Sigrid Undset on Saints and Sinners: An Introduction

DEAL HUDSON

Among Catholic writers there are more familiar names Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, Flannery O'Connor - but Sigrid Undset belongs among them.

Sigrid Undset
1882-1949

Among Catholic writers there are more familiar names Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, Flannery O'Connor but Sigrid Undset belongs among them. Her medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter bears a name more recognized than its author, and it stands alongside The Power and the Glory, Brideshead Revisited, The Diary of a Country Priest, The Viper's Tangle, and Wise Blood as one of the great Catholic novels in this century.

Unfortunately, Undset's reputation remains confined to a single work. This may account for the fact that relatively few critics have attempted to account for the impact of the trilogy itself. This volume attempts to remedy both situations. Some of these essays ponder the enduring power of Kristin Lavransdatter, and others explore the larger context of Undset's spiritual legacy, a prophetic authorship begging for rediscovery. English versions of previously untranslated material provide an opportunity to sample portions of that legacy formerly available only to those who read Norwegian.

Those who take the trouble to peruse her other works the novels, memoirs, children's books, apologetics, literary essays, hagiography will find that the mastery of Kristin Lavransdatter was not an accidental outpouring of an obscure Norwegian writer. [1] The same spiritual intelligence that gives the trilogy a potency to convert the lives of its readers is found throughout her other writings. In fact, Undset lamented the popularity of Kristin and worried that it eclipsed appreciation of a work she thought superior the medieval tetralogy The Master of Hestviken. Without taking anything away from the earlier work, many Undset commentators, including Paul Evans in his essay on Hestviken, agree with the author's assessment. [2]

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was born at the dawning of modernity, the same year as Jacques Maritain, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Igor Stravinsky. Like Maritain, whom she studied and admired, she became a Catholic by choice in a society hostile to the authority of the Roman Magisterium. Maritain's foes were atheists, socialists, and avant-garde intellectuals of all stripes; Undset fought them as well, but as filtered through a Protestant sensibility. Both "Catholic Propaganda" and the "Reply to Archbishop Soderblom" reveal the degree to which Undset thought Protestantism too cozy with the modern age. But it is clear from "Progress, Race, Religion", one of the best examples of her polemical writing, that she sees godlessness as the fundamental threat.

Also like Maritain, she bore something of modernity within herself and her work. Undset's lifelong concern for the plight of women in the postindustrial age is apparent in her earliest fiction, Mrs. Marta Oulie (1907) and Jenny (1911), and remains consistent through her last novel, Madame Dorthea (1939). Her concern, as seen in "Some Reflections on the Suffragette Movement", takes a different trajectory from other women's advocates: Undset decries the progressive alienation of women from their own bodies, from their children, and from men. The importance of affirming an ordinate relation to nature and tradition is treated by David A. Bovenizer in his reflection "Mr. Lytle's Kristin". Undset's clarity on these issues remained intact in spite of her own adultery, an experience which shaped the remainder of her life. Susan Vigilante's essay provides a succinct account of Undset's sixty-seven years, cut short evidently by grief and hard work.

In an age preoccupied with the debate over "family values", it is refreshing to come across someone who unapologetically advocates the graces of family life. Her "Christmas Meditation" offers an example of her eye for the place of the child in God's economy. [3] No writer, to my knowledge, has been so successful at depicting the love of parents, especially mothers, for their children. Furthermore, Undset's depictions of this love, which are always far from sentimental, disclose how this love participates in God's own charity. As she writes, "It is by no means the commonest case for a man to turn from God because he loves something which he is determined to make his own at all costs. It is far commoner for him to allow himself to be held back by a love which has conquered him." [4] In Undset, it is children who most often hold their parents back from damnation:

There is no getting away from the fact that very few people would be able to endure each other if they were not bound together to serve some ideal which is so great as to make them both seem equally insignificant when measured against it. And it is impossible to advocate lifelong monogamy unless one believes that every single human soul is worth God's dying to save it. [5]

It can be said that the value of life dominates Undset's fiction [6] insofar as the care, nurture, and sacrifice of parents for their children are the primary instantiations of that value.

Some of Undset's best treatments of familial love are found in works written the decade before her confirmation. The degree to which her early works anticipate her conversion suggests that if there ever were a natural Catholic it was Undset. However, her essay "If 2 + 2 = 5" unambiguously states that Undset saw nothing whatsoever naturalistic about her conversion. The essay by Evelyn Vitz on Undset's view of medieval female saints indicates how her understanding of female sanctity was immeasurably deepened by her Catholic faith. Still there is no denying the shattering effect of works like the short story "Thjodolf" (1918), [7] depicting the effect on a foster mother of a child being given and taken back by the biological mother.

Sigrid Undset
(1882-1949)


Sigrid Undset received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, for her remarkable description of life during the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, the 3-volume Kristin Lavransdatter.

She wrote 36 books, the mediaeval novels being one part. Another part are her contemporary novels of Kristiania (now Oslo) and Oslo between the turn of the century and the 1930s, the third part being literary essays and historical articles. Her authorship is wide-ranging and of remarkable depth and substance. None of Sigrid Undset's books leaves the reader unconcerned. She is a great storyteller with a phenomenal knowledge of the labyrinths of the human mind.

By Sigrid Undset: Kristin Lavransdatter: The Bridal Wreath, the Mistress of Husaby, the Cross; The Master of Hestvike (in four volumes): The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, The Son Avenger; Jenny.


Another early work, Images in a Mirror (19I7), [8] portrays the unhappy marriage of a former stage actress to a man who falls well short of fulfilling her desire for companionship, much less her persistent dreams of romantic love. Uni's marriage to Kristian has long since lost the brief erotic twinge that brought them together. She has given birth to five children in ten years. The death of one of the boys has weakened her confidence in ever finding a lasting joy in her family. Falling briefly into an affair, Uni has begun to neglect her children when she unexpectedly is called back to herself by a friend who remarks that she misses the way Uni used "to sing to the children in the evening". Uni's recognition that her change of heart has been noticed leads to a confrontation and eventual reconciliation with her husband. Having broken off her affair, she recollects why she risked losing her family:

"Happiness," she thought, "happiness what was I doing, at my age, to go and believe in happiness or doubt of happiness? The happiness that Kristian and I once shared. The happiness that is like a shooting star. In the brief instant that it shines one must think of one's heart's desire and wish; and in the brief space while caresses are new and thrilling, one is called to understand and determine one's life. I wonder how many there are who succeed.

"And happiness in one's children is so natural that one does not think of it. All the times when our heart gleams with joy -at the odd things they say, and their comical first steps, at their beginning to take notice, at their caresses and those we give them, at the fright which proved needless and an illness which did not turn out to be dangerous. It does not occur to us that this is happiness, all these thousand little gleams. And yet it is on them that we live. No one could live without being happy now and then, but we do not think of it when it is there. We are only truly conscious of ourselves when we are unhappy. So long as I have my children I know that I can face life cheerfully, in whatever way everything else may turn out." [9]

Such moments of spiritual awakening are typical in Undset's fiction, though the outcomes, as in life, are not always as happy. Msgr. Edward Syrian discusses the important role of the awakened conscience in relation to the Church in Undset's medieval epics. Though some might view Undset's character of Uni as paying homage to a defunct gender role, Undset's intention is clearly to defend it as crucial to caring for human life and to passing on the hope of true happiness. In doing so, Undset draws our attention to possibilities of fulfillment that offer themselves through the very offices we so often consider opposed to our own interests. This theme of abandonment to God underlying all of Undset's later writing is treated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis in his reflection on sanctity and culture. Another scholar has argued that Undset's understanding of spirituality and the family came to unique fruition in her later novels; she writes, "Undset's work is ultimately a reflection on the strength that surpasses autonomous self-expression, the strength embodied in selfless forms of love." [10]

Children represent the opportunity for release from the preoccupation with self. In welcoming them, Undset thinks, we overcome our yearning for hedonistic self-realization and find joy in serving a will other than our own. Yet children in particular, and family life in general, must be seen as standing in harm's way, given the growing disposition to self-absorption. She castigates the cruel spread of the contraceptive mentality in this century: "For it is notorious that no means exists . . . of inquiring of children yet unconceived or unborn whether they are willing to enter society and take upon themselves the tasks that await them." [11]

The tensions of everyday domestic life, seen from this angle, take on the import of a spiritual trial, the option being to seek ersatz redemption in the isolation of a short-lived romantic ecstasy. Mitzi Brunsdale traces the seismology of these decisive moments in her discussion of happiness and penance in Undset's fiction. Her early one-act play In the Gray Light of Dawn (1908) reveals this dialectic of infidelity and regret, and its terrible effect upon children, using the most economic means possible." It stands as a near-distillation of the novels about family life to come.

Undset's forty years of meditation on sin, sanctity, marriage, children, religion, power, cruelty on the hardships of love in a secularized world deserve, and will eventually find, a wider audience. Many of the novels and short stories, not just the medieval epics, the memoirs, the essays on sanctity, deserve to remain in print. The rest of her fiction needs to be translated, along with the rest of her apologetics. Her correspondence, of which only one volume is available, must be fascinating. Some have suggested that Kristin Lavransdatter itself should be retranslated to take into account her Norwegian dialect.

Whatever the fate of Sigrid Undset's work in the future, one can be sure that there will continue to be those who stumble onto her works (or have them thrust importunately into their hands) and finish reading them only to find themselves changed: some obstacle or another has fallen away to faith, to marriage, to children, to repentance and some new vision now seems plausible when only weeks ago it seemed absurd.

The editor wishes to acknowledge the generous support of the Wethersfield Institute, particularly President Msgr. Eugene V. Clark, Mr. Lisk Wyckoff, President of Homeland Foundation and Vice President of the Wethersfield Institute, and Program Director Mrs. Patricia Donahoe, and to thank Dr. Astrid O'Brien and Susan Baer, both of Fordham University, and Shannon Mary Bridget Polley for their help in preparing this volume.

Endnotes:

  1. The following is a list of Undset's works that have been translated into English: Jenny, 1921 [some sources give 1920-ED.I; Kristin Lavransdatter, 1920-1922; The Master of Hestviken, 1925-1927; The Wild Orchid,1931; Christmas and Twelfth Night, 1932; The Burning Bush, 1932; Ida Elisabeth, 1932; Saga of the Saints, 1934; Stages on the Road, 1934; The Longest Years, 1935; Gunnar's Daughter, 1936; The Faithful Wife, 1937; Images in a Mirror, 1938; Men, Women and Places, 1939; Madame Dorthea,1939; Return to the Future, 1942; Happy Times in Norway, 1942; Sigurd and His Brave Companions, 1943; True and Untrue and Other Norse Tales, 1945; Catherine of Siena, 1954; Four Stories, 1959. Much of Undset's writing remains untranslated. For the complete listing, see Ida Packness, Sigrid Undset Bibliography (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1963). Back to text.
  2. A. H. Winsnes comments on Undset, "All her writing deals with the individual's desire to break, and his struggle to keep, the covenant set between God and man; and this is nowhere presented with greater imaginative force and power of artistic realisation than in her profoundest psychological study, Olav Audunsson [English translation: The Master of Hestviken]" (Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism, traps. P. G. Foote [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1953] PP. 247-48). Back to text.
  3. This was previously translated and published with illustrations in Sigrid Undset, Christmas and Twelfth Night (New York: Longmans, Green, 1932), pp. 31-40. Back to text.
  4. "The Strongest Power", Men, Women and Places, traps. Arthur G. Chater (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939), p. 165. Back to text.
  5. "Reply to a Parish Priest", Stages on the Road, traps. Arthur G. Chater (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934), p. 257. Back to text.
  6. Mitzi Brunsdale, Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway (New York: Berg Publishers, 1988), p. 127. Back to text.
  7. Originally published in The Wise Virgins but translated and collected in The Four Stories, trans. Naomi Walford (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959). Back to text.
  8. Images in a Mirror, trans. Arthur G. Chater (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938). The Norwegian title is Fru Hjelde, which was originally only one of the two novellas published under the title Splinten av trollspeilet [Splinter from the troll's looking-glass.] Back to text.
  9. Images in a Mirror, pp. 225-26. Back to text.
  10. Elisabeth Solbakken, Redefining Integrity: The Portrayal of Women in the Contemporary Novels of Sigrid Undset (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), p. 204. Back to text.
  11. "Reply to a Parish Priest", p. 259. Back to text.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Hudson, Dean W. "Sigrid Undset on Saints and Sinners: An Introduction." In Sigrid Undset: On Saints and Sinners (1993): 13-20.

Reprinted by permission of The Wethersfield Institute.

THE AUTHOR

Deal W. Hudson is the former publisher of Crisis magazine. He is now Executive Director of The Morley Institute for Church and Culture. He was associate professor of Philosophy at Fordham University from 1989 to 1995 and was a visiting professor at New York University for five years. He taught for nine years at Mercer University in Atlanta, where he was chair of the philosophy department. He has published many reviews and articles as well as five books: Understanding Maritain: Philosopher and Friend (Mercer, 1988); The Future of Thomism (Notre Dame, 1992); Sigrid Undset On Saints and Sinners (Ignatius, 1994); and Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction (Rowman & Littlefield, 1996) and his autobiography, An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003).

Copyright © 1993 The Wethersfield Institute




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