On the evening of April 7, 1940, two days before the Nazis invaded Sigrid Undset’s homeland, the Nobel prizewinner was in Oslo speaking at a meeting of the Norwegian Students’ Association. The guest of honor was Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day. Neither woman could have imagined that they’d meet again, but two nights after the event, Nazi forces invaded Norway and Undset would soon flee to America where she would again encounter Day.
To avoid being detained and possibly used as a puppet of Nazi propaganda, Undset and her son made a desperate and dramatic crossing into neutral Sweden. When she learned that her oldest son, Anders, had been killed in action near her Lillehammer home, she and Hans fled to America. Undset would settle in Brooklyn Heights for the remainder of the war.
Undset had been offered lecture tours in America, writes Yola Miller Sigerson in The Art of Compassion: A Biography of Sigrid Undset, and she hoped her speaking might convince the Americans to enter World War II.
One aches for the heartbroken struggle of this accomplished woman whose griefs in just a few years had included the death of her daughter, mother and oldest son. Undset needed to provide for herself and her son and had to brush up on her English to do so.
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf accompanied Undset to her first press conference after she’d had a brief moment to freshen up at the Algonquin Hotel when she arrived in New York. The author of Kristin Lavransdatter was booked for more than forty lectures at universities, women’s organizations, Scandinavian centers and Catholic institutions. Carol Brandt, who arranged Undset’s speaking tour, would recall:
The defeat of Hitler was all that mattered to her and she wanted to make a good impression on her audience so that she could convince them of the importance of winning the war.
The Algonquin was a hub for writers and socialites, but it didn’t suit Undset. She settled in an apartment in Brooklyn’s Norwegian community, with a church she could attend nearby.
Depending on her audience, Undset lectured not only on the European situation, but on literature and history, cooking, gardening and the saints, though she always maintained her underlying purpose. “I am working so that the chips fly from my fingernails,” she wrote in a letter home.
Undset attended dinners at the Kopf’s home as well as the annual banquets “where she and other Nobel Prize winners were expected to be ‘on display.'” She disliked the opulence of fundraisers. “There was something obscene about having to serve people dinner in an elegant hotel in order to move them to donate money to those who were starving,” Sigerson notes.
One day at a Brooklyn meeting of St. Ansgar‘s Society, Undset ran into Dorothy Day, whom she hadn’t seen since their meeting in Norway. Even though Day was a pacifist and Undset felt violence was necessary to overcome the Nazis, the two became friends. Undset visited a Catholic Worker farm and “they saw each other when they were able to find the time.” She would write to her sister:
[Dorothy Day] is not in the least bit beautiful, but in her simple, nearly poor little party dress she was one of the most beautiful people that I have ever seen. Heroine and Saint, that is what one feels when one is close to her. She is worth the whole trip just to have met her again.
Novelist Willa Cather also befriended the writer in exile. The two shared an intense love of both nature and Cather who would later recall of the Scandinavian novelist known for her detailed descriptions of the natural world:
It was pleasant to talk about trees and flowers to Undset because she had personal relations with them…She carried about with her an excellent field book of American shrubs and trees–the best book of that kind that I know. I thought to introduce her to F. Schuyler Mathews and brought her my copy. She said carelessly, ‘Oh, I have that book.’
Meanwhile, the fate of Norway and those she loved was a constant worry. Undset learned that the Gestapo had taken over her Lillehammer home. They had taken down trees in order to pave the front for a parking lot.
It must have given Undset immense satisfaction when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave her a secret assignment. She and Arne Skoen were asked to compile a list with exact locations of Norway’s libraries, historic buildings, and artistic and scientific repositories which would be protected should the Allies save her country, but which in German hands would become targets of destruction. Undset spent days at libraries and archives, devotedly preparing the requested document for her homeland’s protection.
News that the Germans were taking hostages, maiming, imprisoning and burning in the land she loved was a constant strain. In addition to speaking and writing, Undset was filling her apartment with crates of items purchased on sale that would be in short supply at home: bedding, clothes and household goods. As soon as the war was over, she boarded a ship for the journey home and arranged for the crates to follow as soon as possible.
Undset’s final years in Norway were often silent and sorrowful. “Sometimes I feel terribly old, having lived through two world wars and remembering the quiet and comfortable times before the first,” she wrote to friends. “It is really too much history for one person to witness.”
In her final years Undset, a lay Dominican, stayed for a time with the Dominican Sisters in Oslo and worked on a biography of St. Catherine of Siena. “Doing her life is not easy when you are no saint yourself,” she confided to a friend. The well-honored author of 39 books received another crushing blow when the book she’d labored to write was rejected.
But Undset was honored as well, receiving The Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav “for eminent services to literature and to the nation.” She died in 1949 at the age of 67. Norway still reveres her. Undset’s portrait appears on postage stamps and on a Norwegian banknote. Her home is a national monument.
St. Catherine of Siena was published in Norway in 1951 and in the United States in 1954. It is still in print, offered by Ignatius Press, which has also released a new edition of her novel, Ida Elisabeth.
That’s right. A crater on Venus bears the name Undset.
The novelist herself had a more enduring destiny as her highest hope, however. She was alone when she died, but her life was a quest for the Love that spoke the stars and planets into being.
“Tell the truths you have to, even if they are grim, preposterous, shocking,” Undset advised a group of Catholic writers in 1942 during her American speaking tour. “But remember you have to tell other and more cheerful truths too: of the Grace of God and the endeavor of strong and loyal, or weak but trusting souls, and also of the natural virtues of man created in the image of God, an image which is very hard to efface entirely.”
This is a life worth celebrating. A life worth sharing with every girl you know.
If you missed the first two posts in this series, you can find them here: Fascinating Facts About Kristin Lavransdatter Author Sigrid Undset and Flight From Norway: Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Undset, Part 2.
For more on Kristin Lavransdatter, the novel which won Undset the Nobel Prize, see 3 Reasons to Make Time for Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter.
The Norwegian American offered a lovely profile of Undset, “An Extraordinary Woman: the Life of Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset” this summer.
What women do you admire and recommend as role models for girls? I would love to hear from you in the comments here, or on Sparrowfare’s Facebook page.
Featured photo by Fadese on Pixabay. Sigrid Undset photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Dorothy Day’s photo by New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection (New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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