Selma Lagerlöf was born in 1858 and died in 1940 at her family farming estate Mårbacka, located in the Swedish region of Värmland. In 1909 she was the first woman writer to receive the Noble Prize in literature and a few years later, in 1914, she was also the first woman to be elected into the prestigious Swedish Academy, and thus came to be part of the body selecting Nobel Prize laureates in literature. Lagerlöf is considered to be one of Sweden’s most significant prose writers, and her strength lies above all in the masterly composition of stories exploring complex psychological processes, often by drawing on the features of folk-tales and other non-realistic genres. Her narrative strategies can be said to lie at the crossroads between fantasy, dream, the supernatural and fictional reality. Lagerlöf was a national icon even in her lifetime, and her works were not only critically acclaimed, but also very popular among the reading public in Sweden and internationally. The Lagerlöf collection of more than 40,000 letters, preserved at the Royal Library in Stockholm, bears witness to this popularity as many of them are letters from her readers; they often made pilgrimages to her home in the hope of getting a glimpse of the famous author waving from the balcony.

Lieutenant Erik Gustaf Lagerlöf and his wife Louise, born Wallroth, had five children, and Selma was the fourth among the siblings. The Lagerlöf family is related to several important families in Värmland, such as those of the famous writers Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846), Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783-1847) and Gustaf Fröding (1860-1911). Mårbacka, the family farming estate, was to have a great impact on Lagerlöf’s life and works. She lived there until she was accepted at the teacher training college for women in Stockholm at the age of 23, and later in life she returned to settle there for good. After graduating in 1885, she gained a position as an elementary school teacher in Landskrona, a small town in southern Sweden, and continued to teach for ten years until she could fulfill her lifelong dream and earn a living as a writer. During this period her father died and the family was forced to sell Mårbacka due to financial constraints. It was a great tragedy, since Mårbacka had been a beloved home and in the family for several generations, and many traces of this traumatic experience can be found in Lagerlöf’s oeuvre. The Lagerlöf scholar and most recent biographer Vivi Edström has emphasized “existential homelessness” as a central theme in her work (302). Later in life when Lagerlöf became successful, she first repurchased the main building and then the whole estate with the Nobel Prize money. She spent large sums trying to run Mårbacka as a farm and to rebuild the main building, transforming it into a modern, stately mansion. Her will stipulated that Mårbacka should be preserved and open to the public, and today it is one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions.

Lagerlöf made her debut in 1891 with the groundbreaking novel Gösta Berlings saga [The Saga of Gösta Berling], which has reached national epic status in Sweden. During the 1870s and 80s, critical realism predominated in Scandinavian literature, and to discuss the problems of modern society was perceived as the author’s main task. With Gösta Berlings saga Lagerlöf radically broke this norm, thus initiating a new and important era in Swedish literary history known as ‘the 90s’. The setting of Gösta Berlings saga is Värmland, Lagerlöf’s home region, and the story – crowded with exceptional characters and spectacular events – takes place in the 1820s. At its centre is the handsome Gösta Berling, an unfrocked minister with a taste for drinking and beautiful women, and the Majoress of Ekeby, the richest and most powerful woman of Värmland. Gösta is admitted into the group of ‘cavaliers’ staying at the Ekeby mansion, and, making a Faustian pact with evil forces, they usurp the power for one year, driving the Majoress to wander the roads as a beggar. The cavaliers have sworn not to do anything useful or any labor during their rule, and both people and nature are affected during this year of carnival. Gösta Berlings saga merges the mode of realism with fantastic and gothic elements, and it is also a formal mix between a novel and a collection of short stories, since every chapter can be read as a complete story in itself while being a part of the principal plot. It has a unique style, characterized by poetic prose and a combination of novelistic narrative strategies and a rhetoric inspired by the oral tradition of a narrator addressing both reader and characters through evaluative and emotional comments.

During the years after her debut, Lagerlöf mainly experimented with short stories in different genres, some of which were gathered in the collections Osynliga länkar [Invisible links] (1894) and the historically oriented Drottningar i Kungahälla [The Queens of Kungahälla] (1899). The short form fitted her as a writer – Gösta Berlings saga is not her only novel with an episodic structure, and she was to produce several important collections of short stories during her career in addition to the above-mentioned ones: Kristuslegender [Christ Legends] (1904), En saga om en saga och andra sagor [A Story of a Story and other Stories] (1908), Troll och människor I-II [Trolls and Humans] (1915, 1921), and Höst [Fall] (1933).

In 1894 she met the author Sophie Elkan, who became one of the most important persons in Lagerlöf’s life, and even though their relationship was not without complications, it lasted until the death of Elkan in 1921. In 1895 they made a yearlong educational journey to Italy. In Sicily, where the couple stayed for a longer period, Lagerlöf found inspiration for her next novel Antikrists mirakler [The Miracles of Antichrist], published in 1897. It is set in contemporary Sicily and tells a story about love while illustrating how different processes of modernization affect rural Italy. It has been described as a novel of ideas, since Christianity is pitted against Socialism.

In her next work, the symbolic novella En herrgårdssägen [The Tale of a Manor] (1899), Lagerlöf returned to the early 19th century society depicted in Gösta Berlings saga. It has gained much attention in our time, and many consider it to be one of her most notable stories. Its subject matter is inspired by the story of “The Beauty and the Beast”, and it tells about the healing love between the student and violinist Gunnar Hede, who, due to the risk of losing the family estate, has a delusional nervous breakdown, and the orphan Ingrid Berg, who is depressed because of the lack of a loving home. The psychological intrigue evokes associations with the contemporary development of psychoanalysis and is a good example of Lagerlöf’s ability to trace the complicated ways of the human psyche.

Travelling was an important part of Lagerlöf’s relationship with Sophie Elkan, and in preparation for her third novel, Jerusalem I-II (1901-02), they went to Palestine together. Lagerlöf had read in a newspaper about a group of Swedish farmers who emigrated to Jerusalem and decided to write about it, and now she wanted to visit their colony to study their lives and habits. Jerusalem was to be her major international breakthrough and this is also when she was first mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize. As in Antikrists mirakler, she presents conflicting outlooks on life, here in the form of the revivalist movement disrupting the traditional peasant community, primarily Lutheran but also coloured by ancient popular beliefs in goblins, gnomes and other elemental beings. The first part of the novel takes place in the Swedish region of Dalarna, where Lagerlöf lived between 1897 and 1909, and the second part outlines the life in the Holy Land. During her years in Dalarna, Lagerlöf met the teacher Valborg Olander and fell in love. Valborg Olander became her assistant and proofreader, and their relationship lasted until Lagerlöf’s death.

In 1904 the novella Herr Arnes penningar [Lord Arne’s Silver] was published. It tells a story of bloody murder, vengeance and impossible love in a 16th century Swedish west coast setting. The young girl Elsalill unknowingly falls in love with the man who has very brutally killed her entire foster family. But the ghost of her dead foster sister reveals the murderer, thus creating a conflict between love and justice. Elsalill eventually chooses justice and avenges her foster family. Herr Arnes penningar is a good example of how Lagerlöf creates the fantastic by means of a very distinct and detailed realism. For instance, she lets the ghost of the foster sister take a position as a dishwasher at the murderer’s favourite restaurant in order to expose him, and the plates handled by the ghost feel cold as ice to the proprietress. ”Det är som om jag skulle ta dem ur händerna på den kalla döden” [“It is as though I were taking them from the hands of cold death”], she exclaims upon touching them (54). The ironic undertone is also a distinctive feature of Lagerlöf’s oeuvre. At the end of her career Lagerlöf was asked which of her texts she was most satisfied with and her answer was Herr Arnes penningar,because she saw it as stylistically flawless. Its style is concentrated and the narrative technique which creates both horror and suspense is executed to perfection.

Internationally, Lagerlöf is best known for the only children’s book she ever wrote, Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige [The Wonderful Adventures of Nils]. It was a book on elementary school geography commissioned by the national education association. Lagerlöf got the idea to teach geography by telling a story about a mean and disobedient boy who is transformed into a tiny pixie and travels all over Sweden in the company of a domestic goose and a flight of wild geese. To depict the country in such a manner was a stroke of genius; the children could learn geography and take part in a marvelous adventure at the same time. In addition, the pixie travelling on the back of a goose provides rich opportunities to change perspective: at one moment the rural landscape of southern Sweden is described from the sky as a checked table-cloth, at another we get a close-up of the microcosm of small animals via Nils. Furthermore, the story has many depths. One of them has to do with growing and developing as an individual. Previously, Nils enjoyed tormenting animals; now he depends upon them for his survival. They also teach him ethics and morals, and at the end of the story, when he is willing to sacrifice himself for the domestic goose, the pixie spell is broken and he grows into a human being– an event of great symbolic implications. Another dimension of the novel, and one of specific importance in our time, is the ecological perspective. In several episodes Lagerlöf conveys thoughts on the relationship between humans and the environment.

The novella Körkarlen [The Phantom Carriage] (1912) was another commissioned work. The national association for tuberculosis awareness had asked Lagerlöf to support their cause, and the result was an uncanny and somewhat expressionistic story set in the slum area of a small town. It is partly inspired by Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and partly by a Bretonic folk tale, and centers on an alcoholic wife-beater, David Holm, who suffers from tuberculosis and appears to die, but gets stuck in a liminal state between life and death. Led by the driver of Death’s carriage, who collects the souls of the deceased, he is forced to face his former sins before he is allowed to finally return back to life. A central character is the Salvationist Edit, secretly in love with David Holm. He has infected her with the fatal disease, and from her death bed she guides him to reconciliation. By never fully explaining whether David Holm is dreaming, or if he is actually to be understood as dead and returning to life, Lagerlöf maintains a fantastic hesitation throughout the story. Lagerlöf’s production has a close relationship to the early development of film. Several of her texts have been adapted for the screen, and Körkarlen, directed by Viktor Sjöström (1921), has gone down in history as one of the silent film masterpieces.

In the pre-war years Lagerlöf returns to Värmland in two novels. The setting of Liljecronas hem [Liliecrona’s Home] (1911) is based on Mårbacka and the protagonist, the 17-year-old Maja Lisa, on Lagerlöf’s grandmother. Kejsaren av Portugallien [The Emperor of Portugallia] (1914) also takes place in her home region, and tells the story of a father’s both all-encompassing and transgressive love for his daughter. When the beloved daughter moves to Stockholm and ends up as a prostitute, the father escapes into madness, transforming himself into the Emperor of Portugallia and his daughter into the Empress. The outbreak of the First World War had a massive negative influence on Lagerlöf’s creativity. She felt the pressure to take a stand against the war in her writing, but did not know how to approach it. However, in 1918 she had completed the novel Bannlyst [The Outcast], where she compares the war to the absolute taboo of cannibalism; the protagonist is doomed as an outcast for eating the flesh of a dead friend during a North Pole expedition. The question posed is how this act can be perceived as more repulsive than the acts of violence against the living that constitute the horrors of war.

Lagerlöf’s late production contains two trilogies. The Löwensköld trilogy has the destiny of the Löwensköld family as the structuring principle, and consists of the ghost story Löwensköldska ringen [The Löwensköld ring] (1925), Charlotte Löwensköld (1925) and Anna Svärd (1928). Her last major work was her own memoirs, The Mårbacka trilogy: Mårbacka (1922), Ett barns memoarer [Memories of my Childhood] (1939) and Dagbok för Selma Lovisa Ottilia Lagerlöf [The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf] (1932). The first part traces Lagerlöf’s early childhood and contains a fascinating psychological and symbolical depiction of her being “born” as a writer, but also tells the story of the family estate and her ancestors. The other parts center on her life until the age of 14, and are written very skillfully from a child’s perspective. As a biographical document, the trilogy has to be handled cautiously though, as Lars Ulvenstam has pointed out in the foreword to the celebratory edition of 1958. True to her aesthetics, Lagerlöf transforms reality into something poetic and fantastic, striving above all to reveal an inner truth.

Works cited:

Vivi Edström. Selma Lagerlöf. Livets vågspel, Stockholm: Natur och Kultur 2002.
Selma Lagerlöf, Lord Arne’s Silver, translated from the Swedish and with an Afterword by Sarah Death, London: Norvik Press 2011.
Lars Ulvenstam, “Förord” in Selma Lagerlöf, Mårbacka med Ett Barns Memoarer och Dagbok, Stockholm: Bonniers 1958.

2553 words

Citation: Wijkmark, Sofia. "Selma Lagerlöf". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 June 2013 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12817, accessed 27 February 2024.]

12817 Selma Lagerlöf 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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