In an age when women’s issues are front and center on a global scale, the name and wisdom of the greatest novelist of the twentieth century need to be emphasized anew: namely, the Nobel Laureate, Sigrid Undset and her quest for the truth. Surely she ranks alongside Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Mother Teresa of Kolkata and Raïssa Maritain in the guidance she can give us all regarding the place and role of womankind today. “Any woman who becomes a good mother,” Ms. Undset once wrote, “becomes more than most cabinet members, because she is irreplaceable in her position, and many cabinet members could with advantage be removed from theirs.” (cf. Sigrid Undset’s Quest for Truth, Stanley L. Jaki, 2007, p. 27)
Sigrid Undset, who died in 1949, was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church on 1 Nov. 1924. By that time she had already written her signature novel – a trilogy, really – entitled Kristin Lavransdatter, and was already deep into her The Master of Hestviken. Both books are chronologically set in medieval times, but their raîson d’etre is timeless: namely, the reality of sin, conversion, atonement, grace and divine pardon. Hence, by sheer definition, they are Catholic in character and thrust; no other novel surpasses them in this regard, and few come close. (Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest is one example.)
As a Catholic, Mme. Undset never wavered in her religious commitment. In her newfound Faith, she determined to intensify and amplify for others the beauty and power of Catholicism. Therein she focused on several doctrines: Christ as Savior; reparation offered to him; the magnificence of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist; Priesthood; Reconciliation; Marriage; and the glories of Catholicism as reflected in the lives of the saints, especially the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lord, and St. Catherine of Siena, one of the ten greatest women of history and the subject of her final book.
Mme. Undset’s devotion to our blessed Lady is summarized in these words, written in 1919:
“One can safely say that Christianity, with its dogma about the pure virgin, Virgo virginum, being the gate through which the Creator who saves returned to his creation … gave woman the most honorable place she has ever been placed in.”
In her Catholic faith, Mme. Undset immersed her literary artistry in two especially needed (then as now) dimensions of truth: (1) an unflagging conviction that Transcendence – the supernatural realm – is as real as the natural dimension; and (2) an absolute commitment to the Christian premiss that marriage and the family constitute the matrix of human life. These dimensions were bedrock to her greatest novels, despite the fact that she rejected the temptation to “idealize” the Middle Ages, in which her masterpieces were set. “No one has ever walked into the Church more open-eyed, less hypnotized by external magnificence than the author of Kristin Lavransdatter,” wrote critic Stanley James in the June 1931 issue of the Irish Monthly.
In stressing Mme. Undset’s insistence on the reality of Transcendence, it is important to admit that she did not view Transcendence as reflecting something “magical,” but rather as based upon Divine Revelation. Thus, as James observed in Mme. Undset, “altar and hearth … are interdependent” … and everything she has seen and noted was “given spiritual significance.”
A real woman is what Mme. Undset symbolizes, quite unlike the women depicted by Henrik Ibsen in A Doll’s House. In fact, a reporter who interviewed Mme. Undset for a story in the London Observer, said afterward:
“Mme. Undset is no admirer of the movement [i.e., the historical social-political modern movement] for equality between the sexes. All words about comradeship lead to nothing … It deprives the man of his feeling of obligation and responsibility toward the family, and leads him away from his natural position as a breadwinner and protector of his children…”
Without question, Sigrid Undset was unwilling to mute her Catholicism in order “to secure literary kudos,” as Father Jaki has put it. Indeed, when she died on 10 June 1949, a Catholic literary magazine saw fit to recall her defense of Christian marriage against the ghosts that now haunt the very notion of what sacramental marital bonds really mean:
“No other belief [than supernatural faith in marriage] can give the people of our day the courage to live according to nature and to accept the children which God gives them; only this, to believe that every child has a soul which is worth more than the entire visible world.” (America, 29 June, 1949)