This is the fourteenth essay in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
The Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) is the first out of four great Nordic female storytellers. She is followed by the Norwegian Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), the Danish Karen Blixen (1885-1962, you can read our previous article about her here) and the Finnish-Swedish Sally Salminen (1906-1976).
These four authors all have in common that their authorships are placed in extension of the Nordic literary movement ‘The Modern Breakthrough’ – which in turn where followed by another literary movement, ‘The Popular Breakthrough’.
All these four women also possess a remarkable ability to tell stories. Apart from that they are very different authors.
The Modern Breakthrough was launched with the lectures by the Danish literature critic Georg Brandes at Copenhagen University in 1871. Brandes did away with the romantic and mythical understanding of nature that had dominated the 19th century, and he criticized the Church. Instead he advocated for a realistic literature and a biological understanding of humans, that opened possibilities to write about topics what had until then been seen as improper topics for serious literature: The sexuality of men and women.
Selma Lagerlöf was born the 20th of November 1858 at the small manor Mårbacka in Värmland in central Sweden. In Stockholm she took an education to become a teacher and then worked as a teacher on a girl school for ten years. This is the period in which she began writing.
Lagerlöf had her first great breakthrough with her novel Gösta Berling’s Saga from 1891 about the irresist ible and romantic priest Gösta Berling. As the majority of her stories, the novel has its roots in tales from Lagerlöf’s own home country in Värmland – and with real people as inspiration for her colourful characters.
Lagerlöf’s longest novel is loosely based on reality and chronicles the tale of the Swedish farmers from Dalarna who upon a religious awakening emigrates to Jerusalem (1901). Lagerlöf herself journeyed to Palestine in 1900-1901 to collect material for this grand story.
Her famous children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1906)is at one and the same time a fantastic tale of a naughty boy who gets turned into a ‘Tomte’ (a kind of mischievous Scandinavian Christmas gnome) and a book about Sweden’s nature and geography. Of all Lagerlöf’s books this one is the most read.
The Emperor of Portugallia (1914) tells the tale of the poor and disillusioned worker Jan in Skrolycka whose life is changed completely upon the birth of his daughter Klara Fina Gulleborg. It is the most tragic of Lagerlöf’s tales (the daughter ends up as a prostitute) and it is the one closest to reality.
Throughout Lagerlöf’s work are traces that lead us to her own childhood that, if adventurous, not always was happy. For a period of her childhood she was suffering from a paralysis in her legs preventing her from walking. She always had a very close bond to her parents – so much harder then, must it have been to watch her spirited, yet drunkard father lieutenant Erik Gustaf Lagerlöf loose the family home Mårbacka in 1889. Recreating the ruptured childhood became a driving force through Selma’s life, and in 1910 she bought back Mårbacka, using funds from the Nobel Prize in literature that she received the previous year.
Selma Lagerlöf’s works has many aspects: The struggle for female emancipation, an indignation towards social injustice and not least an irresistible humour and kind and loyal irony towards the in part real characters who roam act in her books. She has written religious tales, ghost stories, family chronicles, and descriptions of places not just in her own home country but also for instance in a novel based in Sicily, with the curious title The Miracles of Antichrist (1897), that tells of a worker rebellion against the petrified Church.
First and foremost, however, all of Lagerlöf’s works follow an inner logic, where the plot always takes precedence over everything else. That makes Selma Lagerlöf one of the most virtuoso writers in Northern Europe. And with that, she also leaves her clear footprints in later Swedish literature, not least in the children’s books of Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) in whose stories the plot always takes precedence over any potential message.
Lagerlöf never married but had a very close and affectionate relationship to two other women, the author Sophie Elkan and the politician and women’s rights activist Valborg Olander.
Selma Lagerlöf died 81 years old the 16th of March 1940. At that time, she was energetically engaged in helping German artists and intellectuals escaping Nazi Germany. Both as a human and as an author Lagerlöf was exceptionally generous.
All of the works mentioned in this essay has been translated into English.
Text: Peter Andreas Arendt