Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts by Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Ignatius Press, 2022). Paperback, $17.95, 218 pp.
Some years back, when William J. Bennett had a radio talk show, I was listening to him while driving to work. At one point he asked the question, “Who is Sigrid Undset?”
It grieved me to learn that a Catholic of Bill Bennett’s erudition had never heard of one of the great Catholic novelists of the 20th Century, a woman who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 and was once a household name. Her fall from the public eye over the last century is in no way mysterious, but is no less lamentable for that. Perhaps Father Aidan Nichols’ Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts can help remedy that situation.
I’m not a Catholic myself. I came to Undset through my interest in Norwegian history and literature. My own faith (like that of her paternal grandparents) is Lutheran Pietist. Yet I’ve found in Undset one of those Catholic writers, like Chesterton and Tolkien, who have a lot to tell me. Born in Denmark in 1882, Sigrid Undset was the daughter of a Norwegian archaeologist. As a girl, she delighted in nature, and was deeply impressed by the writings of the Swedish biologist Linné (Linnaeus) and his hierarchical vision of biological life. This paradigm became the bedrock of all her thinking: “cosmic order within a divinely balanced whole.”
She was 11 when her father’s death plunged the family into poverty, forcing her eventually to train as an office worker. But in her free time, she studied and wrote. When she was 25 her first novel, a scandalous tale of adultery, was published. It was a bestseller, and before long Sigrid was able to support her family by writing. She improvidently married a Norwegian painter (who was himself married when they began their liaison and would in some ways model Erlend, the unhappy husband in Kristin Lavransdatter). This union produced three children, one of them a severely handicapped daughter who died young. The marriage ended in divorce – oddly just as Undset was nearing conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Undset’s religious education had been in the Norwegian state church, and it failed to impress her. The Norwegian church was modern, temporizing, liberal. She respected her pietist grandparents but found their edification meetings tedious. The Roman church of the Middle Ages appealed to her far more. She responded to English Catholic writers like Belloc, Chesterton, and (particularly) the converted priest and novelist Robert Hugh Benson.
It’s always interesting to see Protestantism through Catholic eyes. Undset – and she’s hardly alone in this – viewed the Reformation as the point where the whole Western project started going off the rails (which is a game any number can play, of course. Someone could argue, I suppose, that the abolition of serfdom was the root cause of Communism and Critical Race Theory.)
By her own account, Undset took confirmation instruction from a Lutheran pastor and understood him to say that “everybody believed God to be as he or she would like Him to be.” Protestants, she said, “…had in reality given up the historic Christianity as a teaching no longer sustainable, but, purely on emotional grounds, they would not give up a view of life which was colourized by Christianity.” Reading this biography, one can’t help wondering whether Undset ever met a competent, conservative Lutheran theologian. Her distaste, though, was entirely suitable to the liberal Protestantism dominant in Norway in her time – and even more today.
But it would be misleading to characterize Undset’s Catholicism as negative, a mere rejection of Lutheranism. At the heart of her faith was her delight, conceived in childhood, in Linné’s vision of a hierarchical, ordered cosmos, a ladder to Heaven. If there was a God, she reasoned, he must be the source of this order. So his proper worship must be ordered, rational, hierarchical. The Protestant churches she knew did not seem to offer this. Catholicism satisfied her at the deepest level.
This theology of delight was most fully expressed in her two great novel series, the trilogy Kristen Lavransdatter and the tetralogy Olav Audunssøn. Kristen is a sort of inverted medieval romance, in which the willful, beautiful young heroine must suffer real-world consequences for her disobedience. Olav is the story of a man who tragically delays confessing a mortal sin out of a sense of domestic obligation.
Undset created a semi-medieval life for herself at Bjerkebæk, the farm she bought and remodeled in Norway’s scenic Gudbrandsdalen valley. Her idyll there was interrupted by the German invasion in 1940. A long-standing opponent of Nazism, she fled to Sweden with her younger son (the elder, a Norwegian army officer, perished in the earliest fighting). From Sweden she traveled through Russia and Japan, crossing the Pacific to refuge in the US. There she spent the war years advocating for her country.
Most critics consider Undset a spent creative force after the war. Author Nichols disagrees. Undset studied the saints, producing a biography of St. Catherine of Sienna, a work of scholarship and devotion that he considers one of her crowning achievements. But it is true that her health never recovered; she died in 1949.
She left a rich legacy. Norway is proud of her but has never quite figured out what to do with her. Her books are exquisitely written and profound in their psychological insight. But they’re entirely out of tune with her times (even more with ours), often offensive to modern sensibilities.
It would be a little bizarre to say I couldn’t put a literary biography down. But that was very nearly the case with Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts. Granted, that’s partly because the author’s wide-ranging references often touch on my personal interests – from the English Inklings to Olav, royal patron saint of Norway. The narrative never lags, and Undset provides a surprisingly dramatic subject, the kind of “difficult” woman who continually rocks the boat while celebrating subordination.
In the past I’ve published a couple of online articles to promote Undset, based on my own reading of her medieval novels (plus Return to the Future, her wartime memoir), supplemented by some superficial research. Father Nichols set me straight on a couple points – particularly her relation to feminism. She’s been described as a feminist in her early career, and that’s technically true. But she was never a social liberal. From the start, she saw women and men as part of Linné’s great natural hierarchy. She could not accept “mere” gender equality, even before her conversion.
Sigrid Undset: Reader of Souls is an outstanding literary biography, and agreeably short. It deserves many readers, who will bless its author for opening Sigrid Undset’s world to them.
Lars Walker is a former academic librarian, currently a freelance Norwegian translator. He is the author of several fantasy novels, including a series of historical fantasies set in Norway in the Viking Age, the first of which is The Year of the Warrior.