Undset was born in Kalundborg, Denmark, but her family moved to Norway when she was two years old. In 1924, she converted to Catholicism and became a lay Dominican. She fled Norway for the United States in 1940 because of her opposition to Nazi Germany and the German occupation, but returned after World War II ended in 1945.
Her best-known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a modernist trilogy about life in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages. The book was set in medieval Norway and was published from 1920 to 1922 in three volumes. Kristin Lavransdatter portrays the life of woman from birth until death. Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for this trilogy as well as her two books about Olav Audunssøn, published in 1925 and 1927.
Undset experimented with modernist tropes such as stream of consciousness in her novel, although the original English translation by Charles Archer excised many of these passages. In 1997, the first volume of Tiina Nunnally's new translation of the work won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in the category of translation. The names of each volume were translated by Archer as The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, and by Nunally as The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross.
She grew up in Kristiania, the capital (the name was changed back to Oslo in 1924). The first eleven years of her life were strongly influenced by her father's serious illness but also by his extensive historical knowledge. At an early age, Sigrid learned not only the secrets of archaeology, but also the mysteries of the Norse sagas and Scandinavian folk songs.
When she was only 11 years old, her father died at the age of 40. Her mother was left to cope single-handedly with three young daughters, on very slim means. This family tragedy left its mark on Sigrid Undset's childhood and adolescence. Her hopes of a university education had to be abandoned. Having passed the intermediate school (Middelskole) examination, she took a one-year secretarial course, and, at the age of 16, got a job as secretary with a major German-owned engineering company in Kristiania. It was necessary for her to earn money to help her mother and her two younger sisters. She worked with the same company for 10 years as a secretary, gradually assuming a highly trusted position. There were times when she detested office work, feeling she was wasting her time and her youth. But it gave her insight into a major industrial enterprise, taught her how to work systematically, and made her into an expert typist. She later exhibited a considerable talent for organisation, both as housewife and subsequently as chairman of the Society of Norwegian Authors. Furthermore, systematic office routine undoubtedly taught her a good deal about how to proceed with major literary works such as her serial novels.
She was deeply moved by Shakespeare, enthusiastic about Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and attracted by legends of King Arthur. But she also immersed herself in the work of Scandinavian writers, such as Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Brandes. She was also a great admirer of British authors such as the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen. On her own initiative and in her spare time she thus acquired a sound knowledge of the art of writing, preparing herself for what she felt from an early age to be her "fate" in life.
The manuscript of Undset's first novel was ready by the time she was 22. It was the result of burning the midnight oil for many years. It was an historical novel set in Medieval Denmark, clearly of the romantic school. The manuscript was turned down by the publishing house, and to Undset this was a devastating blow. All the same, two years later, she had completed another manuscript; much less voluminous this time, only 80 pages. She had put aside the Middle Ages, and had instead produced a realistic description of a woman with a petit-bourgeois background in contemporary Kristiania. The title was Fru Marta Aulie, with an opening sentence which scandalised the readers: "I have been unfaithful to my husband." These were the words of the book's main character. This book was also refused at first, but after the intervention of a well-known writer of the time, it was subsequently accepted.
Thus, at the age of 25, Sigrid Undset made her literary debut with a short, realistic novel on adultery, set against a contemporary background. It created a stir, and she found herself ranked as a promising young author in Norway. During the years up to 1919, Undset published a number of novels set in contemporary Kristiania. The 10 years at the office had been lonely and difficult ones, but they had given her a foothold in the world of unimportant, everyday people; those who bravely, if not necessarily heroically, strove to find some happiness in life. Undset was a shy, rather introverted young woman with few personal friends. But she had unusually sharp eyes, she saw people, and she saw through them. Her way of breaking out of her loneliness was to take long strolls in and around Kristiania, both east and west, and she came to know it better than most. Her contemporary novels of the period 1907-1918 include all this -- the city and its insignificant inhabitants, the monotonous boarding house existence of secretaries in a gloomy town, their longing for a little warmth and love, and their brave, not to say heroic, rejection of [seediness. These are the stories of working people, of trivial family destinies, of the relationship between parents and children, written with warmth, but soberly, and completely unsentimentally. Her main subjects are women and their love. Or, as she herself put it -- in her typically curt and ironic manner -- "the immoral kind" (of love).
This realistic period culminated in the novels Jenny in 1911 and Vaaren (Spring) in 1914. The first is about a woman painter who, as a result of romantic crises, believes that she is wasting her life, and in the end commits suicide. The other tells of a woman who succeeds in saving both herself and her love from a serious matrimonial crisis, finally creating a secure family. These books placed Undset more or less clearly apart from the incipient women's emancipation movement in Europe -- perhaps not exactly against it, but on an entirely different level.
Undset's books sold well from the start, and after the publication of her third book, she quit the office job, and prepared to live on her income as a writer. Having been granted a writer's scholarship, she set out on a lengthy journey in Europe. After short stops in Denmark and Germany, she continued to Italy, arriving in Rome in December 1909, where she remained for nine months.
Undset's parents had had a close relationship with Rome. As a matter of fact, Sigrid should have been born in Rome while her parents lived there in 1882. But just before her birth, her father became suddenly and seriously ill, her parents travelled north in a great hurry to her mother's home at Kalundborg, and that is where Sigrid was born. However, Undset herself very likely felt that her proper place of birth was Rome, and during her stay there in 1909 she followed in her parents' footsteps.
The encounter with Southern Europe meant a great deal to her. She immediately made friends within the circle of Scandinavian artists and writers in Rome, and she became more open, and more outgoing and lively in her relations with other people.
They were married in 1912, and went to stay in London for six months. Svarstad painted, and Undset developed strong ties with English arts and letters, which were to be of decisive importance to her for the rest of her life. From London, they returned to Rome, where Sigrid's first child was born in January 1913. It was a boy, and he was named after his father.
Marriage, and the other children who came later, meant a great deal to Sigrid Undset, both as a person and as a woman. But it was a serious dilemma for the creative artist. In the years of marriage up to 1919, she had three children of her own, and a large, busy household to look after; one which also included Svarstad's three children from his first marriage. They were difficult years for Sigrid Undset. Her second child, a girl, was mentally handicapped, and Svarstad's mentally handicapped son also lived with them. She kept an open and busy house for the large family and for old and new friends.
In 1919, she moved to Lillehammer, a small town in the Gudbrandsdalen, a valley in south-east Norway, taking her two children with her. She was expecting her third child. The idea was that she should take a rest at Lillehammer and move back to Kristiania as soon as Svarstad had their new house in order. However, it was not to be.
Instead, the marriage broke down. In August 1919, Sigrid Undset gave birth to her third child, at Lillehammer. She decided to make Lillehammer her home, and within two years, Bjerke-bæk, her large, beautiful house, was completed. It was a property consisting of three large, handsome houses of traditional Norwegian timber architecture, and a big, fenced garden with lovely views of the town and the villages around. Her ailing daughter and the two boys now had a secure and exceptionally beautiful home. At last, after years of moves and changes, Sigrid Undset had a quiet place to which she could retreat from the world at large in order to do the one thing she now knew she was really good at -- writing.Kristin Lavransdatter, a major project indeed. She was completely at home in the subject matter, having written a short novel at an earlier stage, about a period in Norwegian history closer to the Pre-Christian era. She had also published a Norwegian retelling of the Arthurian legends. She studied Old Norse manuscripts and Medieval chronicles. She also visited and closely examined Medieval churches and monasteries, both at home and abroad. She was now an authority on the period she was struggling to portray, and a very different person from the 22-year-old who had written her first novel about the Middle Ages.
What had happened to her in the meantime has to do with more than history and literature, it has just as much to do with her development as a person. She had experienced love, and passion, to the bitter end. She had been in despair over a sick world in the throes of the bloodbath of the First World War. When she started on Kristin Lavransdatter in 1919, she knew what life was about.
Kristin Lavransdatter is, of course, an historical novel. But it is more than that. The historical aspects are not even the most important part of it. The historical background is precise, realistic, and never romanticised. This is by no means a writer's escape from the Modern age into vague longings for the past. Instead, in these three volumes Undset transfers the human emotions of happiness and sorrow, love and despair, into a distant past. Not in order to romanticise them, however, Sigrid Undset's choice of the Middle Ages is a result of her admiration for the culture of Medieval Christendom.
She transfers the protagonists to a distant past in order to establish the distance the author needs, in order to create a work of art from her own strong feelings and strict thoughts. She was aware of being on the threshold of something new in her life as a writer. She searched for, and found the necessary distance by going back to the Middle Ages. "I am finding my feet, and quite unaided at that," she wrote to a friend.
It is life's mystery, as she knows it from her own experience, that she writes about in Kristin Lavransdatter. That is why these 1,400 pages, as well as the 1,200 on Olav Audunssøn, are timeless. All of her characters, however minor, are every bit as complex and multifaceted as cast members of Shakespeare or The Sopranos. In addition, Madame Undset placed them in a time and place which similarly springs to life. It is the city of Oslo she knew so well, the valley - Gudbrandsdalen - that she loved, and her father's Trøndelag region.
It was only after the end of her marriage that Sigrid Undset grew mature enough to write her masterpiece. In the years between 1920 and 1927 she first published the 3-volume Kristin, and then the 4-volume Olav (Audunssøn), swiftly translated into English as The Master of Hestviken. Simultaneously with this creative process, she was engaged in trying to find meaning in her own life, finding the answer in the Christian God.
In all her writing one senses an observant eye for the mystery of life and for that which cannot be explained by reason or the human intellect. At the back of her sober, almost brutal realism, there is always an inkling of something unanswerable. At any rate, this crisis radically changed her views and ideology. Whereas she had once believed that man created God, she eventually came to believe that God created man.
However, she did not turn to the Established Lutheran Church of Norway, where she had been nominally reared. She was received into the Roman Catholic Church in November 1924, after thorough instruction from the Catholic priest assigned to her home district. She was 42 years old at the time.
In Norway Sigrid Undset's conversion to Catholicism was not only considered sensational; it was scandalous. It was also noted abroad, where her name was becoming known through the international success of Kristin Lavransdatter. At the time, there were very few practicing Catholics in Norway, which was an almost militantly Protestant country. "Anti-Catholicism" was widespread not only among the Lutheran clergy, but was widespread through large sections of the population. There was just as much scorn for Catholicism among the largely secular Norwegian intelligentsia, many of whom were adherents of Socialism and Communism. The attacks against her faith and character were quite vicious at times, with the result that Sigrid Undset's literary talents were aroused in response. For many years she participated in the public debate, going out of her way to defend the Roman Catholic Church. In response, she was swiftly dubbed, "The Mistress of Bjerke-bæk," and "The Catholic Lady."
In 1934, she published Eleven Years Old, an autobiographical work. With a minimum of camouflage, it tells the story of her own childhood in Kristiania, of her home, rich in intellectual values and love, and of her sick father. It is one of the most fetching Norwegian books ever written about a little girl, surpassed by very few. Sigrid Undset was passing from strength to strength.
At the end of the 1930s she commenced work on a new historical novel set in 18th century Scandinavia. Only the first volume, Madame Dorthea, was published in 1939. The Second World War broke out that same year and proceeded to break her, both as a writer and as a woman. She never completed her new novel.
In 1940, Sigrid Undset and her younger son left neutral Sweden for the United States. There, she untiringly pleaded her occupied country's cause and that of Europe's Jews, in writings, speeches and interviews.