Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, November 20, 2015

Selma Lagerlöf, the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize in Literature

Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (born 20 November 1858)

Well, I was planning to write just a quick paragraph or so about Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. I didn't know much about her beyond the fact that she had won the Nobel in 1909, and for whatever reason I didn't feel like writing much today. So, I thought, for once, why not just snag a bit of info from Wikipedia, slap together a quick paragraph, and be done with it? 

Selma Lagerlöf at her desk
That was my plan, anyway.

But then I started reading, beginning with the biographical information at the Nobel website and moving on to the extraordinarily long list of novels and short-story collections. I am not qualified to write more, but I know that I definitely want to read more.

So, as an introduction to the writer Selma Lagerlöf and her work, I do recommend starting with the Nobel website. There you will find biographical information, a bibliography, the Presentation Speech delivered on the occasion of the award, the full text of Lagerlöf's acceptance speech (which makes for wonderful reading), and a photo gallery. The "Other Resources" tab links you to a 1926 video of Lagerlöf at her home as well as to the Selma Lagerlöf Society.

There is also excellent information in Ulla Torpe's entry on Lagerlöf at The History of Nordic Women's Literature website. Torpe notes that Lagerlöf's  work "focuses on strategies for young women to survive physically, mentally, and morally in a patriarchal society."

And, although her "official image" portrayed her "as an unmarried author whose sole passion was writing," Torpe indicates that Lagerlöf's correspondence, made widely available only in the 1990s, reveals her intense and enduring relationships with women, including Valborg Olander, a Swedish suffragist, and with the Swedish-Jewish writer Sophie Elkan. There is now a well-informed literature about Lagerlöf's sexuality.

Selma Lagerlöf died on 16 March 1940. Shortly before her death, she managed to help secure the release of the German-Jewish writer Nelly Sachs and her mother from Nazi Germany. Sachs would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966.

English translations of Lagerlöf's work are freely available at sites like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, but there is also a handsome Penguin edition of her first great work, The Saga of Gösta Berling, published in 2009, on the centenary of Lagerlöf's Nobel Prize, and a Dover edition of her children's classic, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.

Fun fact: Greta Garbo's first screen role was in the 1924 silent film version of Gösta Berlings saga.

Update, 20 November 2023: The History of Nordic Women’s Literature seems to be no longer online—I’m hoping this is a temporary absence. In the mean time, I’ve changed the link to a preserved version of Torpe’s essay at the Internet Archive. 

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