GIVEAWAY CLOSED:: Congrats to Sarah @thecarolinadolls for winning the copy of this book!
Like many before me, I quite simply fell in love with the world of Kristin Lavransdatter when I first read the epic novel of life, faith, love and loss in medieval Norway. The story is sweeping– from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and the author’s insights so keen and the story so self-propelling that it is hard to remember that this trilogy is now 100 years old.
While reading the novel, I found myself caught up in the story of Kristin— which the book follows from childhood to her death– but it also made me curious about the woman who wrote the book. It was so unique– so rich— so full of human insight— I (and many others!) felt a great interest in the life of the woman who wove the story into such a rich tapestry of emotions, history, fact and fiction.
It didn’t take much digging to realize that the author– Sigrid Undset– was just as remarkable as her heroine, Kristin. And in fact, her life had just as much drama as a literary character! The daughter of a brilliant Archeologist with a passion for Medieval Norwegian history, Sigrid was practically raised studying the source material for her medieval masterpiece.
Although tragedy struck when her father died after a long illness when she was a child– Sigrid was able to use her powers of observation, independent thought and dedication to the craft of writing to write her way out of a city office job in the early part of the 20th century and into a career that would help her travel the world, support her family, and also win a Pulitzer Prize.
Her life was always a mix of sunshine and shadow, however. Her passionate marriage dissolved in less than a decade and she was left to support her children on her own. The 1920s and 1930s saw her career blossom, and she was celebrated in her native Norway as well as all over the world- but her conversion to Catholicism shocked her contemporaries and scandalized a nation where the state church was Lutheranism.
Once a staunch ‘modern-minded athiest’, Undset confidently embraced her new faith– inspired, in many ways– by her study of medieval Norway, and wrote extensively about it, as well as translating the work of many English writing Catholic authors into Norwegian. At her zenith, tragedy struck again, however….her cherished daughter died, and a year later the Nazis invaded Norway. Her oldest son, Anders, was killed in the military defense of the nation and Undset herself was forced to flee her country for fear of being arrested for her outspoken condemnation of the Nazi regime. She spent the war in the US, writing and speaking passionately about a free and sovereign Norway. She was able to return to her home after the war, but she was exhausted and full of sadness. She would pass away just a few years later, and was buried with her son and daughter, at last able to take her eternal rest.
Undset’s life was full of such drama- and I immediately felt a draw towards this woman who painted in words such tender and thought provoking scenes set in a time so distant from our own. As a convert myself, I was very curious about her faith and how she came to the conclusion that she wanted to not just become Christian, but Catholic. I was also very interested in how her faith informed her work, and how her interest in history led her to join the church.
I found some biographical work (translated from Norwegian) but it seemed almost bashful about her faith. Or out-right skeptical. Or it skirted around the issue all together. Often, I found myself frustrated that large portion of this fascinating woman’s life were not being examined at all in biographical work. I imagine, in Norway, understanding the Catholic mind or artistic inspiration must seem very strange. But I knew to Sigrid, who was so inspired by her native Norway, Catholicism was the original Christian faith of the land– Lutheranism has been imposed on them by Denmark during the Reformation.
I found myself wishing there was a book about Undset written with an understanding of her Catholic faith— and imagine my surprise (and delight!) when I noticed that Ignatius Press was coming out with a book about her, written by a writer who was also a Dominican Friar. The new biography is Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts by Fr. Aiden Nichols, O.P.
I was thrilled to see that the biography I’d been longing for was soon to be released and knew I needed to get my hands on a copy as soon as it came out!
Fr. Nichols’ biography is now available to purchase and thoroughly explores both her life and her work. What I really enjoyed about Fr. Nichols’ book is that he was (of course!) very comfortable with viewing Undset’s life through a Catholic lens and discussing the transition of her faith towards Catholicism as a positive trajectory. Other biographies of Undset that I have read have shied away from this, leaving me to wonder if the author disagreed with her faith or found it so uninteresting they didn’t want to delve into it too deeply
Something I enjoyed about this book is that it spends the first half focusing on her life and the second half focusing on the themes of her writing– so it marries the subjects of biography and literary study nicely. Fr. Nichols spends a lot of time exploring how Sigrid’s unique upbringing and personality traits helped shape her view of the rapidly changing and increasingly chaotic times she lived in. “Secularism and the decline of culture were for her two sides of the same coin,” Nichols writes. “The progressive optimism of her peers she considered the afterglow of a sun which sinks with the modern dechristianised world, a theme of her “Reply to a Parish Priest” from the early 1930s.”
Undset often found herself out of step with the culture she lived in and was not afraid to challenge the status quo, yet her work struck a chord with readers throughout Norway and the world. Fr. Nichols expands on the themes of each of Undset’s books in the second half of his biography of the author, which makes for rich contemplating for Undset lovers. As a reader, I was very intrigued by the shift in Undset’s life and work as she took on her beloved Kristin Lavransdatter, the book that was triggered a siesmic shift in her writing and her faith.
Nichols writes, “The Middle Ages gave Sigrid Undset the opportunity to depict a richer reality than was possible in her contemporary stories. Its picture of reality contained a structure of lower and higher levels of existence. On a Linnean account of the intersecting planes- at once of the medieval world picture at large and of Undset’s novel in particular- there are thre levels to the real: the level of natural powers, especially eros; the level of the culture embodied in the social order; and the level of supernatural life of God.”
If you’re an Undset lover with an interest in her faith, this is a book I think you will enjoy very much. This would also make a great companion to reading Kristin Lavransdatter in a book club setting.
I was thrilled to receive a copy of Fr. Nichols’ book from Ignatius Press to read and review, and I am happy to report that the folks at Ignatius Press have offered to giveaway a free copy of Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts to one of you!
To enter to win a free copy of this book is simple! All you need to do is leave a comment on this blog post— tell us what you love about Sigrid Undset! What is your favorite Undset book? How has her writing influenced your own faith?
For an additional chance to win, you can also comment on my instagram post featuring the giveaway image shown above. You can also make additional entries by sharing on your own social media (tag me or send me the link so I can put you down!) Please make sure I have a way to contact you as well if you are my winner!
The giveaway will last through FRIDAY JULY 15.
Good Luck! And thanks so much to Ignatius Press for offering this book for our giveaway, and giving me the chance to read it!