Catholic Author Honored on Norwegian 500 Kroner Note

Did you know that the great author of The Life of Saint Catherine of Siena, Sigrid Undset, is the only Catholic to have been depicted on a Norwegian banknote?  See picture of the banknote here (scroll down)

The following is a sketch of her adult  life that I included in my book review of her magnificent biography of Saint Catherine. It was the best biography of a saint that I have ever read:

There is a good reason why Sigrid Undset should write so well about such an unusual saint as Catherine of Siena. Before taking up the biography the author had written several novels about ordinary, yet complex, characters, who lived both in pre-Christian Scandinavia and Catholic medieval Scandinavia. Kristin Lavransdatter, her most famous work (for which she won the Nobel Laureate in 1928), is a 1400 page, three-part, historical novel about a Norwegian girl who, born to pious Catholic parents, grows up happy, carefree, and innocent, on a prosperous farm in fourteenth century Norway. The protagonist Kristin loses her innocence to a married excommunicate, weds him wearing the virgin’s gown (Part I, The Wreath), raises his and their many children, including eight sons (Part II, The Wife, regains her Faith), and (Part III, The Cross) suffers great loses including her husband’s income and their eighth son, deals with her guilt, and tries to make amends for her sins; in the end she dies from the Black Death while ministering to the plague’s victims.

While writing, actually even before that, Sigrid converted from agnosticism (her parents were atheist intellectuals, although her mother, with no faith, showed up regularly on Sundays at Lutheran services) to Catholic Christianity. She was baptized Catholic in 1924 at the age of forty-two. Even as a young woman, Sigrid had immersed herself in medieval Catholic literature. Her parents had spent many years in Rome and Sigrid began a more serious writing career after moving there in 1909. This was her first experience with a Catholic culture and, although it did not win her soul to grace it did fill her with appreciation for the beauty of Catholic life (and that culture’s accomplishments) and for the antiquity of authentic Christendom.

In Rome Sigrid met Anders Svarstad, an artist, fell in love, and moved with him to London. Here Madame Undset found another love, English literature, and lived in her fantasies in the days of Camelot and the legends of chivalry and romance of King Arthur and his Knights. As a child in Kristiania (Oslo), she had the same fascination for the Icelandic sagas. One would think Sigrid would have ended up as a writer of dreams and myth; however, her novels are neither glamorous nor tragic exaggerations of fanciful lives, they are bluntly realistic. Her own life mirrors that of Kristin Lavransdatter. Although the “daughter of Lavran” was given pious Catholic parents (Sigrid wasn’t) our author committed the same sins, as far as living with a married man (even before his divorce), and the raising of two sets of children (his and theirs) are concerned. Sigrid had to take care of her husband’s three children (which included a son who was mentally handicapped) and three of their own (which included a daughter with the same mental retardation). In Undset’s novel, Kristen separates from her husband after eight children, but there is no divorce (he dies tragically, by murder). In her own life Sigrid eventually did get a divorce in 1919 from her lover the painter, whom she had married in 1912 while they were in Belgium. That marriage was dissolved before her baptism because Svarstad had a wife who was still living at the time.

Sigrid Undset knew suffering and tragedy. She lived through two World Wars, and two invasions of her country — first the Communist Russians and then the Germans. She fled to America from the Nazis in 1940 and then returned to her beloved Lillehammer, Norway, after the liberation in 1945. Living in Brooklyn Heights, New York, our author was very active in St. Ansgar’s Scandinavian Catholic League and wrote several articles for its bulletin. Undset was traumatized by the wars, which had a huge influence on her writing, but it also gave her immense compassion for all who suffered, as well as an appreciation for the value of the Cross.

After writing Kristin Lavransdatter (which was published two years before she entered the Church) and a four volume work, Olav Audunssøn (1925 ) [The Master of Hestviken] and its sequel Olav Audunssen og hans børn(1927) [Olav Audunssøn and his Children] Madame Undset works were unapologetically apologetic in the Catholicity of their themes. In 1934 she wrote The Saga of Saints.  Acclaimed as she was, especially after receiving the Nobel prize, Sigrid suffered much criticism in a very secular Norway for embracing the Catholic Faith. She was even lampooned in the press as “Lady Catholic.” But that didn’t bother her. She had a very strong character, which is evident not only in her writings but also in her political activities. For one thing, her detestation of Communism was so strong that she donated her Laureate prize money to the cause of Finnish children who suffered immensely, or were orphaned, during that nation’s resistance against Stalin’s Russian invasion and occupation in 1939. She also wrote virulent attacks against Nazism and so irritated the Nazis that she was advised to get out of Norway before it was too late. When German troops took over her village they smashed her writing desk to splinters. Feminists didn’t like Madame Undset either. She had been inclined to support some of their issues, but never their depreciation of motherhood. They were especially incensed against her when she championed virtuous motherhood as the highest dignity a woman could achieve outside of religious life. She wrote an autobiography, which, in English translation, was titled The Longest Years. Madame Undset was born in 1882 and she died in 1949.

For a title of my rather lengthy book review of her biography of Saint Catherine I used one of my favorites quotes from the saint: “I Have Seen the Secrets of God”.