Undset for the Masses

I have Sigrid Undset on my mind these days.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Never heard of Sigrid Undset? You are not alone. 

Undset lived from May 20, 1882, to 10 June 10, 1949. She lived in Norway until 1940 when she moved to the United States to escape the Nazi occupation. She returned to Norway in 1945. Her parents were atheists and Undset considered herself agnostic for much of her life. Like many others, the First World War created a crisis of faith for her, culminating in her reception into the Catholic Church in 1924. Undset won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928 for her epic works set in the middle ages titled Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken

When Undset writes, she is not merely telling a story.

She paints a portrait of a person. What makes her one of the greatest authors of all time is her ability to peer into the fullness of an individual and share the story from that person’s point of view. Every human being has strengths and weaknesses. Every human person has a limited understanding of himself. Events happen, sometimes very big events and sometimes very small events that wake up in us the truth we needed to know or they are the straw that finally breaks us to do what we know to be right. Very few of us get it right the first time. We have illusions of what we can do, of what we are strong enough to withstand, of what we like or dislike. Under these illusions, we may find ourselves in circumstances we never expected.

Undset, unlike so many authors, is capable of seeing the full range of human experience.

She causes you to love a rake like Erland in Kristin Lavransdatter. You pity the hard-hearted daughter of Olav Audensson. You sympathize with the bourgeois bored housewife in Images in a Mirror, and like her, you wonder, is there more than this? Life with four children does seem a drudgery. What took the spark out? These are all questions we ask ourselves in similar situations. Undset saw that even in the most mundane, routine lives, we are still alive, still thinking, breathing, looking about us, and more than anything else, we are still longing. 

What will we do with this longing?

The time and period in which Undset writes are so pivotal in grasping the magnitude of her questions are asking. She lives in a secularized Lutheran anti-Catholic modern world of artists and writers to whom love, truth, and beauty are ideals of a distant past with no bearing on today. Marriage is nothing. Divorce is nothing. Sex outside of marriage is nothing. It all comes to naught. We have not even free will, only what we feel.

What a perfect backdrop to place a woman who married for love, bore children she loves, and is loved by a faithful hardworking husband who will find a way to give her the rest she needs after an illness. 

Undset wrote, Images in a Mirror in 1917, six years after the startling and heartbreaking Jenny (1911), two years before her marriage fell apart while on holiday (1919), three years before she published Kristin Lavransdatter (1920), and seven years before she converted to the Catholic Church (1924). 

These dates matter intensely when we consider the values of which Undset writes.

For the artist who moves from atheism to Christianity the jump in worldview is considerable. We see her through her characters, searching, responding to that longing that there must be something more. Undset is not afraid to write herself into her characters. What makes her magnificent is that she does not do only this, she also considers and explores the multiple facets of those her characters encounter. 

It is not always perfect.

I’m not sure Vegard is as clear as he might be in the beginning, the only time the reader is allowed his perspective. I want to go back and see, is this man, this salesman, she later calls him, painted as fully as he might in the beginning? Perhaps not.

Nor are those in the life of Paul, the protagonist of The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush. In those works, we never see beyond his perspective. The outside characters are flat when compared to the depths of those supporting roles in other works. And yet, Paul himself is a little obtuse when it comes to what he sees in others. Like many artistic temperaments, he is consumed by the fire that burns within him such that he cannot see straight. He is lit from within and pursues the ideas as much as he humanly can.

In Images in a Mirror, Undset also considers the artistic temperament from the way an outsider reads to it to how it is truly experienced. With so many competing passions, the artist follows the one that cries the loudest. But that voice must be quieted if we are to do what is right.

Did Undset face these same issues?

I have not yet read her autobiography or biographies on her. It can wait a little longer. To explore and consider the fictional characters created by this remarkable woman is enough for me right now.

I think it’s probably always best to start with what is considered an author’s best work. Kristin Lavransdatter translated by Tina Nunnelly may be the best place to start. For a collection of her lesser-known works, check out the selection at Cluny Media. 

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