Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Kristin Lavransdatter at 100

Sigrid Undset, ca. 1905

Up today at Plough: my piece on the parallels between the tumultuous marriage at the heart of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel Prize-winning saga of medieval Norway, and author Sigrid Undset's own relationship with her husband, painter Anders Castus Svarstad.

In May 1919, the thirty-seven-year-old Norwegian author Sigrid Undset was at a crossroads. Her family had just been evicted from their apartment in Kristiania (now Oslo), and although her husband, the painter Anders Castus Svarstad, had promised to purchase a house for the family, he had not done it in time. Two babies and three teenage stepchildren, without a stable shelter – and as usual, the responsibility for the blended family fell entirely on her shoulders. After seven years of marriage, she could no longer deceive herself that Svarstad’s chronic evasion of responsibility was a high-minded indication of artistic temperament. She knew now that if her health failed, Svarstad would dump her children in an orphanage, just as he had done at first with his older children when he divorced their mother to marry her. And she was pregnant again.

The strain wore on Undset as she struggled to keep her own literary career afloat, writing essays and translating literature late into the night. Then, at least, she was free from managing both infants and her teenage stepdaughters, juggling finances and housekeeping, worrying about her baby’s epileptic fits and her stepson’s mental delays, and reckoning the emotional toll of marriage to a man whose aloof preoccupation had once been her romantic ideal. Before her marriage she had been Norway’s most celebrated woman author, acclaimed for Fru Marta Oulie and Jenny, both “scandalous” tales of modern women breaking taboos; and Gunnar’s Daughter, a short historical novel in the style of her beloved sagas. She had attempted, on and off through these past years, to write an even more ambitious saga, a rich evocation of the world of medieval Norway that her archeologist father had brought to life for her. Now she had no home to write in, and, for all intents and purposes, no husband.

Three years later, Undset would astound the world with the publication of the epic saga Kristin Lavransdatter, composed in a burst of creative energy in the house she bought herself. The writing of her masterpiece, at once an effortless immersion into its historical period and a keen account of moral choices played out and compounded over time, marked a turning point in Undset’s life, crystallizing her decision to convert to Catholicism in 1924, and winning her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Although her childhood and education gave her a unique advantage in bringing fourteenth-century Norway to life for a modern audience, it was her own complicated relationship with Svarstad that provided the model for Kristin and Erlend’s passionate, scorched-earth relationship, and her own spiritual yearnings that found voice in Kristin’s prayers.


As I researched Undset and Svarstad's relationship, I came across Svarstad's Wikipedia entry, which claimed, "In 1908, he was accused of sexual misconduct and rape by several women, who claimed Svarstad had raped them. He was convicted three years later and served several months in prison." This would mean that when Undset met Svarstad in Rome a year later, not only would she had have to turn a blind eye to his being a married man, but that after they'd both returned to Norway, in the year before Svarstad's divorce went through and Undset married him, he was doing prison time for assault. It would seem unbelievable that Undset would be unaware of this -- if it is true.

However, the link in the Wikipedia article was defunct when I researched it, and there was nothing else online, in English or Norwegian, to even suggest that Svarstad spent time in prison for rape and harassment -- no old articles, no linking of the Norwegian word for rape with Svarstad, not even a hint of an accusation anywhere but the Wikipedia article and its dead link. No biography of Undset that I could find mentioned this claim -- a charge so immense that any Undset scholar would spill gallons of ink analyzing it, if it could be corroborated. 

As I could find no source for the claim, or even any support for it, I couldn't include it in the article. I have neither time, opportunity, nor the facility with Norwegian to research old prison records or read through the archives of Kristiana's newspapers. But how odd that the claim should have been made at all. 


Brandon said...

That turned out very nicely, and I think does a good job of showing how Undset's life affected her work without trying to overassimilate the two.

MrsDarwin said...

Thanks! The structure suggested itself as soon as I started researching Undset’s life.

Michael said...

I removed/reverted the 1908 rape claim on his wikipedia page. We'll see if anyone adds it back in.

Michael said...

I also checked the norwegian language versions of Svarstad's page, and there seems to be no mention there. I suspect it was just meaningless vandalism

Heather said...

I very much enjoyed your article on Sigrid Undset! She is such a fascinating woman and writer and convert. As an adult convert to the Catholic Church and an artist, I find her such an inspiring and compelling person. Quirks and shortcomings and all, so fascinating. Great piece!