Sigrid Undset — A Catholic Woman for Our Time

COMMENTARY: The gifted Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, by any standard, was a most extraordinary person.

Sigrid Undset in 1923
Sigrid Undset in 1923 (photo: Anders Beer Wilse / National Library of Norway / Public Domain)

Sigrid Undset walked into the manager’s office of the Aschehoug publishing company, one of the largest in Norway, and tossed G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1925) onto his desk, exclaiming that “this is the best book ever written. It has to be translated into Norwegian!” It was translated into that language and she did the translation (1931).

This anecdote compresses Undset in a nutshell. She was a strong Catholic, an apostle of the faith, a great admirer of Chesterton’s writings, at odds with her contemporary world, and a woman of considerable talent and determination.

She was born in the small town of Kalundborg, Denmark, at the childhood home of her mother. When she was 2 years of age her family moved to Norway. She grew up in Oslo (which was called Kristiania until 1925). Her father, an archaeologist, died when she was 11. The family situation then required Sigrid to abandon hope of a university education. She obtained work as a secretary with an engineering company in Kristiania, a post she held for 10 years.

While employed as a secretary, she wrote her first novel at age 22, which failed to meet with the publisher’s approval. Not dismayed, she wrote a less voluminous work of fiction that was published after initially being rejected. After the publication of her third book, she left her office job, prepared to live on her income as a writer. Her books were selling well.

Her religious upbringing was virtually nonexistent. Both her parents were atheists. She abandoned Lutheranism, which was the state-supported religion, having found it to be anemic. 

“I have never understood the meaning of the Reformation,” she said, “as other than a history of revolt of believing Christians who, subjectively pious, hoped that true Christianity agreed better with their subjective idea of Christianity than [with] the factual one.”

In her long, arduous journey to Catholicism, she could say that the Catholic Church is “the only explanation of existence.”

She received spiritual nourishment from saints whom she read avidly. Her final work, a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, is regarded as one of the best works of its kind on this most extraordinary saint. 

“We sorely need the wisdom of the saint,” she declared. The Catholic saints of history are “the only thoroughly sane people ... they stood in continual confrontation with the world.”

Nonetheless, during the heathen period of her life, she married, somewhat impulsively, a man who was several years her senior and had been in a marriage that produced three children. They were ultimately divorced and Sigrid took care of the children.

In November 1929, after thorough instruction from the Catholic priest in her local parish, she was received into the Catholic Church. She was 42 years old at the time. Later, she became a lay Dominican.

The Master of Hestviken, written immediately after her conversion, takes place in a historical epoch when Norway was Catholic. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, it centers on the main character’s relationship with God, a deep sense of sin and the need for redemption. Her masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) in three volumes, together with The Master of Hestviken (1925-27) in four volumes, earned her the Nobel Prize for literature (1928). She donated her Nobel Prize money to further the cause of Finnish refugees during the Second World War. Shockingly, her Norwegian compatriot, Knut Hamsun, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920, gave his Prize money to Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.

Many of Undset’s contemporaries regarded her conversion as scandalous. At that time, there were very few practicing Catholics in Norway. The attacks against her character and her faith were, at times, quite vicious. Nonetheless, these attacks served to make her more determined. They aroused her literary gifts which she put to use in public debates, going out of her way to defend the Church.

Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940. The Nazis had defined Undset as Norwegian Enemy No. 1 since she had so strongly denounced Nazism and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. She was forced to flee. It was a grueling flight, over Norwegian mountains into Sweden and then through Russia and Japan to the United States, where she spent the next five years. 

Six days into her flight she learned that her son, fighting for Norway, died in battle trying to repel a German invasion. While in exile, some of her friends silently and quickly hid the contents of her library in barns and under church boards. She reclaimed her books after the war once she returned to Norway.

In 1935 she published an essay entitled, “Progress, Race, Religion” in which she attacked the racist philosophy of the Nazis. In retaliation, all of her books were removed from libraries in Germany, while the Norwegian Nazi newspaper, Fronten, denounced her.

Sigrid Undset, by any standard, was a most extraordinary person. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that she was the greatest novelist of the 20th century. One might think that, considering her achievements, she would be the envy of feminists. Yet, she deplored feminism and would have been horrified to know that its later agenda promoted abortion on demand. She held that motherhood is not a “job” but life itself. She was not a feminist. She was a great woman. Housework for her was not a chore but a source of joy. She stated that “feminist emancipation” is a form of “slavery.”

Sigrid Undset passed away at the age of 67. She is buried at Mansali, Norway, beside the graves of two of her children under the inscription, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”