As a devoted admirer of Sigrid Unset, I look forward to learning more about her and the influences on her writing. In Sigrid Unset: Reader of Hearts, Fr Aidan Nichols, OP, sets the stage appropriately with her foundational influences, which are naturally her family, her Norwegian roots, and her own academic inclinations. Sigrid was born to an antiquarian father (dedicated to iron-age archaeology and early Medieval sagas) and an academically and artistically gifted mother. It is easy to see how such a culturally rich atmosphere nurtured their eldest child.
She was only nine when she read her first saga, which she later accounted to be a “turning point” in her life, such was its psychological impact. This early exposure to the power of the written word, combined with her father’s work and her own great love of botany, eventually led her to successfully layer historical and biological rigor with psychological realism—creating the rich settings that could in time be infused with the spiritual awakening taking place in her own soul.
Fr. Nichols traces the major influences on her formation—familial, cultural, and political—but it is his tender illustration of the curious soul creeping forward that is so competently done: distinguishing the telltale clues and intellectual breakthroughs that create the essential pivot points in Sigrid’s growth. A successful novelist dissects such a journey and reassembles it on the page for the sake of the reader, and what Sigrid did for her fictional characters Fr Nichols does for us, although not in narrative form but as a mosaic—arranged according to myriad themes, and how and where they emerged in her writing.
Sigrid’s experiences, a “storehouse of life’s impressions,” were poured into her fiction, allowing her to create profoundly interesting characters who grow organically according to circumstances and grace. Indeed, it was her own rocky setting that simultaneously caused her to flee Europe, to apply her writing skills to war propaganda, and ultimately to embrace the Catholic Church. Near the end of this book, Fr Nichols offers the image of the bridge, which makes sense of her life, the arc of her writing, and even the larger culture being transformed in radical and disturbing ways.
These ends, unfortunately, are at cross-purposes, because while she was driven to sharpen the distinctions between froth and Faith, at the same time the wider world was letting go of hard-won truths and sinking back into chaos. Her love of Scholasticism allowed her to let go of sentimentality and idealism for the sake of “the philosophy of the real,” which would carry her securely through the shifting sands of modernism and the “intellectual anarchy” of Protestantism. She saw clearly that the vague “brotherhood” being sold in the secular market—especially after the war—was impossible without the Fatherhood of God and the discipline of applied virtue.
This is where the bridge imagery fits. With the rejection of natural law, the traditional family, and Christian morality already taking firm shape all around her, she stressed the importance of motherhood as a critical bond between the child and the world, the family as a bulwark against the chaos of political instability, and the truths of the faith as essential bedrock to instantiate reality in a world grasping for comfortable ideologies. She saw that the rationalist view of man was shredding his ability to find God, because man is, in actuality, a creature in need of soil, roots, and structure—ideas which were amply illustrated in all her writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Without such concrete things at his fingertips, modern man was prone to anxiety and despair, and yet his sophisticated pretentiousness blinded him to the “miniature cosmologies” all around him.
Her medieval characters didn’t need to struggle in this way—the Church was then a solid bridge between the human and the divine—but her contemporary stories and essays descried the subsequent loss of that healthy anthropology, for of all the bridges she offers, she knew from experience that an honest assessment of nature points reliably to the Absolute.
This richly documented profile is a tonic to an age swept up in rationalism and scientism. Her prescience led her to note that the tendency to narcissism already present in the 20th century would lead us replace an authentic Christian culture grounded in truth with a mere aesthetic, shifting with the winds of fashion. The rejection of a Catholic order would end in a fragmented society, suffocated by competing interests of self-absorbed individuals.
All that she saw in embryonic form has come to fruition, as our current moral climate exhibits the helpless terror of a freefall.
Entropy is ever clawing at our constructs, and the hearts of the young are gripped by the very “conceptual confusion” she predicted decades ago. Even so, those who understand the Gospel need not despair, for salvation is available for all who will simply grasp the hand of God. This was what Kristen Lavransdatter realized on her deathbed as she looked at her own hand, marked by the residual imprint of her wedding band, donated as a final act of charity. It’s never too late, the moral devastation all around need never keep us from embracing the truth reverberating through every layer of creation.
Fr. Nichols, himself obviously deeply sympathetic to the care of souls, offers a final quote from Sigrid: “Every man is born individually, and must be saved individually.” This underscores the tremendous truth, that while we are born for communion, and in need of those bridges that will connect us to family, society, and God, they are the means to the final consummation in Christ.
If the larger bridges of culture and catechesis are at present missing, there remain all those little footbridges, precarious but sturdy to the purpose, creating personal connections whenever a loving soul can read the heart of his neighbor and supply what is needed. Sigrid Undset used her ample gifts to distinguish those things that facilitate the path to God, and by studying her life we are better equipped to do the same with those around us.
To that end, this book is indeed a treasure for both devoted readers of Undset and those new to her rich and rewarding novels.
Sigrid Unset: Reader of Hearts
By Fr Aidan Nichols, OP
Ignatius Press, 2022
Paperback, 218 pages
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A Jeopardy question: The greatest writer of the last century who is largely unknown today?
Answer: Who is Sigrid Undset