CLIO TALKS BACK: Clio introduces Selma Lagerlöf, Nobel Prize for Literature 1909
Selma Lagerlöf as a girl
Just over a hundred years ago, a Swedish writer named Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940) received the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was the first woman in the world to be recognized for her literary contributions. A few years later she became the first woman elected to the Swedish Academy. The University of Uppsala had already honored her with an honorary doctorate. Who was this woman?
Selma Lagerlöf as a Nobel laureate
Selma Lagerlöf was a prodigious and popular writer of stories and novels. Her works appeared in translation in many other languages besides Swedish and English. After giving up her work as a teacher, she traveled widely and drew from her experiences in other lands, including Italy, Egypt and the Holy Land. One of her best known works was The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, published in 1907, a fanciful story about a miniature boy who flew all over Sweden on the back of a gander, learning the geography of his country and encountering many wonderful creatures. She also wrote long novels, beginning with Gösta Berlings Saga (1891), and including Jerusalem (1901-1902), about a group of peasants who moved to Jerusalem for religious reasons, but were conflicted about having left their farms in Sweden.

Lagerlöf was by no means the first celebrated woman writer in Swedish history. Indeed, the first Swedish novel, Hertha (1855), by Fredrika Bremer, had attacked the laws – the system of patriarchal guardianship over daughters embodied in Sweden’s ‘Paternal Statutes” of 1734. This novel made such an impression, that the government modified those paternal statutes in 1858, and in 1872 changed them again to acknowledge the full legal emancipation of unmarried Swedish women at the age of twenty-five. Sometimes literary works can have a vast impact on social institutions and Bremer’s writings certainly did. So did those of Selma Lagerlöf.

One of Selma Lagerlöf’s most important post-Nobel speeches was given in June 1911to the congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, meeting in Stockholm. Entitled “Home and State” [Hem och Stat in Swedish], she presented her case for woman suffrage: Women, she said, want to help men change the state into a home for the nation. Swedish women did obtain the vote before many others.

The Nobel prize brought Selma Lagerlöf a vast amount of money. She used that money to buy back the family estate Mårbacka, in the Värmland, near Lake Vanern in the southern part of Sweden. It had been sold in 1885 following her father’s death, to Lagerlof’s great regret. The author had drawn deeply on the oral history and folk tales of this region in many of her writings. There, in the Värmland, “women were still the preservers of tradition and performed the family’s storytelling. . . mythical notions were still alive” (Delblanc, p. 12). To her, this place was a spiritual as well as a physical home.

This very successful authoress was also very generous to others. One author (Berendsohn, p. 31-32) wrote of her in 1931: “Selma Lagerlöf gives away a great part of her income, not only to relieve distress far and wide, but to further cultural and scientific purposes…. She has given large sums towards the cutting of a canal and the improvement of the roads. To a ‘Gosta Berling Fund’ for elderly and needy authoresses she devoted all the proceeds of the ‘Gosta Berling’ film. It is not without reason that she is accounted as a good fairy in her home country.”

Superbly talented, honored, gracious, and generous – these words epitomize this superb Swedish writer, who overcame a crippling childhood deformity to become a great figure in world literature.

To learn more about Selma Lagerlöf:

Vivi Edström. Selma Lagerlöf. Translated by Barbara Lide. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Walter A.Berendsohn. Selma Lagerlöf: Her Life and Work. Adapted from the German by George F. Timpson, with a preface by V. Sackville-West. London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd., 1931.

Sven Delblanc. Swedish Portraits: Selma Lagerlöf. Published by the Swedish Institute, 1986.