totally to sexual passion, but problems between her and Erlend start in earnest once they have had their first son. Their marriage is thereafter dominated by her conflict between being a mother and being a lover. When Erlend is absent, Kristin can live out her love for her sons. And the many scenes of childbirth and breast-feeding in the women’s quarters are depicted sensually and erotically. But the sexual love between man and woman can only thrive outside the province of estate and family, at Erlend’s little mountain farm. The men also try to reconcile sexual love with fatherhood. Lavrans’s paternal love for Kristin is deepened and complemented by his anxiety about his wife’s intense and aggressive sensuality, and Simon Darre’s desire is constantly focused on Kristin, not on the woman who will bear his children.

In letting the historical female characters be the carriers of the cultural virtues she found lacking in her day, Sigrid Undset was not suggesting that these virtues are specifically female – it is as their fathers’ daughters that both Vigdis and Kristin are able to live up to their cultural heritage, and as their fathers’ daughters they will themselves displace their husbands and bear boy children into the family lineage.

Self-realisation and Subjugation

The story of Kristin Lavransdatter is set in the late-medieval affluent farming milieu, in which Christian thought is mixed with old Norse practices. The figures of authority are God, father, and family. When Kristin, who is betrothed to Simon Darre, embarks on a relationship with Erlend, she is thus defying all standards of behaviour. While the first volume of the trilogy, Kransen (1920; Eng. tr. The Wreath), is essentially a love story describing how fair Kristin and dashing Erlend eventually get one another, the focus of the sequel is on other issues: marriage and duty. The second volume, Husfrue (1921; Eng. tr. The Mistress of Husaby), does not tell the story of Kristin’s eminence as wife and mother, but of “Syndens frugt” (The Fruit of Sin), as the first section of the book is titled. This refers to their son, conceived before wedlock, and to Kristin’s new situation in life. She has to learn to rein in her headstrong temperament until, eventually, she is reconciled with her God in the same way as she was earlier reconciled with her father on his deathbed. Her path to God proves to be an acknowledgement of the need for a God, and on her own deathbed she sees her life in the light of transfiguration:

“It seemed to her to be a mystery that she could not fathom, but which she knew most surely none the less, that God had held her fast in a covenant made for her without her knowledge by a love poured out upon her richly – and in despite of her self-will, in despite of her heavy, earthbound spirit, somewhat of this love had become part of her, had wrought in her like sunlight in the earth, had brought forth increase which not even the hottest flames of fleshly love nor its wildest bursts of wrath could lay waste wholly. A handmaiden of God had she been […]”.

As in many of Sigrid Undset’s early works set in her own day, Kristin’s sexual adventure represents a ‘fall’ whence she is obliged to work her way up. Given that she herself has wanted to keep “the hottest flames of fleshly love” separate from the life she lived in social respectability as daughter, as mother, and as good Christian, she has not been able to see that God’s love encompassed woman’s life in its entirety.

In Kristin Lavransdatter there is a religious and symbolic legitimisation of motherhood via worship of the Virgin Mary. Catholicism has preserved a female aspect of the deity, and Kristin is conscious of this – she prays to God’s mother (when not to Saint Olav, unifier and patron saint of Norway), and it is from her that she gets the strength to live correctly both as mother and as a “handmaiden of God”. But Mary cannot be a model for a mortal integration of sexuality. Erlend becomes an onlooker to the mother/child symbiosis in the same way as the men in Sigrid Undset’s contemporary novels were.

In Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken (1925) and Olav Audunssøn og hans barn (1927; Eng. tr. of the two as The Master of Hestviken), we are presented with a similar inability to see, but this time the ‘fall’ occurs because Olav kills the man who has enticed away his betrothed and, in order to avoid unpleasant focus on Ingunn and the resulting child, he does not confess the killing. This omission of confession is his great sin, and it is the cause of a life of suffering. Ingunn becomes increasingly frail and ill, eventually dying; Olav is worn away by his ambivalent feelings for Ingunn’s son Eirik, whom he passes off as his own, and for his own daughter Cecilia, whom he abandons. That his own harshness made him exclude God from his life weighs particularly heavily upon him and makes it impossible to seek God. Both Ingunn and Olav experience suffering as being punishment for their sins, and in so doing they transfer the old ideology of revenge to their perception of God.

Olav’s life story is played out at the end of the thirteenth century, and in him Christianity and paganism wrestle. Sigrid Undset saw the introduction of Christianity as a major civilising aspect, and she writes it into a new rendition of the avenging son motif. Both Viga-Ljot and Vigdis encouraged and approved Ulvar’s act of revenge, and so Olav, too, expects Eirik to avenge the killing of his real father. Once, when Eirik raises an axe against him, he is relieved more than anything else. Eirik, however, is brought up short by the expression on Olav’s face and thereby breaks the avenging pattern.

Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism while she was writing about Olav Audunssøn’s life and fate, and this comes through in the books. While Olav complains like Job and struggles to make himself deserving of his rigorous God’s love, God reveals Himself in the final scene in His omnipotence and grace. The almost sadomasochistic relationship between narrator and central character mirrors the same circumstance – each chance incident in Ingunn’s and Olav’s lives becomes an onerous fate they bewail but cannot escape. And even though Olav spends long passages out of the narrator’s field of vision, he is always brought in for new suffering before mercy is granted and he is at length allowed to die.


Sigrid Undset was a dominant figure in the Norwegian literary milieu throughout the period between the World Wars. Her novels topped the best-seller lists of the day, and in 1935 she was appointed chair of the Norwegian Society of Authors. She wrote numerous newspaper articles and essays drawing attention to the danger of the mushrooming fascism. When Germany occupied Norway in 1940, she had to flee the country, and the occupying forces killed her eldest son and commandeered her home. From her exile in the United States, Sigrid Undset wrote her memoirs, Happy Times in Norway (1942; Norwegian version: Lykkelige dager, 1948), and also used her energy tirelessly opposing the German destruction of Europe. She later returned home to Norway and rebuilt Bjerkebæk, her beloved home in Lillehammer. The copestone on her illustrious career was set with her biography of Caterina av Siena (1951; Eng. tr. Catherine of Siena), a woman of quite extraordinary accomplishment. Sigrid Undset considered this work to be her spiritual testament. It is not a work by the historian and Catholic Sigrid Undset, but by the author Sigrid Undset who launched her writing career with an agenda to let the woman of the 1900s speak through her pen. What should be the underpinning values to her life? What should she have in view? What should she do without? To find an answer to these questions, the author had to return to the Middle Ages and also linger on the eighteenth-century threshold to the modern world, the confrontation between order and chaos, intellect versus emotion and superstition. ‘Finding yourself’ might sound like a cliché when used of Sigrid Undset’s writing career, but what that actually involves is clearly evident in Caterina av Siena.

Catherine of Siena lived in the fourteenth century, and Sigrid Undset sees this century – just like her own – as marked by egoism, arrogance, and moral decay. The author’s fascination with this particular saint might therefore be because in Catherine she sees a spokeswoman for critique of the decay – given, for example, the way in which Catherine castigates the Pope, Gregory XI, himself. Not only is there close kinship between Sigrid Undset’s medieval women and Catherine of Siena, but also between her and the modern women. Catherine broke with the expectations an outside world had of the ordinary young woman. She renounced husband, marriage, and children and chose a life dedicated entirely to service of her Lord. Kristin Lavransdatter had been “A handmaiden of God […] a wayward, unruly servant […] slothful and neglectful, impatient under correction, but little constant in her deeds […]”. Catherine, on the other hand, follows her Lord’s command, from conviction that He will “choose to put the pride of the mighty to shame by the use of fragile tools”, and drives herself on in vigorous political and ecclesiastical work. Her enterprise can only be compared to the strong force of sexuality. The female passion that ruled Kristin’s life finally turns up here, channelled into endeavour of the highest worthiness. Strong, sincere love is now rendered sacred.

Sigrid Undset’s texts are never one-dimensional, rarely unequivocal. She has fathomed the depths of her leading women. Now and then she could be chastising, both in her writing and in her private activities. But she was only condemnatory where she saw her fundamental humanist values being trampled underfoot.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch