Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is most famous for her award-winning Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy. But she wrote much more than that epic work of historical fiction. Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts, a new biography and study of Undset by Aidan Nichols, O.P, published by Ignatius Press, sheds light on the remarkable breadth of Undset’s thought.
CWR spoke with Vivian Dudro, Senior Editor at Ignatius Press, to discuss the new book and Undset’s significance as a Catholic convert, novelist, polemicist, and underappreciated intellectual of modern times.
CWR: Why was this book written? Why should someone read this book, and why now?
Vivian Dudro: The simple answer to why it was written is because the author wanted to write it! Aidan Nichols is a Dominican, scholar, and big fan of Sigrid Undset, and he just felt a desire to write it.
As far as the timing goes, one of Undset’s big historical novels–The Master of Hestviken–is being re-translated, so maybe people will be introduced to her work through that and then want to find out more about her. That’s just serendipity though; it wasn’t planned that way.
But to answer the question, “Why is Sigrid Undset important?”: she’s one of the greatest twentieth-century novelists, period, and she just happened to become a Catholic when her career was taking off [shortly after the publication of Kristin Lavransdatter]. And that makes her interesting. She’s a great writer whether you’re Catholic or not, but for Catholics, her whole story is particularly interesting.
Some people consider Kristin Lavransdatter to be the greatest Catholic novel of the twentieth century. And this particular book of her life–people who have read widely are now starting to say that it’s the best thing in English they’ve seen on her.
CWR: Was it normal for an intellectual in Norway in her era to become Catholic, or was that a little unusual?
Dudro: Oh, that was very unusual. Norway had been majority Protestant for some time, and she was not raised in a Catholic family. She was raised in an intellectual family: her father was a university professor, and even though he’d been raised as a Swedish Protestant, he was not a practicing or devout man. And when she did become a Catholic, she suffered misunderstanding and ostracization, in a certain sense.
But her literary genius was so great that she won the Nobel prize in 1928 for her combined efforts on two huge works, Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. And she was already a Catholic when she wrote The Master of Hestviken. So her literary genius was widely acknowledged, although her Catholic conversion was not well understood.
CWR: If people in the English-speaking world know about Sigrid Undset at all, usually it’s because of Kristin Lavransdatter. But obviously she was much more than a novelist. Fr. Nichols does a good job of bringing out all the different aspects of her work and life. Let’s start with her interest in botany and the natural sciences. Is that significant to her work and her conversion in some way?
Dudro: It’s definitely integrated into her conversion and her way of seeing the world.
When Fr. Nichols talks about her interest in the natural sciences, he mentions the Enlightenment-era thinker Linné [also known as Carl Linnaeus]. Linné’s understanding of the natural world being ordered–there are patterns, there are natural laws, to reality–and Undset’s study of him affected not just her interest in plants and such, but her way of seeing reality: yes, there are natural laws at work, and if we violate them, we suffer natural consequences.
And this very much shaped the “Christian realism” that’s in all of her writing: when the characters make choices, those choices have consequences, just because of the way human beings are. And part of their journey through life is to learn from experience, sometimes the hard way, because that’s how wisdom is gained.
She already intuited a lot of this before she became a Catholic. Really what happened was the Catholic Church ended up being the place that made the most sense out of the modern chaos of communism and Nazism and atheism, and the project of modern science to re-create man and make a perfect world. The more she pushed against all of that as being not true, the closer to Catholicism she went. It was sort of a logical conclusion. Her search for truth, and her integrity, to stand by what she knew was true, led her right into the Catholic Church.
So, yes, this way of looking at the world, at nature, at men and women: it’s not an arbitrary, random, make-of-it-what-you-will type of thing. No, there’s an order to it all. And that affects her writing in a big way.
CWR: In the book, Fr. Nichols says, “Earlier, she had assumed that man created God as an ideal image of himself. Now [as she considered converting to Catholicism] she was wondering whether it was God who did the creating.” That changes what humans are and how we’re supposed to behave.
Dudro: That’s right. Her father was an archaeologist who studied Iron Age Norwegian peoples and artifacts. So she learned from an early age the pagan history of Norway and was very steeped in the mythology of the Viking peoples and the sagas. She saw in myth that the gods are human imaginative creations, but they are the human imagination seeking understanding of the world.
But she kind of lumped it all together– “If it’s a religion, it’s a myth.” She had respect for it, but it wasn’t quite the same as encountering the Creator with a capital C, and understanding that the world as it is is ordered and patterned because it’s the intentional creation out of love by a God who made it the way He did. But even before she became a Catholic, she had made this leap.
CWR: Let’s move from her view of the natural world and religion to her writing and views on the political sphere, the women’s movement, and related matters.Could you talk a little about that?
Dudro: She very early on recognized that she was sort of out of sync with her era, because she had this understanding that nature has laws and conditions that go with it that we’re not in charge of. So she was already opposed to the whole modern project of using science and politics to re-create man in some new fashion, in the sense that she knew it was impossible: you’re not going to re-create human beings, you’re not going to re-create reality! So she knew the modern project could only be a destructive one, even before her conversion.
Moving forward in time to the Nazi project, for example: she was well acquainted with the left and socialism and communism, and she had certain sympathies for some of those ideas. She was a supporter of the women’s voting movement because she saw that women’s roles had changed considerably through the invention of machines that had changed what women needed to do and sort of forced them into the outside world to obtain employment. So now her rights and duties have to change too, and voting is just one of those things.
However, she never signed onto the women’s movement project of re-inventing men and women or trying to set up some kind of Marxist class war between them, or the denigration of motherhood that was starting to happen. She was completely against this, because how could you separate out womanhood from motherhood? It’s just the natural role of women to become mothers. And that’s all because of her rootedness in this natural realism.
So the more the Left moved in this destructive direction, the more toward Christianity she was led, and Catholic Christianity in particular.
She says this amazing thing, which is quoted in the book: “Christianity … has given to women the most honorable position they have as yet been assigned” (p. 65). She saw the Christian elevation of the virgin and mother, which was unlike any other culture ever. And these modern ideologies were against both virginity and motherhood, unless it’s motherhood for the sake of the Reich or something like this, which is just a new objectification of women.
Because then, on the right, you have the rise of Nazism, and she was absolutely against that. In her novel Ida Elisabeth, which was originally published in 1932, the year before Hitler took over Germany, we see her criticizing the worship of the strong over the weak. There’s a doctor in the novel who basically has bought into the eugenics and euthanasia movement in medicine, which was already very popular in the western world.
So, back to her natural realism: what is a woman, what is the mother? Well, the role of the woman and mother is to take care of the dependent and weak, whether it’s the child or the sick or whomever. And Undset herself had handicapped children, so this was completely horrible as far as she was concerned: the survival of the strong over the weak at the expense of the weak.
So, when the Third Reich invaded Norway in 1940, she was blacklisted before they got there, because of things she’d already written that either implicitly or explicitly took on Nazism. So she had to flee the country. She ended up in the US during the war years, and she worked for the war effort by writing essays and became sort of an anti-Nazi polemicist.
She was a brilliant woman with a penetrating mind, and she could see through to the essence of these things–euthanasia, eugenics–long before a lot of other people did.
CWR: Fr. Nichols talks about the beautiful home she had to flee, Bjerkebaek, and in her writing we see a lot of love for home and for particular places. So it must have been devastating to have to flee her home.
Dudro: Yes, and the German army commandeered her house and used it as some kind of a headquarters while they occupied Norway. So, she not only had to flee her home, her home was taken over by the enemy and in a sense desecrated. She came back after the war [in 1945] a brokenhearted woman. That home would never be the same to her after these experiences.
And yes, her love of the domestic arts! She saw the womanly arts as being to create beauty at the same time as functionality–handwork, embroidery, and weaving, making a house into a home. And this leads to her laments at the industrialization of manufacture, because now, all that handwork that women did to make things lovely is mass-produced.
Women’s artistic expression got lost to the industrial revolution. There are women who knit and sew and embroider as a hobby, but it’s not part of their identity as women in the same way. So she made this home in Norway something very beautiful, with woodworking and painting and gardening, in the traditional Norwegian style.
And she was a third Order Dominican and very devoted to the Church, so her home became a welcoming place to clergy and other Catholic intellectuals. So hospitality was a big part of her life, and this home was opened up to lots of people.
And after the war it was never the same again. She didn’t live long after the war; she died fairly young in 1949. And as Fr. Nichols pointed out to me, one of the sorrows of her life was that she built up this beautiful home and was hoping to raise her children there and have grandchildren and live there to a ripe old age with her gardens and her looms, and the war came and took all of that away. And it’s a tragedy that her aspirations for the kind of life she had hoped to live did not materialize.
CWR: And she lost most of her children as well.
Dudro: That’s right. So she ended up with no grandchildren.
She had a mixed family, because she had an affair with a married man with children [Anders Castus Svarstad], before her conversion. After his divorce and their marriage, his three children from a previous marriage ended up coming to live with them, and they ended up having three children together. But two of her three children died before her, and the third child never married and lived a conflicted life. And the husband’s children she was trying to raise ended up going back to live with their mother’s family.
So there was a lot of pain and suffering here! And she wasn’t one to blame her pain and suffering on others when it was because of her own actions. This is her understanding of the redemptive power of suffering that comes through in all of her novels: when we embrace the suffering caused by bad choices that we make, that is how we’re purified.
CWR: Another aspect of her life that, ironically, isn’t well-known in the English-speaking world before, was how much of an anglophile Undset was: she was interested in the English saints and the English reformation, and I think Nichols says that she read Chesterton! So can you say anything briefly about that?
Dudro: It’s true, even before she and her husband lived in England for a while, she was already taken with English literature. I think the reason for this partially was that the English really invented the modern novel. The French had novels too, but the English really made the novel into a popular art form, and the essays that they write as well… She was just so taken with the English language arts.
Then, interestingly enough, Thomas Becket, the saint who resisted the king and was murdered, turns up as a saint in Kristin Lavransdatter, because the people of Norway had a devotion to St. Thomas Becket! There’s an interesting spiritual connection here as well.
CWR: Based on that and everything else we’ve said, even though Sigrid Undset is pretty famous for Kristin Lavransdatter, is it fair to say that she’s under-appreciated in the English-speaking world?
Dudro: I agree, she’s not as well known as she deserves, and her work is not as widely read as it deserves. And we really hope the book will help draw new, fresh attention to her and her works.
CWR: I know it made me excited to read all her other works, especially the ones that are published by Ignatius.
(Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts
By Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Ignatius Press, 2022
Paperback, 218 pages
Related at CWR:
• “Mapping the cosmologies of Sigrid Undset” (August 12, 2022) by Genevieve S. Kineke
• “One of the most exciting works of fiction ever is a Catholic novel” (September 9, 2021) by Russell Shaw
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!