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. 

I recommend

I recommend satire.

This month I read “A Handful of Dust” by Evelyn Waugh. Set in the 1930s, Tony and his wife live a Downton Abbey existence but he is more Mr. Grantham than Lady Mary and does not change with the times. He just rolls along attached to the traditions.

She is a modern lady with modern ideas. She does not like the décor of their stuffy, uncomfortable estate, but does enjoy her monthly day trips to the city. There she meets a man, pushes him into an affair with her and takes a London flat to continue their dalliance.

This could be the subject of any genre, really, but the author is a master of subtle satire. Instead of intimately probing their goings-on, he shows the fallout how all they build, all they hold onto, it but ashes compared to the seriousness with which they give it.

The weight of their concerns likes in sentiment, how it feels. Sentiment is based on certain psychological associations and traditions. Emotions are a combination of cognitive and bodily sensations that can be as influenced by my prejudiced beliefs as by the meal I neglected to eat.

Thus satire can take our unspoken, unconscious conclusions and illustrate to us how they really look.

I recommend “The Princess Bride.”

This is not satire. This is comedy. This is the perfect romantic comedy in which everyone except the villain and his henchman is loveable.

During our most recent viewing, after Westley has been attacked by the R.O.U.S., his shoulder bitten and bleeding, my children marveled, “how come he’s still going if he’s hurt?” The innocents of our home are practically paralyzed by a small cut on the toe. To see a man persevere despite injury puts their passions in perspective.

“Some hard things are worth doing,” we tell them.

The classic hero-villain story in which we do not explore the psychology and woundedness of the villain is ripe with moral lessons children need to learn in their simplicity before they are cognitively ready to take them in their complexity.

I recommend the musical “Hamilton.”

My husband and I were gifted two tickets in July 2017. The musical, now available on Disney+, does the opposite of Waugh’s satire in “A Handful of Dust.” All the founding fathers seek to build something lasting, something built on principle, rather than emotions, sentiments, or passion.

As a modern composition, Lin Manuel Miranda explores and experiments with various ideas of what psychological motivations stood behind these historical actions.

Despite the complexity, George Washington is a hero, a man who is challenged, facing hard things, carrying his own regret, but pushing forward. “There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large,” King George acknowledges.

Washington is no saint, but neither is his legacy denigrated by his mistakes. He openly admits to having “led [his] men straight into a massacre” when he was younger. He cautions Hamilton in his desire for glory and upward mobility.

It is a wonder to think what individuals faced in order to build something that has lasted 224 years.

“Congress writes, George, attack the British forces/I shoot back, we have resorted to eating our horses.”

 “A thousand soldiers die in a hundred-degree heat/as we snatch a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.”

Some hard things are worth doing.

While purists are put off by then creative license and avenues taken, when the facts are missing, storytellers are generally allowed to fill in the gaps of our knowledge as they tell the story. As in film, writers condense complex timelines and historical records to highlight particular aspects of the story. I do not recommend “Hamilton” for studying history; I recommend as a study of character.

The desire to build something lasting and the urge to make something of himself motivated Hamilton.

Ideals motivate Jefferson.

The desire to become important and essential motivated Burr. Finding another in the place he desired, his motivation, the emotion that moves his actions, turns to jealousy, leading to this final and conclusive action.

Whether literature, film, or Broadway, there are stories that can teach us something about ourselves. When we identify with a character, we see their actions and principles play out safely at a distance. We can learn without having left our seats. And hopefully, we can improve.

Lyrics taken from memory then confirmed at www.genius.com

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!”

Weekend Links 8.5.17

This past week, I have been in San Francisco along side my son who is in the hospital. I relaxed my Facebook restrictions and found I wanted to close the tab after too long. It is nice to ease the vigilance of wondering if there is another message for me. The interest in scrolling is almost dead. In my evenings, once filled with binge watching television shows online, have been filled with 30 minutes of writing and at least one hour of reading Kristen Lavarnsdatter. I look forward to that time as the day goes on.

On to the weekend links!


Some times we need a reminder that mass is more than meets the eye. This post from the ever clear and concise Fr. Longenecker on why only the ordained can preach at mass provided that for me.


I find the whole American consumerist approach to holidays fascinating. There is a vacuum of culture when religion backs away. Something must fill it. With advertisement saturation, consumerism filled that void. So yes, I do think retailers are giving the people what they want by opening a holiday shop in summer. It may be what they want, but it is not what is best for them.

I am a proponent of “we need to get with the times” and pursue renewable sources of energy. It is frustrating to see how these solar panel rental companies work. I will be following the developments of these Tesla roof tiles.


Too often in the nitty gritty of parish life, with tight budgets and efforts to manage with few resources, the value of work is downgraded. We need volunteers, it is true, but if you are a freelancers of any kind, be mindful of how much you volunteer. Consider it your pro bono work, be open about the nature of it, and when the desire to give or requests come in asking for me, have your fees ready. This article from Catholic Creatives highlights the impact of working for free has on others in the same industry. In many Catholic parishes, we see this in how some want to hire a musician to play piano and sing and lead a choir at multiple masses for $100 a week.

I copied this here as much for you as for me. Reading Kristen Lavarnsdatter by Sigurd Undset, a boulder of a book with great depth and growth has not only been entertaining, but relaxing and restorative after long days. I hope you find something you like. From the list, I am interested to read Silas Marner, Treasure Island, and The Idiot. In this House of Brede and Brideshead Revisited were begun and set aside. No shame in that!


Beware what you read. When even academic journals are subject to poor publications, imagine what happens by the time it hits the Associated Press and it boiled down further to your newsfeed. See this scientific paper on Star Wars for evidence of why you should read carefully, and evaluate the reputation and quality of the journal.

At my former place of work, I am quoted from a Catchphrase came. The clue: this is an animal that flies. I shout: dragon! I love to learn the origins of mythical and strange creatures. Behold, the Basilisk!

Are you tired of Pearson’s for-profit monopoly on testing supplies and Advance Placement programs? I am. This man has created a college entrance exam focused on classical Christian education. Over 60 colleges will accept it in place of or alongside the SAT and ACT.


Not all abuse is physical. This piece published on Aleteia provides some important information on what psychological abuse looks like and how to get help.


A few weeks ago I shared with you an example of coercing sterilization among prison inmates. I am glad to share this offer has ended.

Racism is real. The view and treatment of the countries in Africa by other nations is unacceptable. Let’s end the ideological imperialism by the West to countries such as these. Citizens of the continent are not in need of contraception and fewer children but food, clean water, access to quality healthcare (the real kind that treats disease rather than bodily functions like fertility), education, and pro-woman laws that protect wives. Can we stop thinking contraception solves all problems that ever existed?



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