What might a typical day in the life of the singel parent and Nobel laureate in Literature Sigrid Undset in the 1920s have looked like? We'll tell you ...
A typical day in Sigrid Undset’s life
Combative feminist, single mother, a late convert to Catholicism and Nobel Prize winner in literature: Sigrid Undset (1882 – 1949) was one of Norway’s great women writers. Her historical novels about Kristin Lavransdatter (a trilogy) and Olav Audunsson, Master of Hestviken (a tetralogy) have been international bestsellers since the 1920s – almost half a million copies of these books have sold in Germany alone. Undset‘s ‘curriculum vitae’ is still well known in Norway and it is just as remarkable as the family stories she writes about. Abroad, somewhat less attention is paid to her, but German-speaking readers will be reminded of her work when a new translation of the novel Viga-Ljot und Vigdis (Fortællingen om Viga-Ljot og Vigdis, H. Aschehoug & Co, 1909), her first book set in medieval times, is published in September by Hoffmann & Campe.
Undset wrote several of her works in Bjerkebæk, her home in Lillehammer. Nan Bentzen Skille has written vivid descriptions of Undset’s life there in her book Inside the Gate (University of Minnesota Press). In the spring, the German writer Alva Gehrmann spent a week in the Bjerkebæk guesthouse and, using her personal experience, was able to write intimately about the world of Sigrid Undset. Here is an account of a typical day in the life of the Nobel Prize winning author.
[After the breakdown of her marriage] Undset carried the responsibility for bringing up her three children alone. She didn’t like getting up early and was of course delighted when she finally earned enough to employ two maids. From time to time, relatives and their children came to stay, and the house became even busier.
During the early years, she had arranged for her desk to be at the window in the drawing room so that she could look out over the flourishing garden, which she loved looking after in breaks from her writing. This was where Undset wrote Kristin Lavransdatter, a powerful evocation of northern life in the Middle Ages, and a major reason why Undset’s received the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book was a commercial as well as critical success, so Undset could fund additional building at Bjerkebæk. She decided to bring to the Lillehammer site another timber-built house from an old farm in Gudbrandsdalen.
Once Bjerkebæk had been extended, Undset moved her bedroom into the new building. She would stay in bed until around 11 o’clock, studying medieval texts and going through the piles of correspondence. At some point in the late morning, she went to the dining room via the long corridor that linked the new and the original buildings. There, the day’s newspapers were waiting for her, together with her breakfast of strong, brewed coffee and buttered rolls. As she read and ate, the clean ashtray by her place quickly filled up. Often, her daughter Mosse came along to sit on her lap. Mosse was not well and unable to follow normal schooling. Afterwards, Undset returned to the new building to work at her desk. When she looked up from her work, she had a view of the forest.
In the Undset home, the midday meal took place late in the afternoon. At three o’clock precisely, the whole family fathered at the dining table. Because the great writer had lived in Italy in her youth, dishes considered exotic at the time were often served – for instance, spaghetti with tomato sauce.
After the brief meal with her family and friends, Undset needed complete peace and quiet in order to write in the afternoon. She had written her first few books by hand but later one could hear the tapping on her typewriter. During the day, her work was often interrupted by moments set aside for prayer.
Once her children, two sons and a daughter, were asleep, Undset usually stayed awake until two or three in the morning. She wrote and enjoyed drinking a glass of Italian wine. This was her dolce vita, Lillehammer-style.
Alva‘s typical day in the guest house
The guest house is situated next to the main buildings and suffused by the scent of the garden. Outside visiting times, Bjerkebæk is delightfully quiet. While I stayed there the weather was so warm and lovely I spent most of my time sitting outside on a bright blue garden seat. I took notes, read Kristin Lavransdatter and, quite often, felt that the previous mistress of the household might be watching me from the windows. The bird cherry tree was covered in flowers as white as clusters of snow flakes and when the light wind shook them, petals ended up in my notebook where they remain to this day.
Bjerkebæk, which was Sigrid Undset’s home from the summer of 1919, is open for guided tours in the summer.
20th May – Opening day of Sigrid Undset’s Travels, a new permanent exhibition housed at Bjerkebæk. https://eng.bjerkebek.no
Bjerkebæk is also the venue for an annual Norwegian Literary festival [Norsk Litteraturfestival] which is also known as the Sigrid Undset Days but includes presentations of many different events. https://litteraturfestival.no/en/
Information about Sigrid Undset: https://eng.bjerkebek.no/Sigrid-Undset
Links to books in German and English:
From the German by Anna Paterson.