Sigrid Undset (UHN-seht) was the daughter of Ingvald Martin Undset, a distinguished Norwegian archaeologist, and Anna Charlotte Gyth from the Danish town of Kalundborg. As a child, Sigrid lived with her mother’s family while her father conducted research in Mediterranean countries. When he became a lecturer at the University of Norway, the family moved to Christiania (now Oslo), where two additional daughters were born. Undset was deeply influenced by her father’s work and applied his scientific rigor to an exploration of medieval culture in Norway. She was educated at a private academy under the direction of the considerate Fru Ragna Nielsen, who permitted Sigrid and her sisters to remain at the school after their father died and financial resources were limited. Despite the expectations of her mother and instructors, Undset had little interest in a university education; she preferred a career as a painter. She enrolled in a business school, however, in order to help support her family.
For ten years, Undset held a clerical position, which, although monotonous, gave her considerable insight into working-class women and their family and social relationships, material that she began to use for short stories and her first novel. During these years as an office worker, her study of Scandinavian folklore became more intense, and she wrote a novel based on Norse legends. However, it was not until the publication of Jenny in 1911 that Undset received widespread recognition as a compelling novelist. The success of this novel allowed her to commit herself to a writer’s career.
In 1912 she married A. C. Svarstad, a Norwegian painter with three children from a previous marriage. Undset and Svarstad had three children together, but after ten years together they agreed to a separation as Undset became more and more imbued with Roman Catholicism. She was convinced that the only true visionaries of history were the Christian saints. Because her husband had married her while divorced, Undset’s marriage was annulled by the Roman Catholic Church, which she joined as a convert from Lutheranism in 1924.
During the following decade, Undset’s greatest books were published. The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross became the famous trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, issued as a single volume in 1929. This signature work is often considered a timeless masterpiece, and it has been translated into several languages. In 1928 Undset received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy recognized her intimate knowledge of medieval laws, culture, and history, majestically portrayed as a powerful continuity of life; they also noted her ability to weigh the civilizations of the past against those of the present, especially with regard to human fortitude and spirituality. Undset’s other magnum opus is The Master of Hestviken, a tetralogy set in the Middle Ages. This collection comprises The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger.
Undset remained a prolific writer throughout the 1930’s; numerous short stories, essays, memoirs, historical studies, and contemporary novels were published with regularity until the outbreak of World War II. Chief among these are Saga of Saints and Men, Women, and Places. Much of her later writing reinforces her deep and abiding attachment to Roman Catholicism. Because she was a strong advocate of religious and racial tolerance, the German Nazi propaganda criticized her ideas. Nevertheless, she remained in Norway and volunteered as a government censor until her oldest son was killed during the defense of Norway during the German invasion. She escaped through Sweden with her younger son (her daughter had died a few years before) and made her way to the United States, where she lived through the war years, giving occasional lectures.
Upon her return to Norway, King Haakon VII bestowed upon her the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav, making her the first woman commoner to receive such an honor. In her final years, Undset lived quietly at Lillehammer in a house dating back to Viking times until she died after suffering a paralytic stroke. She collected old lace and other Norse antiques and spent much of her time contemplating those aspects of Norwegian history that amplify the preoccupations and revelations of womanhood.