Selma Lagerlöf

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Selma Lagerlöf
Selma Lagerlöf.jpg
Lagerlöf in 1909
Born: November 20 1858(1858-11-20)
Mårbacka, Sweden
Died: March 16 1940 (aged 81)
Mårbacka, Sweden
Occupation(s): Writer
Nationality: Swedish

Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (/ˈlɑːɡərlɜːf, -lɜːv/, US also /-lʌv, -ləv/, Swedish: [ˈsɛ̂lːma ˈlɑ̂ːɡɛˌɭøːv]; November 20, 1858 – March 16, 1940) was a Swedish author. She published her first novel, Gösta Berling's Saga, at the age of 33. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she was awarded in 1909. She was the first woman to be granted a membership in the Swedish Academy in 1914.


Early years

Lagerlöf family home at Mårbacka, Värmland
Lagerlöf in 1881

Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf was born on November 20, 1858 at Mårbacka,[1] Värmland, Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway. Lagerlöf was the daughter of Erik Gustaf Lagerlöf, a lieutenant in the Royal Värmland Regiment, and Louise Lagerlöf (née Wallroth), whose father was a well-to-do merchant and a foundry owner (brukspatron).[2] Lagerlöf was the couple's fifth child of six. She was born with a hip injury, which was caused by detachment in the hip joint. At the age of three and a half, a sickness left her lame in both legs, although she later recovered.

She was a quiet, serious child with a deep love of reading. She wrote poetry but did not publish anything until later in life. Her grandmother helped raise her, often telling stories of fairytales and fantasy. Growing up, she was plain and slightly lame. One critic suggested that the cross-country wanderings of Margarethe and Elisabet in Gösta Berling's Saga could be the author's compensatory fantasies.[2] She received her schooling at home since the Folkskola compulsory education system was not fully developed yet. She studied English and French. After reading Osceola by Thomas Mayne Reid at the age of seven, she decided she would be a writer when she grew up.[3]

In 1868, at the age of 10, Selma began reading the Bible. At this time her father was very ill, and she hoped that God would heal him if she read the Bible from cover to cover. Her father lived for another 17 years. In this manner, Lagerlöf became accustomed to the language of Scripture.

In 1875, Lagerlöf lived in the Karlskoga Church Rectory alongside Erik Tullius Hammargren and his wife, Ottiliana Lagerlöf, who was her aunt, while she was one of Hammargren's confirmation students.[4][5]

The sale of Mårbacka in 1884 had a serious impact on her development. Selma's father is said to have been an alcoholic, something she rarely discussed.[6] Her father did not want Selma to continue her education or remain involved with the women's movement. Later in life, she would buy back her father's estate with the money she received for her Nobel Prize. Lagerlöf lived there for the rest of her life.[7] She also completed her studies at the Royal Seminary to become a teacher the same year as her father died.

Teaching life

Lagerlöf studied at the Högre lärarinneseminariet in Stockholm from 1882 to 1885. She worked as a country schoolteacher at a high school for girls in Landskrona from 1885 to 1895,[8] while honing her story-telling skills, with particular focus on the legends she had learned as a child. She liked the teaching profession and appreciated her students. She had a talent for capturing the children's attention through telling them stories about the different countries about which they were studying or stories about Jesus and his disciples. During this period of her life, Selma lived with her aunt Lovisa Lagerlöf.

Through her studies at the Royal Women's Superior Training Academy in Stockholm, Lagerlöf reacted against the realism of contemporary Swedish-language writers such as August Strindberg. She began her first novel, Gösta Berling's Saga, while working as a teacher in Landskrona. Her first break as a writer came when she submitted the first chapters to a literary contest in the magazine Idun, and won a publishing contract for the whole book. At first, her writing only received mild reviews from critics, but after a popular male critic, Georg Brandes, gave her positive reviews of the Danish translation, her popularity soared.[9] She received financial support of Fredrika Limnell, who wished to enable her to concentrate on her writing.[10]

Literary career

A visit in 1900 to the American Colony in Jerusalem became the inspiration for Lagerlöf's book by that name.[11] The royal family and the Swedish Academy gave her substantial financial support to continue her research.[12] Jerusalem was also acclaimed by critics, who began comparing her to Homer and Shakespeare, so that she became a popular figure both in Sweden and abroad.[13] By 1895, she gave up her teaching to devote herself to her writing. With the help of proceeds from Gösta Berling's Saga and a scholarship and grant, she made two journeys, which were largely instrumental in providing material for her next novel. With her close friend Sophie Elkan, she traveled to Italy, and also to Palestine and other parts of the East. In Italy, a legend of a Christ Child figure that had been replaced with a false version inspired Lagerlöf's novel Antikrists mirakler (The Miracles of the Antichrist). Set in Sicily, the novel explores the interplay between Christian and socialist moral systems. However, most of Lagerlöf's stories were set in Värmland.[12]

In 1902, Lagerlöf was asked by the National Teachers' Association to write a geography book for children. She wrote Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils), a novel about a boy from the southernmost part of Sweden, who had been shrunk to the size of a thumb and who travelled on the back of a goose across the country. Lagerlöf mixed historical and geographical facts about the provinces of Sweden with the tale of the boy's adventures until he managed to return home and was restored to his normal size.[6] The novel is one of Lagerlöf's most well-known books. It has been translated into more than 30 languages.[14]

Lagerlöf with her friend and literary assistant Valborg Olander. Elkan was jealous of the relationship.

She moved in 1897 to Falun, and met Valborg Olander, who became her literary assistant and friend, but Elkan's jealousy of Olander was a complication in the relationship. Olander, a teacher, was also active in the growing women's suffrage movement in Sweden. Selma Lagerlöf was active as a speaker for the National Association for Women's Suffrage, which was beneficial for the organization because of the great respect Lagerlöf enjoyed. She spoke at the International Suffrage Congress in Stockholm in June 1911, where she gave the opening address, as well as at the victory party of the Swedish suffrage movement after women suffrage was granted in May 1919.[15]

Selma Lagerlöf was a friend of the German-Jewish writer Nelly Sachs. Shortly before her death in 1940, Lagerlöf intervened with the Swedish royal family to secure the release of Sachs and Sachs' aged mother from Nazi Germany on the last flight from Germany to Sweden, where they enjoyed lifelong asylum in Stockholm.

Personal life


Lagerlöf with the writer Sophie Elkan (right)

In 1894, she met the Swedish writer Sophie Elkan, who became her friend and companion. Over many years, Elkan and Lagerlöf critiqued each other's work. Lagerlöf wrote that Elkan strongly influenced her work and that she often disagreed sharply with the direction Lagerlöf wanted to take in her books. Selma's letters to Sophie were published in 1993, titled Du lär mig att bli fri ('You Teach me to be Free').[9] Beginning in the 1900s, she also had a close relationship with Valborg Olander, who had some influence as a literary adviser, agent and secretary of sorts as well. Their correspondence was published in 2006 as En riktig författarhustru ('A Proper Writer's Wife').[16] There appears to have been a strong rivalry between Elkan and Olander while both lived (Elkan died approximately twenty years before the other two women). Both relationships were close, emotional, exclusive and described in terms suggestive of love. The boundary between expressions of friendship and love was somewhat vague at the time. Still, it is primarily the surviving correspondence with Olander that contains passages implying decidedly erotic and physical passion, even though Lagerlöf took care to destroy many of the letters she found too risque.[17] Homosexual relations between women were taboo as well as illegal in Sweden at the time, so none of the women involved ever revealed it publicly.

Literary adaptations

In 1919, Lagerlöf sold all the movie rights to all of her as-yet unpublished works to Swedish Cinema Theater (Swedish: Svenska Biografteatern), so over the years, many movie versions of her works were made. During the era of Swedish silent cinema, her works were used in film by Victor Sjöström, Mauritz Stiller, and other Swedish film makers.[18] Sjöström's retelling of Lagerlöf's tales about rural Swedish life, in which his camera recorded the detail of traditional village life and the Swedish landscape, provided the basis of some of the most poetic and memorable products of silent cinema. Jerusalem was adapted in 1996 into the internationally acclaimed film Jerusalem.


On December 10, 1909,[19] Selma Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize "in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination, and spiritual perception that characterize her writings,"[20] but the decision was preceded by harsh internal power struggle within the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize in literature.[21] During her acceptance speech, she remained humble and told a fantastic story of her father, as she 'visited him in heaven'. In the story, she asks her father for help with the debt she owes and her father explains the debt is from all the people who supported her throughout her career.[6] In 1904, the academy had awarded her its great gold medal, and in 1914, she also became a member of the academy.[13] For both the academy membership and her Nobel literature prize, she was the first woman to be so honored.[8]

Lev Grossman's fantasy novel The Magicians includes numerous allusions to earlier works such as The Narnia Series and the Harry Potter books. The influence of Nils Holgersson is evident in a key episode where a class of students nearing graduation from a School of Magic are set a major test: to be transformed into wild geese and undertake an epic flight, all the way from Upper New York State to Antarctica.

Awards and commemoration

Lagerlöf on a 1959 postage stamp of the Soviet Union

In 1907, she received the honorary degree of doctor of letters (filosofie hedersdoktor) from Uppsala University.[22] In 1928, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Greifswald's Faculty of Arts. At the start of the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, she sent her Nobel Prize medal and gold medal from the Swedish Academy to the government of Finland to help raise money to fight the Soviet Union.[23] The Finnish government was so touched that it raised the necessary money by other means and returned her medal to her.

She was awarded the Litteris et Artibus in 1909 and the Illis quorum in 1926.[24] In 1991, she became the first woman to be depicted on a Swedish banknote, when the first 20-kronor note was released.[25] The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is so well known in Swedish culture that a picture of Nils Holgersson, on the back of a goose flying over the plains of Scania, was printed on the reverse side of the Swedish 20 krona banknote until new bills came in use in 2015.[26]

The sights Nils sees as he and his goose roam the provinces of Sweden are depicted in a series of Christmas plates produced by Rörstrand Pottery. The series began in 1970 and continued until 1999. The plates illustrate the topography, architecture, industry, and wildlife of Sweden.

Two hotels are named after her in Östra Ämtervik in Sunne, and her home, Mårbacka, is preserved as a museum.


Original Swedish-language publications are listed primarily.[27][28]

The popularity of Lagerlöf in the United States was due in part to Velma Swanston Howard, or V. S. Howard (1868–1937, a suffragette and Christian scientist)[29] – who was an early believer in her appeal to Americans and who carefully translated many of her books.[8]

  • Gösta Berlings saga (1891; novel). Translated as The Story of Gösta Berling (Pauline Bancroft Flach, 1898), Gösta Berling's Saga (V.S. Howard and Lillie Tudeer, 1898), The Story of Gösta Berling (Robert Bly, 1962), The Saga of Gosta Berling (Paul Norlen, 2009)
  • Osynliga länkar (1894; short stories). Translated as Invisible Links (Pauline Bancroft Flach, (1869–1966) 1899)
  • Antikrists mirakler (1897; novel). Translated as The Miracles of Antichrist (Selma Ahlström Trotz, 1899) and The Miracles of Antichrist (Pauline Bancroft Flach (1869–1966), 1899)
  • Drottningar i Kungahälla (1899; short stories). Translated as The Queens of Kungahälla and Other Sketches From a Swedish Homestead (Jessie Bröchner, 1901; C. Field, 1917)
  • En herrgårdssägen (1899; short stories). Translated as The Tale of a Manor and Other Sketches (C. Field, 1922)
  • Jerusalem: två berättelser. 1, I Dalarne (1901; novel). Translated as Jerusalem (Jessie Bröchner, 1903; V.S. Howard, 1914)
  • Jerusalem: två berättelser. 2, I det heliga landet (1902; novel). Translated as The Holy City : Jerusalem II (V.S. Howard, 1918)
  • Herr Arnes penningar (1903; novel). Translated as Herr Arne's Hoard (Arthur G. Chater, 1923; Philip Brakenridge, 1952) and The Treasure (Arthur G. Chater, 1925) – adapted as the 1919 film Sir Arne's Treasure.
  • Kristuslegender (1904; short stories). Translated as Christ Legends and Other Stories (V,S. Howard, 1908)
  • Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1906–07; novel). Translated as The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (V.S. Howard, 1907; Richard E. Oldenburg, 1967) and Further Adventures of Nils (V.S. Howard, 1911)
  • En saga om en saga och andra sagor (1908; short stories). Translated as The Girl from the Marsh Croft (V.S. Howard, 1910) and Girl from the Marsh Croft and Other Stories (edited by Greta Anderson, 1996)
  • Hem och stat: Föredrag vid rösträttskongressen den 13 juni 1911 (1911; non-fiction). Translated as Home and State: Being an Address Delivered at Stockholm at the Sixth Convention of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, June 1911 (C. Ursula Holmstedt, 1912)
  • Liljecronas hem (1911; novel). Translated as Liliecrona's Home (Anna Barwell, 1913)
  • Körkarlen (1912; novel). Translated as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (William Frederick Harvey, 1921). Filmed as The Phantom Carriage, The Phantom Chariot, The Stroke of Midnight.
  • Stormyrtossen: Folkskädespel i 4 akter (1913) with Bernt Fredgren
  • Astrid och andra berättelser (1914; short stories)
  • Kejsarn av Portugallien (1914; novel). Translated as The Emperor of Portugallia (V.S. Howard, 1916)
  • Dunungen: Lustspel i fyra akter (1914; play)
  • Silvergruvan och andra berättelser (1915; short stories)
  • Troll och Människor (1915, 1921; novel). Translated as The Changeling (Susanna Stevens, 1992)
  • Bannlyst (1918; novel). Translated as The Outcast (W. Worster, 1920/22)
  • Kavaljersnoveller (1918; novel), with illustrations by Einar Nerman
  • Zachris Topelius utveckling och mognad (1920; non-fiction), biography of Zachris Topelius
  • Mårbacka (1922; memoir). Translated as Marbacka: The Story of a Manor (V.S. Howard, 1924) and Memories of Marbacka (Greta Andersen, 1996) – named for the estate Mårbacka where Lagerlöf was born and raised
  • The Ring trilogy – published in 1931 as The Ring of the Löwenskölds, containing the Martin and Howard translations.
    • Löwensköldska ringen (1925; novel). Translated as The General's Ring (Francesca Martin, 1928) and as The Löwensköld Ring (Linda Schenck, 1991)
    • Charlotte Löwensköld (1925; novel). Translated as Charlotte Löwensköld (V.S. Howard)
    • Anna Svärd (1928; novel). Translated as Anna Svärd (V.S. Howard, 1931)
  • En Herrgårdssägen: Skådespel i fyra akter (1929; play), based on 1899 work En herrgårdssägen
  • Mors porträtt och andra berättelser (1930; short stories)
  • Ett barns memoarer: Mårbacka (1930; memoir). Translated as Memories of My Childhood: Further Years at Mårbacka (V.S. Howard, 1934)
  • Dagbok för Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (1932; memoir). Translated as The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf (V.S. Howard, 1936)
  • Höst (1933; short stories). Translated as Harvest (Florence and Naboth Hedin, 1935)
  • Julberättelser (1936)
  • Gösta Berlings saga: Skådespel i fyra akter med prolog och epilog efter romanen med samma namn (1936)
  • Från skilda tider: Efterlämnade skrifter (1943–45)
  • Dockteaterspel (1959)
  • Madame de Castro: En ungdomsdikt (1984)


  1. H. G. L., "Miss Lagerlöf at Marbacka," The American-Scandinavian Review, (4) (1916): 36.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Selma Lagerlöf and George Schoolfield, The Saga of Gösta Berling (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Classics, 2009, ISBN 978-1101140482).
  3. "Selma Lagerlöf – författaren," Retrieved July 6, 2023.
  4. "Svenska Turistföreningens årsskrift (Yearbook of the Swedish Tourist Assocation," Project Runeberg, 1928, 107. Retrieved July 6, 2023.
  5. "Gröna Promenadens historia (History of the Green Walk)," Karlskoga Naturskyddsförening (Karlskoka Nature Conservation Society). Retrieved July 6, 2023.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Jenny Watson, "Selma Lagerlöf: Surface and Depth," The Public Domain Review. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  7. "Selma Lagerlöf - Facts," Nobel Prize. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 George Edwin Rines, ed., "Lagerlof, Ottilia Lovisa Selma," Encyclopedia Americana, 1920. Retrieved July 27, 2023.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf (1858–1940)," Authors Calendar. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  10. Selma Lagerlöf, The Selma Lagerlof Megapack: 31 Classic Novels and Stories (Rockville, MD: Wildside Press LLC, 2013, ISBN 978-1434443441), 20.
  11. Heike Zaun-Goshen, "Times of Change: Chapters on Urban Jerusalem," Jerusalem Post, 2002. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Selma Lagerlöf – Biographical," Nobel Prize. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Helena Forsas-Scott, Swedish Women's Writing 1850–1995 (London, U.K.: The Athlone Press, 1997, ISBN 0485910039), 63.
  14. "100 år med Nils Holgersson," Lund University Library. Retrieved July 7, 2023.
  15. Barbro Hedwall and Susanna Eriksson Lundqvist, eds., Vår rättmätiga plats. Om kvinnornas kamp för rösträtt (Our Rightful Place. About women's struggle for suffrage) (Stockholm, SW: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2011, ISBN 978-9174241198).
  16. Ying Toijer-Nilsson, ed., En riktig författarhustru: Selma Lagerlöf skriver till Valborg Olander (A Proper Writer's wife: Selma Lagerlöf to Valborg Olander) (Stockholm, SW: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2006, ISBN 978-9100105297).
  17. Björn Sundberg, "Recension av Reijo Rüster Lars Westman: Selma på Mårbacka," Bonniers 1996. Tidskrift för svensk litteraturvetenskaplig forskning. Årgång 117 1996. Retrieved July 27, 2023.
  18. Leif Furhammar, "Selma Lagerlöf and Literary Adaptations," Swedish Film: An Introduction and Reader, eds., Mariah Larsson and Anders Marklund (Lund, SW: Nordic Academic Press, 2010, ISBN 978-9185509362), 86–91.
  19. Selma Lagerlöf, "Banquet Speech," Nobel Prize December 10, 1909. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  20. "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1909," Nobel Prize. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  21. Alan Asaid, "Våldsam debatt i Akademien när Lagerlöf valdes (Violent debate in the Academy when Lagerlöf was elected)," Svenska Dagbladet, September 25, 2009. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  22. "Selma O L Lagerlöf," National Archives of Sweden. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  23. Ralph Gunther, "The magic zone: sketches of the Nobel Laureates," Scripta Humanistica (150) (2003).
  24. Lisbeth Stenberg, "Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf,", trans. Alexia Grosjean. Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikon. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  25. "20 Swedish Krona banknote 2008 Selma Lagerlöf," World Bank Notes Coins. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  26. "Swedish 20 krona note," Numista. Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  27. "Selma Lagerlöf – Bibliography," Nobel Prize. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  28. Petri Liukkonen, "Selma Lagerlöf," Books and Writers. Retrieved July 8, 2023.
  29. "Howard, Velma Swanston, 1868–1937," Library of Congress Authorities. Retrieved July 8, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Further reading

  • Berendsohn, Walter A. Selma Lagerlöf: Her Life and Work, adapted from the German by George F. Timpson. London, U.K.: Nicholson & Watson, 1931.
  • De Noma, Elizabeth Ann. Multiple Melodrama: The Making and Remaking of Three Selma Lagerlöf Narratives in the Silent Era and the 1940s. Ann Arbor, MI.: UMI Research Press, 2000.
  • Edström, Vivi. Selma Lagerlöf, translated by Barbara Lide. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1984. ISBN 978-9127094819
  • Madler, Jennifer Lynn. The Literary Response of German-language Authors to Selma Lagerlöf. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1998.
  • Nelson, Anne Theodora. The Critical Reception of Selma Lagerlöf in France. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962.
  • Nelson, Victor Folke. "The Mårbacka Edition of the Works of Selma Lagerlöf," The Saturday Review of Literature, January 19, 1929.
  • Olson-Buckner, Elsa. The Epic Tradition in Gösta Berlings Saga. Brooklyn, NY: Theodore Gaus, 1978.
  • Vrieze, Folkerdina Stientje de. Fact and Fiction in the Autobiographical Works of Selma Lagerlof. Assen, NL: Van Gorcum, 1958.
  • Watson, Jennifer. Swedish Novelist Selma Lagerlöf, 1858–1940, and Germany at the Turn of the Century: O du Stern ob meinem Garten. Lewiston, N. Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004. ISBN 9780773463882

External links

All links retrieved July 25, 2023.


Works online


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