In 1909, Selma Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for Literature, where her debut novel Gösta Berlings saga (1891) was described as a work of “original character”, and “rapturous beauty”. Today that same novel is considered by many to be the breakthrough of New Romanticism in Scandinavia. Appearing in 1891, it took a few years for the novel to be recognized, but through the internationally-esteemed literary scholar and critic Georg Brandes, the novel finally received the attention of the world. Brandes enthusiastically reviewed the novel in Politiken, welcoming “the material’s surprising singularity and the originality of the presentation” as well as the narrative’s rhythmically fluid and lyric style
What Brandes did not know is that it took Lagerlöf years to discover the material for her debut work and then almost ten years for her to find the courage to write Gösta Berlings saga in the form and style that she adopted. In “A Story of a Story” (1937), Lagerlöf recounts how she first came upon the idea for her debut work. As a young girl, Lagerlöf had always dreamt of being an author, but she had never recognized the story that awaited telling was at her family home, Mårbacka. Only after leaving home to attend school in Stockholm, determined to become a teacher to support herself, did Lagerlöf realize while walking down Malmskillnadsgatan after class that “The world in which you have lived down there in Värmland is no less remarkable than Fredman’s or Ensign Stål’s. If you can only learn how to treat it, you’ll actually have material just as rewarding.”
It was exactly the “treatment” that would take Lagerlöf so much time, however. Of course, Lagerlöf was not focusing primarily on writing at this point in her life, but more on finishing her training and becoming a teacher, which she did in 1885. She was immediately appointed to a position in Landskrona where she would spend the next ten years of her life teaching at the Landskrona elementary school for girls, with “literary ambitions in the desk drawer”, as her early biographer, Gunnar Ahlström, puts it. Lagerlöf worked on her novel when she had time, but continued to face frustration with form and style. She first tried to write the work in verse – as late as 1887 – but to no avail. She then attempted drama. Finally, on the advice of Sophie Adelsparre, a prominent Stockholm woman who took interest in Lagerlöf’s work, she turned to prose. Even here Lagerlöf struggled, for she felt the desire to write prose like Carlyle, one of her favorite authors as a school girl, but struggled against it due to the naturalist tendencies of the time. She also wrestled with the structure and organization of the piece. Only with the sale of the family home, Marbåcka, in 1888, did Lagerlöf throw off her fear and write as she wanted to, convinced that she was ruining her future career as a writer by doing so.
With encouragement from her sister, Lagerlöf entered five chapters of her manuscript in Idun magazine’s literary contest in 1890, entitling them Ur Gösta Berlings saga. The five chapters she sent dealt with Anna Stjärnhok and Gösta Berling’s love story. The Idun prize committee unanimously voted for Lagerlöf’s work, calling the chapters “something fresh” and offering to publish the whole piece. Adelsparre pulled together the funds for Lagerlöf to finish the book and Lagerlöf took a leave of absence and began work, although not without struggle.
While working on the completion of her manuscript, Lagerlöf had to deal with the reviews of Ur Gösta Berlings saga. Helena Nyblom, critic for “Svensk tidskrift”, highly praised the chapters, comparing them to the breaking of spring after a long, dismal winter. Yet other critics were not so kind. The respected Swedish literary critic, Karl Warburg, praised parts of the work, but also wrote of its “blunders”. The secretary of the Swedish Academy, Carl David af Wirsen, had no praise for the work at all. He stated that the work was “colored by sickly behavior” and that it was simply an uncritical copying of Almqvist and J P Jacobsen. Although Lagerlöf was not pleased with such reviews, she described herself as feeling free and finally able to breathe, to do what she wanted.
Within the course of the year 1891, Lagerlöf completed her manuscript and had it published. Again, reviews were mixed. Although some critics could appreciate the poetic language, criticism revolved around the lack of a sense of reality and its lack of structure. Upset about the negative critiques, the Stockholm Suffragetes, with Adelsparre at the helm, fought back—Eva Fryxell wrote an article for “Svensk tidskrift” (1892) attesting to the truth within Lagerlöf’s work. Lagerlöf herself was urged to repeatedly prove the truth of the stories within the work. Although done to support Lagerlöf and to attest to the seriousness of her work, Adelsparre’s fight to save Lagerlöf’s reputation may have done more harm than good in the long run, for even today Lagerlöf is often represented as a sagotant, a naïve storyteller, rather than as a skilled and talented author.
Although Gösta Berlings saga may indeed draw from the stories and people of Wermland, it is Lagerlöf who crafted the work and created a novel which is not a stringing together of stories but rather a mosaic of life revolving around the central question: how does one reconcile a sense of duty with a sense of beauty; how can one be both good and happy. Set in Wermland in the 1820s, Lagerlöf opens her work with a prologue in which she gives the background story to Gösta Berling and how he arrived at Ekeby as a cavalier. Perhaps one of the most famous lines in Swedish literature, the novel opens with: “At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.” That minister is Gösta Berling, a handsome, passionate, and unregenerate romantic who spreads light and joy but also chaos and destruction. Standing in front of his displeased congregation which has called the bishop to observe his drunken and chaotic behavior, Gösta looks out from the pulpit, forgets his anger at the situation and his indecency, and delivers an incredibly moving sermon, one which convinces his congregation that he must stay. Warmed by his congregation and the reception he receives, Gösta swears he will never drink again. Yet his oath is soon broken. His friend, Captain Kristian, in an attempt to protect Gösta, scares the bishop away for good and Gösta, upon hearing the news, leaves the parsonage and becomes a beggar and a drunk. It is at his lowest point, when he has laid himself down in a snowdrift to die, that Margareta Celsing, who is called the majoress throughout Wermland, finds Gösta and convinces him to live, and to join the cavaliers at her estate, Ekeby.
Chapter 1 is fully devoted to the landscape which Lagerlöf skillfully makes a character, not only in this chapter but throughout the work. It is in Chapter 2 that the “story” begins, with Gösta and the cavaliers on Christmas Eve, drinking and playing cards, when Sintram, who is also called the Black Gentleman, appears. Clearly playing on the Mephistophelean motif, Sintram offers to make a pact with the cavaliers. The contract would require that, in exchange for allowing the cavaliers to run the majoress’ foundries for the year, the cavaliers must swear to do nothing that is un-cavalierlike. Although the contract is signed in jest by Gösta, the chapter ends ominously, with the cavaliers rolling around wildly, drunk, on the floor.
And indeed, the next day events occur which allow the cavaliers to take over the foundries. The majoress reveals at Christmas dinner that she has never loved her husband, but rather Altringer who upon his death gave her husband all of his property—the foundries. Enraged, the majoress’ husband kicks her out and turns over the foundries to the cavaliers for the year. While the majoress wanders the land, seeking the forgiveness of her mother whom she wronged long ago (and as a result she feels she is being punished now), the cavaliers drink and make merry. Gösta, over the course of the year, falls in love with three beauties of the area: Anna Stjärnhök, Marianne Sinclair and Elisabeth Dohna. Although Gösta quickly realizes that he cannot be with any of the women—so as to protect their honor—his passion and recklessness lead all of them to misfortune. Anna marries a man she does not love; Marianne is disowned by her father and scarred by small pox; and Elisabeth is driven from her home in shame. The cavalier’s merriness also results in the foundries, on which Ekeby’s employees and neighbors financially depend, being neglected and the people getting into dire straits.
Gösta, ashamed of what his behavior has led to, including the suicide of a village girl and the death of his friend, Captain Lennart, flees to the woods to take his life. Elisabeth is able to find him, however, and in a lengthy speech makes clear to him that death is just another easy way out for Gösta, that it is time for him to accept his duty – to work and help others – and to find joy in doing so.
The final chapter, entitled “Margareta Celsing”, depicts the majoress’ return to Ekeby where she discovers that Elisabeth and Gösta have been working to help all those in the area. Hope has returned to the province and it appears as if prosperity is on its way as well. Moreover, she is convinced that Gösta has changed. As she hears the hammers of Ekeby, she dies in peace. Lagerlöf ends her novel by addressing her readers: “Dear reader, must I not say the same? Here the giant bees of imagination have swarmed around us during years and days, but to get into the beehive of reality, they will truly have to keep their eyes open.”
With the rich stories and characters of of Wermland, through her lyrical language and imagination, Lagerlöf created a mosaic of life which at its core upholds the idea that, yes, one can be good and happy, but one must keep one’s eyes open: it is hard work and not easily achieved. Also implied in the work is the idea that it is through the guidance of women that this balance will be found.
Today Lagerlöf’s debut novel is recognized as the breakthrough it was—it served as the portal to New Romanticism in Scandinavia—and as the pathway into Lagerlöf’s career as a New Romantic writer with a social conscience.
Ahlström, Gunnar. Kring“Gösta Berlings saga.”
Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1959.
Anderstedt, Claes. “Presentation Speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1909: Selma Lagerlöf.” http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1909/press.html
Berendsohn, Walter. Selma Lagerlöf: Heimat und Leben/ Künstlerschaft/ Werke/ Wirkung und Wert. Munich: Albert Langen, 1927.
Edström, Vivi. Selma Lagerlöf. Livets vågspel. Uddevalla: Natur och Kulture, 2002.
Fryxell, Eva. “Minnen från Värmland.” Svensk tidskrift. 1892. 128-136.
Lagerlöf, Selma. “En saga om en saga.” En saga om en saga och andra berättelser. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1920. 7-24.
Lagerlöf, Selma. The Saga of Gösta Berling. Tr. Paul Norlen. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Schoolfield, George. “Introduction.” The Saga of Gösta Berling. Tr. Paul Norlen. New York: Penguin, 2009. vii-xxv.
Citation: Watson, Jennifer . "Gösta Berlings saga". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 January 2013 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=34362, accessed 15 August 2022.]