Selma Lagerlöf

by Janin Pisarek

Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) is probably one of Sweden’s most famous writers. Her contraasting works, influenced by the oral narrative tradition, belong to world literature. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and was very involved in social and political life.

The early years

Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf was born on 20 November 1858 on her parents’ estate in the Swedish province of Värmland. She is the fourth child of former Lieutenant Erik Gustav Lagerlöf (1819-1885) and his wife Elisabet Lovisa, née Wallroth (1827-1915), who comes from a wealthy family of wholesalers.

At Mårbacka Manor, Lagerlöf grows up in good middle-class conditions. The long, dark winters are filled with the family’s cross-generational art of storytelling. Fairy tales, sagas, myths and legends impress them as much as historical tales.

Lagerlöf spends a lot of time wrapped up in stories and books. On the one hand, she escapes from everyday life, in which she suffers more and more from the self-destructive tendencies of her beloved father. On the other hand, she falls ill with a mysterious paralysis of the legs during childhood. She sees positive things in it: “This disability forced me to sit still and look inside myself, and that is why I became a writer. If I had been healthy, I would probably have had to marry some factory manager. “1

Breaking new ground


Lagerlöf feels very guilty about leaving her severely alcoholic father, but a life as a housewife is out of the question. Early on she discovers that she wants to be a writer. In the field of education she recognizes the opportunity to become active for social change and progress.

After completing her studies in 1885, she gets a job as a teacher in a girls’ boarding school, where she spends the next ten years. In the same year her father died. The Mårbacka estate, the farm of her childhood, which had been passed down in the female line for three generations, had to be sold in 1890 due to high debts. The fear of losing her home and farm is something the author later addresses in several of her works.

With her talent for lively narration, Lagerlöf inspires her students to literature. With texts for the local newspaper, she also reaches out to followers of the then emerging feminism, who make contact with her. Her views on the role of women in particular are ahead of their time.

This is how she met one of Sweden’s most important contemporary feminists, Baroness Carin Sophie Adlersparre (1823-1895). She advised Lagerlöf to publish books and helped her to get published in Dagny, the literary revue of feminists.

In 1890 she won first prize in the Journal Idun with a manuscript on Gösta Berling. She is released from teaching for a year so that she can devote herself to writing.

The first publications


In The Legend of Gösta Berling, Lagerlöf weaves the two plots into a saga with regional legends, classical myths and fairy tale motifs such as Cupid and Psyche, and worldly literary material such as Faust or Don Juan. For her poetic descriptions of landscapes, melancholic depictions of bygone times, fairy-tale images, and a penchant for the supernatural, she is disparagingly criticized as “en sagotant”, a fairy-tale aunt. She is accused of being simple-minded and of having a childlike attachment to her homeland, for at that time a contemporary and socially critical realism is increasingly establishing itself. Thus the book sells rather poorly until the well-known literary critic Georg Brandes (1842-1927) sets the ball rolling with his positive book review.

Only after her second book, Invisible Gangs, did she achieve her breakthrough in Sweden in 1894, and Gösta Berling also became a bestseller due to its long-forgotten modern, episodic form. With this success she is able to give up her job as a teacher in 1897 and live as a writer.

Lagerlöf travelled with her beloved friend Sophie Elkan (1853-1921) to almost all European countries, Palestine and Egypt. At the side of the wealthy and spirited writer, Lagerlöf acquires a confident social manner. The many journeys they made together influenced Lagerlöf’s works.

Your financial situation will relax enormously. The Swedish Academy grants Lagerlöf a life-long pension so that she can devote herself entirely to writing. In 1897, The Miracles of the Antichrist was published.

Her work Eine Herrenhofsage is published in 1898 as a collection of “novels and tales for the working people”. In 1899 follows The Queens of Kungahälla, which contains a number of legendary novellas.

In that year, she also met Valborg Olander (1861-1943), a politically committed professor of literature and student councillor, in her new home town of Falun, and a lifelong love affair developed. From Lagerlöf’s letters published later, it is clear that she assured both Sophie Elkan and Valborg Olander of her love (“kärlek”). But only to Olander does she obviously have a longing for physical tenderness.

Anne-Marie Lissel (*around 1920), the then 16-year-old secretary, later remembers how she always had to leave enough space when typing letters to Olander because Lagerlöf insisted on personal handwritten additions. It is also Olander who advises Lagerlöf and helps her edit manuscripts and handle correspondence.

Selma Lagerlöf achieved her greatest success with the epic-historical two-volume work Jerusalem, published in 1901 and 1902. In it she contrasts the wooded, hilly landscape of the province of Dalarna with the city of Jerusalem and describes the pilgrimage and emigration of a deeply religious peasant family from the Swedish province of Dalarna to Palestine.

Of success and failure


Even before the publication of her two volumes Jerusalem, she had already received a request from the Swedish Association of Elementary School Teachers to write a school and reading book about Sweden. In 1906/1907 “Die Wunderbare Reise des kleinen Nils Holgersson mit den Wildgänsen” was published. With this publication, Lagerlöf conceived a reading book for local history lessons that was both a work of art and a textbook.

In a modern, lively language, Lagerlöf links old legends, instructive stories, dream experiences, fairy tales and geographical descriptions with the fate of their hero. (Everyday) history and the present of Sweden at that time are thematised – for example, ore mines and sawmills, agriculture and shipping. Short treatises on flora and fauna decorate the narrative in an instructive way. From a bird’s eye view, the reader is given a comprehensive overview of Sweden at the beginning of the 20th century. Nils Holgersson is both a novel of education and development and a loving portrait of Sweden.

On 10 December 1909 Selma Lagerlöf is the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of King Gustav V (1858-1950). For many years the Nobel Prize committee had doubts about whether a writer of fairy tales and sagas, who mixed realistic and fantastic elements, could be awarded the most important literature prize.

At an auction she can buy back her old Mårbacka manor house and the land that belongs to it, and move in again. She is having a factory built there to provide work for the people in the area and improve the economic situation in the region. It will provide health, social and pension insurance for the 50 or so employees. However, the whole company, which starts off hopefully, turns out to be a financial disaster.

In 1911 the novel Liljecronas Heimat is published. The story is set in the same landscape as Gösta Berling, features well-known characters and forms the prequel to a chapter of the book published 20 years earlier. In the same year, Lagerlöf gives a highly acclaimed speech at an international women’s congress in Stockholm. The fact that a world-famous woman, Nobel Prize winner and landowner, who was denied the right to vote at that time, made the speech particularly explosive.

Another great success is the refined narrative The Carter of Death from 1912.

The work opens up a wide perspective without leaving a period of only a few minutes of a New Year’s Eve. In just under 100 pages, Lagerlöf cleverly integrates references to the fight against tuberculosis and deals with concrete, contemporary social grievances such as alcoholism and domestic violence. An old saga that tells of the last person to die on New Year’s Eve having to serve as a waggoner for a year serves as a frame story.

The supernatural takes a dominating role through this ghost story. During this time, Lagerlöf expresses that she has the feeling that only a thin curtain separates her from the world beyond. This feeling forms the basic motif of the story.

In “The Emperor of Portugallia” from 1914, Lagerlöf, like in Gösta Berling and Liljecrona’s Home, takes up the landscape and memories of her childhood. But romantic sagas and love affairs give way here to a realistic depiction of life, especially of the little people, many customs and traditions, and the processing of real people and events.

The turmoil of war


In 1914 Lagerlöf became the first woman to be appointed a member of the Swedish Academy. Due to the outbreak of the First World War, she falls into a writing crisis, which she tries to overcome. She stands up for refugee children and calls for charitable activities. When her long-time friend and traveling companion Sophie Elkan dies in 1921, Lagerlöf rearranges herself. Dark colours and Elkan’s exotic souvenirs have dominated her library room ever since.

In 1922 the first of three autobiographical books is published. In Mårbacka. Memories from the youth lead the way from the landscape of Värmland and its myths to Stockholm as a place of modernity. The work also has this in common with the two autobiographies that appear later, Memoirs of a Child in 1930 and Diary of Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf in 1932.

In 1924 Gösta Berling’s film version with the then star actress Greta Garbo (1905-1990) in the leading role premiered and later became a box-office success. Ten other works by Lagerlöf are filmed.

Between 1925 and 1929 a trilogy is created, consisting of The General’s Ring, Charlotte Löwensköld and Anna, the girl from Dalarne. This work tells the interwoven story of a family. In 1928 Lagerlöf receives an honorary doctorate from the University of Greifswald.

As a pacifist, Lagerlöf also wrote leaflets, signed The Second Manifesto against Conscription and Military Training of Youth in 1930, and collected donations for refugees and prisoners of war. In her appeals against war, Lagerlöf addresses women. In her speeches, she stylizes the mother as the counter-figure of the man willing to go to war.

Due to her anti-war attitude, she was closely observed in National Socialist Germany despite her esteemed art of popular writing. She fears that her books will be burned. However, only the radio programme Deutschland grüßt Selma Lagerlöf (Germany Greetings to Selma Lagerlöf) on the occasion of her 75th birthday is cancelled and some stage plays are removed from the programme. Especially the sale of her autobiographical works continues almost unhindered. Lagerlöf’s attitude towards Germany during the Third Reich is ambivalent. She detests war and fascism, but the success of her works in National Socialist Germany is also important to her, as she appreciates her large circle of readers, to whom she feels friendship.

From 1933 she supported Jews in their flight to Sweden. In 1939, the Jewish German-Swedish writer and later Nobel Prize winner for literature Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) and her mother are said to be among those whom Lagerlöf helps to leave Germany. Lagerlöf, over 80 years old, is already ill at the time, but Nelly Sachs’ escape with her mother succeeds. However, Lagerlöf does not live to see them enter Germany. She suffers a stroke and lies unconscious on her estate for the last few days. She dies on 16 March 1940 at the age of 81. It has been reported “that she was under the impression of the disastrous political turns of this war when she closed her eyes on 16 March 1940”.2

A résumé


Selma Lagerlöf was a strong woman and a great writer until her old age. She was politically and humanitarily committed and never lost sight of the goal of a better world. This is reflected in her vivid interest in the human psyche as well as in her work and works, in which she often deals with confrontations between female-male, problematic father-daughter relationships, current events and social developments.

Lagerlöf’s narrative style in her extensive oeuvre is and remains unique. Similar to fairy tales, many of her works begin with a departure and are conceived as developmental novels or searches for meaning – set in a setting in which Lagerlöf takes up nature and myths and at the same time connects them with the society living there.

In this way, it allows readers to participate in the impressive country sides and traditional festivals as well as in eerie and dark nights with ghosts or wolves. In her interwoven actions of fate and coincidence, Lagerlöf succeeds above all in contrasting themes such as rich and poor, country and city, human and bird’s-eye view, old legends and visions of the future, Christianity and mythology.

All of this is based on her extraordinary narrative skills, which in turn can be traced back to her childhood enriched by narrative traditions.

Lagerlöf thus leaves behind a potpourri of diverse stories about the country and its people with a strong tendency towards the fantastic, supernatural and magical. It thrives on the mystical infinite expanses of Scandinavia, elements of Swedish folklore and the simple and vivid language that reflects the enchanting diversity of the country.

In sagas, fairy tales and legends it tells of the mutual and fateful relationships between people, nature and its creatures.

1 Quoted from: Frieling, Simone: Reformerin und Magierin. Zum 75. Todestag Selma Lagerlöfs, der ersten Literaturnobelpreisträgerin; In: Allgemeine und Vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft. Komparatistik bei, Ausgabe Nr. 4, April 2015, unter:

2 Ebd.

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