Sigrid Undset was born on May 20, 1882, in Kalundborg, Denmark, the eldest of three daughters. Her father, Ingvald Undset, was a well-known archaeologist whose specialty was the Iron Age in Europe. Undset was raised in Kristiania (the name was changed to Oslo in 1925), where her parents moved on account of the failing health of her father. She grew up in a tolerant, free-thinking household, and attended a progressive school. Influenced by her father’s work, she devoured Old Norse and Icelandic sagas and gleaned much of her fascination with and knowledge of medieval Scandinavia that would later serve as backdrops to her most famous novels, Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken. Although she was born into the Lutheran faith, the predominant religion in Norway at that time, Undset’s parents were not practicing Christians and allowed their children to form their own opinions concerning religion. Early in her childhood, Undset had already begun to formulate the opinions that would eventually lead to her conversion to Catholicism.
Undset’s father died at the age of forty, when she was eleven, and her mother was left to raise three children on a very meager income. At sixteen Undset, instead of pursuing a university career, went to work as a typist for a German firm in Oslo, where she was to stay ten years. Her time as a secretary, although humdrum and unfulfilled, gave Undset great insight into the lives of ordinary working men and women trying to eke out a meaningful existence apart from the mundane routines of their lives. These individuals became the inspirations for her first novels, Fru Marta Oulie (1907) [Mrs. Marta Oulie], a story about marital infidelity; The Happy Age (1910), a collection of short stories about the “respectable drudges” (quoted in Brunsdale 1991, p. 87) whom Undset observed during her time as a secretary; and Jenny (1911), which established her writing career. This latter novel, though well received, caused a great outcry in feminist circles where it was felt that Undset compromised the