Sigrid Undset and ‘Happy Times in Norway’

Sigrid Undset demonstrated the greatness of a true artist, telling the simplest stories in such an artless way that the effort of creation barely shows.

(photo: Register Files)

On June 10, 1949, Nobel prize-winning author Sigrid Undset died in Lillehammer, Norway. Although she was born in Denmark, she had lived most of her life in Norway and had been awarded The Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav after World War II because of her great support of the Norwegian resistance against Hitler. She, her son Anders, who died in battle against the Nazis in 1940, and her daughter, Maren Charlotte, who died in 1939, are buried in Mesnali, Norway, near Lillehammer. Undset fled Norway as the Germans invaded, and lived in the United States from 1940 to 1945, with her third child, Hans Benedict.

Undset had begun her writing career with realistic novels set in modern times. She wrote about working class families, women in adulterous relationships, and artists. Undset had Anders Svarstad when he was married with three children, so she knew firsthand the effects of adultery and personal sin. Raised in the Lutheran national church, Undset began to explore Catholicism even as her marriage was breaking down. She moved to Lillehammer, away from her husband, and raised her children there; the couple separated and Undset started on a new writing phase.


Scandinavian Epics

In her new home, Bjerkebæk—which is now a museum—Undset began writing two great epic novels set in medieval Scandinavia: Kristin Lavransdatter and Olav Audunssøn. The first, the story of a woman who marries a man who has been living with another woman even though she has been betrothed to a good man her parents have chosen for her, is a three-volume work that explores the effects of Kristin’s sin—she is pregnant before her wedding to Erlend Nikulaussøn—on her life as wife and mother. Kristin and Erlend have defied family, society, and the Church and their willfulness does not bode well for their marriage. Charles Archer and J.S. Scott translated and abridged this epic into English for Alfred A. Knopf in the 1920s; the more recent Tiina Nunnally translation from Penguin is considered superior and is complete.

Her second great epic, which was translated into English as The Master of Hesviken, was written after Undset had become a Catholic on November 1, 1924, and its protagonist, Olav, wrestles with the effects of secret sin throughout his life. To borrow another author’s title, he is caught in a “Catch-22”: if he confesses his sin, which must done in public, he will bring dishonor on his wife and son. It makes the reader very grateful for private confession and the absolute secrecy of the confessional.

Undset won the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages". At that time she was translating Catholic books into Norwegian, including works by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson and G.K. Chesterton. She donated the money she received from the Nobel Committee to families who were raising mentally disabled children. Undset became Third Order Dominican and later wrote a life of St. Catherine of Siena. In the 1930s, she condemned Adolf Hitler’s policies and her books were banned in Germany.


“Happy Times in Norway”

While she lived in the United States, Undset continued to voice her opposition to Hitler; she helped raise funds for the Norwegian resistance. (Her home in Lillehammer was occupied by the Germans and used as officers’ quarters.) She also wrote and edited three books for children: Happy Times in Norway, Sigurd and His Brave Companions, and True and Untrue and Other Norse Tales, all published in translation by the University of Minnesota Press.

In Happy Times in Norway Undset describes the simple and joyful lives of a Catholic Norwegian family before the Nazi invasion. Undset used this episodic story to denounce the Nazi occupation, not only for its destruction of Norwegian culture, but for the Nazi policy of eugenics, identifying certain members of the community as “life unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben).            

The little girl in the book, Tulla—like Sigrid Undset’s own daughter Maren Charlotte—suffers from some mental and emotional disorders. While the two sons, Anders and Hans (the same first names as Undset’s sons) have active and full lives, Tulla must be carefully tended. But Tulla loves to celebrate Christmas, looking forward to a sleigh ride and to see the birds visiting the Christmas sheaves of grain hung outside. Although the family does not know how, since “days and months do not exist in her little world” Tulla always knows when “a red-letter day in her life” is coming up: her birthday, Christmas, the Seventeenth of May (Norway’s Independence Day) — and the family includes her in these festivities (p. 17). Her mother hugs Tulla closely one night, “for it is an old belief in Norway that what one holds in one’s hands when one sees the New Year’s new moon, one shall not lose that year.” (p. 61)

In her preface to the 1942 edition, Undset rejoices that Tulla had died before seeing all those “red-letter” days taken from her life because she couldn’t have understood what happened. And even more: “She was spared the sufferings inflicted on her people by a nation who has deemed children like her—not able to achieve anything in this world except teaching us love and tenderness, and giving love and tenderness in return—unfit to live.” (pp. 227-228)

In “Happy Times in Norway” Undset demonstrates the greatness of a true artist, telling the simplest stories in such an artless way that the effort of creation barely shows. Even as she deplores the evils of Nazism, she hopes for day when Happy Times return to “the land of our forefathers and our children.” (p. 229)

Although she saw that day, Undset had lost so many friends and family members; she did not write anything for publication between her return to Norway and her death.

Pope Francis conferred on Catholics the lay ministries of catechist and lector at a Mass for the Sunday of the Word of God on Jan. 23.

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