Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940)

In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf became the first woman and the first Swede to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. By her eightieth birthday her works had been translated into forty languages. Her first novel, Gösta Berlings saga (1891; translated as The Story of Gösta Berling, 1898), was a turning point in Swedish literature. It also helped promote the acting career of Greta Garbo when it was made into a silent movie in 1924. The two-volume work Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1906-1907; translated as The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, 1907, and The Further Adventures of Nils, 1911) was commissioned by the Swedish school authorities for primary-school study of Swedish geography and history and was cleverly devised as the journey of a boy who flies over Sweden on a goose's back. The book enjoyed immense international success. Lagerlöf is a beguiling storyteller, which has caused many critics to fail to recognize her sophistication and subtexts.


She belonged to the literary generation in Sweden that succeeded the naturalists (of whom August Strindberg was the acknowledged leader until his religious conversion around 1896). This young neo-Romantic group of the 1890s included the poets Verner von Heidenstam (himself a Nobel literature laureate in 1916), Gustaf Fröding, and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (the 1931 Nobel literature laureate). They were Romantic without subscribing to the Transcendentalism of the early nineteenth century. They rejected the dictates of naturalism and the materialist school and the strict confines of social observation; they wished for freedom of imagination and form. Lagerlöf had the ability to introduce the supernatural and mysterious into her works without adopting a religious tone unattractive to nonbelievers. Her Kristuslegender (1904; translated as Christ Legends, 1908) are concerned with goodness, not Christology.

Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerlöf was born on 20 November 1858 in a small manor house called Mårbacka in the province of Värmland in western Sweden. She was the fourth of five children of retired lieutenant and gentleman farmer Erik Gustaf Lagerlöf and his wife, Lovisa Elisabeth (née Wallroth), the daughter of a wealthy merchant and mine owner in Värmland. The Lagerlöfs had centuries-long roots in Värmland and had family connections to the writers Esaias Tegnér, Erik Gustaf Geiejer, and Fröding. Selma Lagerlöf's father was also born at Mårbacka and was the son of a regimental paymaster, Daniel Lagerlöf, and Elisabet Maria (known as Lisa Maja), née Wennervik. Lisa Maja Wennervik, Selma Lagerlöf's paternal grandmother, inherited Mårbacka from her parents and brought her husband there, just as her own mother, and her mother's mother before that, each in turn had inherited Mårbacka and brought a husband into the family home.

Mårbacka (1922; translated, 1924) includes the story (told in the third person) of how Selma, three and a half years old, mysteriously lost the use of her legs, probably because of the terror of once waking alone in an attic room, and had to be carried everywhere. Two years later, her father arranged for the whole family to visit the west-coast town of Strömstad in the hope of improving her health. They were invited onboard a ship whose captain had returned from the Far East with, reputedly, a bird of paradise. Selma privately determined to ask the bird to cure her. Once the dinghy carrying the family had reached the ship, she was the first person to be carried up a rope ladder and placed on the deck. Onboard she asked a cabin boy where the bird of paradise was, and she followed him down the stairs into the captain's cabin and climbed onto the table on which the beautiful stuffed bird stood. There was a commotion on deck when Selma was missed, and it was not until the family found her and asked how she got to the captain's cabin that she realized she had actually walked. Lagerlöf's works are full of miraculous and unaccountable events, including examples of overcoming psychosomatic and mental illnesses. After her astounding cure she was left with a faulty and painful hip (a congenital displacement)--causing a lifelong limp.

Every day she listened eagerly to stories told by her paternal grandmother, who retained a belief in dreams and presentiments and was later fictionalized as the heroine of the novel Liljecronas hem (1911; translated as Liliecrona's Home, 1913). Lagerlöf absorbed folklore, traditions, supernatural tales, and anecdotes about the living and the dead, and it was a great sadness to her when her grandmother died. She read voraciously, and the romance Oceola (1859), by Mayne Reid, with its beautiful heroine and breathtaking adventures, opened up a new world for her: "för mig blir bekantskapen med indianboken Oceola avgörande för hela livet. Den väcker hos mig en djup, stark längtan att en gång åstadkomma något lika härligt. Det är den boken, som gör, att jag vid mina unga år redan vet, att vad jag helst av allt vill syssla med under mina kommande dagar, det är att skriva romaner" (for me acquaintanceship with the Red Indian book Oceola becomes a turning point in my whole life. It awakens in me a deep, powerful longing at some time to create something equally wonderful. It is this book which enables me already at this tender age to know that what I above all else want to devote myself to during my coming life, is to write novels). This declaration was written for her German publisher in 1908 and printed in Troll och människor (1915, Trolls and Humans). Until her change to prose with Gösta Berlings saga, however, Lagerlöf wrote almost exclusively verse because of her deep-seated reverence for what she had been brought up to regard as the noblest medium.

The Lagerlöf daughters were taught by governesses, while the sons had the usual male advantage of a school and university education. Whereas Mårbacka shows Erik Lagerlöf as a man with a gift for friendship and laughter, Ett barns memoarer: Mårbacka 2 (1930; translated as Memories of My Childhood: Further Years at Mårbacka, 1934) indicates the clouds gathering around Lagerlöf's father and home. At fourteen years old she was sent for the second time (the first time she was only nine years old) to stay for three months in Stockholm with her maternal aunt, Georgina Afzelius, and her family, in order to attend remedial gymnastic classes. This period is covered in Dagbok. Mårbacka 3 (1932; translated as The Diary of Selma Lagerlöf, 1936). The diaries provide indispensable insights into the formative experiences and the thoughts of the writer as a girl.

The Lagerlöf family's comfortable financial situation became precarious in the mounting recession of the 1870s, which threatened mining and agriculture in Värmland. Lagerlöf's father, whom she adored, became increasingly helpless and unwell and, faced with impending disaster, began drinking heavily. (He died in 1885.) Lagerlöf herself lacked domestic talents, and in the family's impoverished state she was reduced to acting as her younger sister's governess; she was lame and plain, and, without hope of marriage, her prospects were bleak. She had in abundance a burning desire to become a writer, however. At age nineteen she wrote plays for a puppet theater, Dockteaterspel (Puppet Theater Plays, published in 1959)--her younger sister enthusiastically made the puppets. She wrote poetry but was never seriously encouraged to write until the age of twenty-two, when she met the writer Anna Fryxell, champion of female education and daughter of the well-known prelate and historian Anders Fryxell. Anna Fryxell discovered Lagerlöf at a wedding where the young woman was called upon to read some celebratory verses she had composed. Upon hearing the verses, Fryxell encouraged Lagerlöf to leave home and train as a teacher. In order to do so, Lagerlöf was forced to battle her father's wishes and incur a loan in order to finance four years of study in Stockholm with the ultimate aim of becoming self-sufficient. She spent a year of preparatory study at Sjöbergs lyceum in Stockholm beginning in the autumn of 1881 and then three years, from 1882 to 1885, at Stockholm's Women's Higher Teacher Training College, in its day a prestigious institution for gifted young women. During this time she again lived with the Afzelius family. The college was a stimulating environment for the aspiring author; she described it as a time of awakening and rapid development.

While studying in Stockholm (in all likelihood, in the spring of 1885) Lagerlöf wrote--probably to entertain her fellow students--the narrative poem Madame de Castro (first published in 1984), the action of which takes place in a circus tent and at a grand ball. Because of her handicap, dances were painful events for Lagerlöf. In Madame de Castro a circus artist and her young daughter are both social inferiors and unacceptable in the ballroom where they, nevertheless, perform. The radiant young circus girl captivates Selma (the narrator) and symbolically stows away in the Lagerlöf family's homebound carriage after the ball. In her foreword to Madame de Castro, the feminist scholar Birgitta Holm presents the poem as the metaphorical arrival on the literary stage of the new female writer--successor to Fredrika Bremer, the so-called mother of the Swedish novel--and challenger to the male literary establishment.

The college that Lagerlöf was attending provided a wide-ranging liberal education. She read Ernest Renan, Charles Darwin, Henry Spencer, and Theodore Parker and admired the Swedish poet and thinker Viktor Rydberg, who, like Renan, revered Jesus Christ's goodness but denied his divinity. Lagerlöf was not a believer in Christian dogma, although she firmly believed that God is love and that the universe is governed by his moral laws. Her time in Stockholm was spent not only reading but also participating in the active cultural life of the city. Lagerlöf was an avid opera- and theatergoer. She gave form to her theater experience in a series of sonnets that depict figures from the stage. Hjälmar Gullberg, Lagerlöf's successor as a member of the Swedish Academy, noted that her theater sonnets (published in the periodical Dagny) are a type of literary dress rehearsal for the cavaliers and ladies of Gösta Berlings saga. While in Stockholm, Lagerlöf also met the feminist Countess Sophie Adlersparre, founder of the Fredrika Bremer Society and editor of its periodical Dagny. Lagerlöf (still believing that poetry would be her medium) published four sonnets in Dagny in 1886, but Adlersparre counseled her to write prose instead.

Despite the strong desire to write, Lagerlöf struggled to find material and a language of her own. Her inspiration came suddenly one day while she was walking down Malmskillnad Street in Stockholm. She relates this experience in En saga om en saga och andra sagor (1908, A Story about a Story and Other Stories; translated as The Girl from the Marsh Croft, 1910):

Och då på en gång uppstod denna tanke inom henne: 'Denne värld, som du har levat i nere i Värmland, är inte mindre egendomlig än Fredmans eller Fänrik Ståls. Kan du bara lära dig att behandla det, nog har du lika bra stoff att bearbeta som dessa båda.' På detta sätt gick det till, att hon första gången fick syn på sagan. Och I samma ögonblick hon såg den, började marken gunga under henne. Hela långe Malmskillnadsgatan från Hamngatasbacken ända opp till brandstationen hävde sig mot himlen och sjönk ner igen, hävde och sjönk. . . . I denna stund beslöt den unga flickan, att hon skulle skriva sagan om Värmlandskvaljererna, och hon övergav aldrig någonsin tanken pa den. Men många och långa år dröjde det, innan beslutet kom till utförande.

(And then, all at once, the thought came to her: "the world in which you lived down in Värmland is not any less unusual than Fredman's or Ensign Second Lieutenant Stål's. If you can only find a way to approach it, you will have just as good material to work with as those two." In just that way she first got the idea for her story. And at the same moment she realized this, the ground began to shake beneath her. All of Malmskillnad Street, from Hamn Street Hill all the way up to the fire station, heaved up toward the sky and sank down again, heaved up and sank. . . . At this moment the young girl decided that she would write the story of the Värmland land cavaliers and she never gave up on this thought. But many long years would go by before her decision could be realized.)

As she herself indicates, it took several years before her vision was concretely realized, partly because, at the time, she was a conscientious, hardworking student, and from the fall of 1885 she held her first teaching post, which she took seriously, in the southern Swedish town of Landskrona.


Time, however, was not the only struggle. She also could not find a comfortable way to present her material. It was not until the death of her father and, shortly thereafter, the sale of her family home, Mårbacka, that Lagerlöf found the important perspective on her original milieu and the language to write her first novel:

Denna längtan kom over henne på så sätt att gården, där hon hade vuxit upp, blev såld. Hon for då till sitt barndomshem för att se det än en gång, innan främlingar skulle ta det i besittning.

Och kvällen innan hon reste därifrån för att kanske aldrig mer återse denn kära plats, beslöt hon i all ödmjuket att skriva boken pa sitt eget sätt och efter egen fattig förmåga. Det skulle inte bli något mästerverk, såsom hon hade hoppats. Det skulle bli en bok, som människor torde komma skratta åt, men hon skulle ändå skriva den. Skriva den för sig själv, för att rädda åt sig vad hon ännu kunde rädda av hemmet: de kära gamla historierna, de sorglösa dagarnas glad frid och det vackra landskapet med den långa sjön och de blåskiftande kullarna.

(The desire [to write the novel] came over her when the farm, where she had grown up, was sold. When this occurred, she drove to her childhood home in order to see it one more time before strangers moved in. And the night before she left her old home for good, perhaps never to see the dear place again, she humbly decided to write the book in her own way and in her own poor writing style. It would not be a masterpiece, as she had hoped. It would be a book, which people would dare to laugh at, but she would write it anyway. She would write it for herself, to save for herself what she could of her home: the dear old stories, the careless days of blissful peace and the beautiful landscape with the long lakes and the blue shifting hills.)

She chose prose rather than poetry, as Adlersparre had advised her, and the stories came to life.


In 1890 Lagerlöf sent a few of the chapters she had finished of Gösta Berlings saga to the magazine Idun, which resulted in her winning their literary competition. With the aid of the prize money and help from friends, she was granted six months of leave from her teaching post and finished the book for publication in 1891. The hero, Gösta Berling, a defrocked pastor, is handsome, passionate, and an unregenerate romantic who spreads light and joy but also chaos and destruction. He is saved from death in a snowdrift by a commanding woman, the so-called Majorskan (Major's wife), no longer young but with traces of past beauty. She is an owner of seven mines and the most powerful woman in Värmland. Gösta is invited to join a band of penniless but eternally carefree, party-loving "cavaliers," mostly aging former army men who live as her guests in a wing of Ekeby manor. The Major's wife has a past to atone for, however, and while she sets out on foot on a penitential pilgrimage, the cavaliers become masters of Ekeby for the space of a year, having signed a Mephistophelian pact to do nothing useful or gainful during that time. The conflict played out is between everything attractive and irresponsible (including the credo l'art pour l'art, art for art's sake) on the one hand, and seriousness and useful work on the other. The inevitability of falling in love with beauty and the sacrifices demanded by real love constitute a variation of the theme. Lagerlöf had been nourished on Romantic poetry and the myths and stories of bygone adventures; she was also socially committed. Hence, her cavaliers are depicted as lovable men but also destructive because of their neglect of the iron foundry, on which Ekeby and all its employees and neighbors financially depend, a lesson reinforced by Nature when a raging flood threatens to sweep away the neglected foundry. The central problem of the novel is how can a man be both joyful and good? Is it possible to reconcile a love of romance and gaiety with social concerns?

Georg Brandes, the influential Danish critic who in 1872 had lamented that Scandinavian literature had not yet joined in the "Modern Breakthrough" pioneered in French and German literature, was the first major critic to recognize the remarkable qualities of Gösta Berlings saga in a review in Politiken (16 January 1893). He recognized that an unknown spinster teacher in Landskrona had illustrated in a most original way his dictum that the proof of a literature being alive is that it debates problems. Each chapter of the book contributes to the exposition and ultimate resolution of the dilemma of how to combine a sense of duty with a sense of beauty. His review did not appear, however, until two years after the release of the novel. Initial Swedish reception of the finished novel proved a disappointment to its author. Its exuberant mixture of romantic adventures and supernatural elements, its episodic chapters and the rhapsodic diction, far from the confines of sober naturalism, initially blinded critics to the imaginative power of the book and the skill with which each chapter, complete in itself, simultaneously constituted a necessary element of the totality. The leading critic of the time, Oscar Levertin, admiringly regarded Lagerlöf as an inspired and essentially spontaneous storyteller in the oral tradition, which must have irked the highly conscious craftsman Lagerlöf. The critic Karl Warburg, in the newspaper Göteborgs Handelstidning (17 February 1891), acknowledged that the work had merits here and there but also wrote of its supposed "grodor" (tasteless blunders), and Carl David af Wirsén, secretary of the Swedish Academy--notorious for his prejudice against anything other than idyllic idealism in the classical mode, and eternally hostile to August Strindberg --wrote a destructive review of it that appeared in Vårt Land on 31 December 1891. Lagerlöf, after the euphoria of winning the Idun competition, felt deeply discouraged. Her ultimate vindication came with Brandes's glowing review, which was followed by several other enthusiastic Danish ones. In a sense, Lagerlöf's modernness in Gösta Berlings saga prevented the majority of critical opinion at home from adjusting to her mixture of playful parody, irony, romance, and a genuine concern to debate problems. Subsequent critics, however, have affirmed that the work is a modern classic. In particular, feminist critics have found a rich vein to mine in her first work, pointing out that women are the real heroes of the book.

Lagerlöf was aware that the high rhetoric of her first book could not and should not be repeated. She applied herself to another diction--sparer, more laconic, and inspired by the simplicity of Old Norse sagas--in some of the short stories set in medieval times for her second book, Osynliga länkar (1894; translated as Invisible Links, 1899), stories reflecting the conflict between Old Norse heathendom and Christendom. Others, such as "Dunungen" (translated as "Downie" in Invisible Links), have contemporary settings. That same year she formed a friendship of incalculable importance with the aspiring writer Sophie Elkan, a widow who had lost her only child. Her grace, intelligence, and, above all, the air of tragedy that surrounded her captivated Lagerlöf, and they quickly established a literary companionship, traveling together and reading and criticizing each other's drafts. For Lagerlöf the friendship was liberating and quickened her imagination. As is clear from the selection of Lagerlöf's letters to Elkan published in 1992 as Du lär mig att bli fri: Selma Lagerlöf skriver till Sophie Elkan (You Teach Me to Be Free: Selma Lagerlöf Writing to Sophie Elkan), Lagerlöf experienced the joy and exhilaration of falling in love with Elkan.

Elkan, who was Jewish but nonreligious, lived in Gotëborg, and the distance between the two women resulted in much correspondence over the years; a collection of 3,200 letters exchanged between them was made available to scholars by the Royal Library in Stockholm in 1992. Out of Lagerlöf's own 2,015 letters, Du lär mig att bli fri collects some 250, with the editor, Ying Toijer-Nilsson, supplying links based on Elkan's letters. As Lagerlöf's literary success increased, Elkan became increasingly jealous and a burden, despite Lagerlöf's unceasing attempts to play down her own achievements and encourage her friend.

Osynliga länkar appeared in May 1894; some of the stories had previously appeared in magazines, but the novella "Dunungen" was written after Lagerlöf had met Elkan in January 1894. Adapted as a drama by the author in 1914 and successfully produced the same year, "Dunungen" is a story full of irony and an infectious delight at love ultimately triumphing over adversity, with an immense power to engage readers on behalf of the two characters who finally find happiness together. It is also modern in the sense that the action is acutely observed and played out within the space of three days. Brandes's one caveat concerning Gösta Berlings saga had been that its scenes of elopements and kisses lacked fire and were clearly written by a spinster. The psychology and descriptions of falling in love in "Dunungen" are, by contrast, totally convincing. Osynliga länkar was admired by reviewers and the reading public.

As a result of her recent literary successes, Lagerlöf was sought after by several journals. Yet, she still could not afford to devote herself full-time to writing. Only in 1895, with royalties from the second edition of Gösta Berlings saga, a large traveling stipend from King Oskar II and his son Prince Eugen, and a grant from the Swedish Academy, was Lagerlöf able to break out of the confines of her existence. She decided to become a professional writer, quit her job, and use the stipend to travel with Elkan to Italy, where they visited Rome and Sicily, the setting for Antikrists mirakler (1897; translated as The Miracles of Antichrist , 1899). When Lagerlöf and Elkan visited the basilica of Ara Coeli on the Capitol in Rome, the custodian showed them the famous Bambino, or Christ child, studded with jewels, explaining that once, in error, a counterfeit version had been worshiped there. At the same time, Lagerlöf read a tourist guide that repeated the legend of Emperor Augustus's vision of the newborn child-god on the first Christmas Eve and the Sibyl's prophecy that Christ and Antichrist would one day both be worshiped on the Capitol. From these strands Lagerlöf wove her story of a precious Christ-child statue, which is stolen and replaced with a copy whose concealed inscription reads "Mitt rike är endast au denna världen" (My kingdom is only of this world). Both statues work miracles through the faith they awaken, although the socialists wish ultimately to wean people off this opium. The novel indicates Lagerlöf's complex attitude toward religious faith, which she expressed years later, in a 27 April 1930 letter to her friend Countess Henriette Coyet:

Jag hade naturligtvis läst Rydbergs Bibelns lära om Kristus i min ungdom, och jag hade, medan jag studerade i Stockholm, fått umgås med riktiga fritänkare, så att jag hade nog kommit långt bort från allt vad religion hette. Men så hände sig under de många år, som jag kämpade för att lära mig författa, att jag märkte, att den torra förståndstron inte passade mig. Om jag inte fick skriva om under, om det övernaturliga, så dög jag till ingenting, och detta inre tvång förde mig tillbaka till att tro, att det dock måste finnas en annan värld. Någon religion bland de många, som finnas, har jag inte funnit, som jag kan sluta mig till, men där jag råkar på tro på Gud och odödlighet, där tycker jag, att jag tillföres liv, det ger mig växtkraft, hjälper mig, medan otro på något sätt gör mig maktlös, dödar det intuitiva livet.

(I had naturally read Rydberg's The Bible's Doctrine on Christ in my youth, and while studying in Stockholm I associated with real free thinkers, so I had indeed moved a long way from everything religious. But then during the many years when I was struggling to become a writer, I noticed that a dry-as-dust rationality didn't suit me. If I was not allowed to write about miracles and the supernatural, I was quite useless, and this inner compulsion brought me back to the belief that another world must exist after all. I haven't found a specific religion among the many which exist, to which I can attach myself, but where I meet faith in God and immortality, there I feel that I'm given life, it gives me the ability to grow, it helps me, while lack of faith somehow robs me of power, kills my intuitive life.)

In this novel of ideas Lagerlöf is not partisan; a synthesis of Christianity and socialism appears to be her solution. The most captivating chapters describe Mount Etna (called "Mongibello") and the faith and colorful experiences of the local people, but she was also aware that this apparent Sicilian paradise involved hunger, exploitation, and child labor in sulphur mines--all fertile ground for socialist agitation.


It took Lagerlöf a year longer to finish the book than she had anticipated. Antikrists mirakler was published the same year as Strindberg's Inferno, which overshadowed it, but it sold more rapidly than her two previous works. Levertin was well disposed but not particularly interested in Antichrist and its inscription; in his opinion, the best thing about the book was its local color (Svenska Dagbladet, 9 December 1897). Lagerlöf wrote to Ellen Key, a leading feminist in Sweden, on 15 December 1897 that the episodes that befall the Antichrist statue (which is proselytizing for socialism under the guise of Christianity) have to be understood as an extended allegory of Christ's life as portrayed in the Gospels, and that Levertin must have missed that point because of insufficient familiarity with the New Testament. The Swedish Socialist leader Hjalmar Branting maintained in his review in Social-Demokraten (31 December 1897) that Lagerlöf, like other bourgeois authors, was unable to distinguish between philanthropy and socialism.

In 1897 Lagerlöf moved from Landskrona to Falun, in the province of Dalecarlia, bordering on Värmland, where her younger sister Gerda lived. There she began her most productive period of writing, one that lasted until World War I, and she also found a lifelong helper and friend in Valborg Olander, a teacher and Swedish-language specialist. From then on, Olander acted as Lagerlöf's personal assistant, tirelessly reading, correcting, and typing out her drafts and helping with her ever-increasing volume of correspondence. Elkan was inclined to be jealous of Olander, thereby adding to Lagerlöf's worries. That summer she and Elkan again visited Gotland as well as exchanging home visits. Their relationship had changed, however; Elkan had become increasingly nervous about her own work and health, and it required all Lagerlöf's tact and sympathy to calm her, so that what had begun as a joyful, inspirational friendship often became burdensome and complicated.

In 1899 Lagerlöf published Drottningar i Kungahälla, jämte andra berättelser (translated as The Queens of Kungahälla and Other Sketches from a Swedish Homestead, 1901). Her brother Daniel was now a physician in Kungälv (in medieval times known as Kungahälla), near Göteborg, in the county of Bohuslän. She got to know the area well and situated several of her works there. Some stories in Drottningar i Kungahälla, jämte andra berättelser are based on Snorre Sturlason's thirteenth-century medieval histories (fragments of an earlier verse cycle adapted from the same source have been found), and she shapes them to reflect the confrontation between heathendom and Christianity; the other stories in the collection are mainly legends. En herrgårdssägen (translated as The Tale of a Manor and Other Sketches, 1922) also was published in 1899. With echoes of the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast," it demonstrates a dazzling blend of apparent simplicity and psychological sophistication. As Lagerlöf wrote on 18 March 1891 to the critic Helena Nyblom in response to Nyblom's review of Gosta Berlings saga: "Jag tar alldeles medvetet mina läsare till hjälp. Jag är så trött på att läsa hvad jag själf vet, som man så ofta får göra att jag ofta tänker. 'Det där behöfver jag ej skrifva det tänka de ut själfva'" (I quite deliberately let my readers help me. I am so tired of reading what I myself know, which one is so often forced to, that I often think, "I don't need to write that, they will work it out for themselves"). The two protagonists of the story ultimately give each other the courage to go on living.

In 1897 Lagerlöf read in the press about a group of thirty-seven Dalecarlian farmers from Nås who for religious reasons had left their farms in 1896 and immigrated to Palestine to live in a Christian Socialist community of Americans (many of Swedish descent) and await the Second Coming of Jesus. It appeared to her to be a promising subject for a novel. In 1900 she traveled to Jerusalem (and to Egypt) with Elkan and met the colonists. On returning to Sweden she visited Nås and met their relatives and friends.

Although she had researched her subject thoroughly, the characters in her two-part novel, Jerusalem (1901-1902; translated, 1903), are fictional. She deals fairly with the two groups resulting from the revivalist fervor: the ones who abandon everything and those who stay behind. The first volume of Jerusalem conjures up the virtues and values of a farming community; Lagerlöf wrote to Norwegian author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature) that she had been inspired by his loving portrayals of rural life. Volume two shows how Jerusalem encourages a belief in the supernatural as well as being a breeding ground for feuds and jealousies among the various religious communities. While Lagerlöf was working on part 2 at the bathing resort of Marstrand, in company with Elkan, she wrote revealingly to Olander in a letter of 28 June 1902, "en stor harm och missräkning vållades mig första dagen här då min kritiker alldeles ref omkull mitt första kapitel, det som jag var så glad åt och som du hade så mycket arbete med. Jag har måst böja min svagare vilja under den starkare, men det var mycket tråkigt och påkostande och tidsödande. Däremot har vi varit goda vänner angående fortsättningen och jag tror att hon är ganska nöjd" (great resentment and disappointment occasioned me the first day here when my critic [Elkan] totally demolished my first chapter which I was so pleased with and which you had worked so hard at. I had to submit my weaker will to the stronger one, but it was very upsetting and a strain and very time-consuming). The introductory chapter describing the emigrants' journey from Göteborg to Antwerp, which Elkan forced Lagerlöf to cut, was replaced by a new one written according to Elkan's instructions, of which Vivi Edström wrote in "'Gud styr': Motivförskjutningen i Jerusalem" (1958, "God Rules": The Thematic Shift in Jerusalem): "Om detta kapitel kan väl endast en mening råda: att Selma Lagerlöf knappast någonsin åstadkommit något så påkostande groteskt" (Only one view of this chapter can surely be held: that Selma Lagerlöf scarcely ever has produced anything so tryingly grotesque). This chapter disappeared from the fifth and subsequent editions and was replaced by an entirely new chapter written without interference (Lagerlöf had evidently thrown away the original one in frustration).

The first volume of Jerusalem got an enthusiastic reception from the public and many superlatives from Levertin in two long articles in Svenska Dagbladet (30, 31 December 1901). In the case of two important critics who had reacted negatively to Gösta Berlings saga, Karl Warburg declared (Göteborgs Handels och Sjöfartstidning, 13 December 1901) and Wirsén conceded (Post och Inrikestidningar, 21 December 1901) that Jerusalem is a remarkable work of noble simplicity and great imagination. Lagerlöf herself was not entirely happy with part 2, and she undertook a major revision of it for the 1909 edition, in which the colonists' activities are seen in a more positive light and as contributing to Palestine's regeneration.

The novella Herr Arnes penningar (1903; translated as Herr Arne's Hoard , 1923), set in sixteenth-century Bohuslän, concerns the murder of innocent people and the retribution that finally catches up with the perpetrators. Dreams, portents, and ghosts are vital ingredients. During visits to her brother Daniel, Lagerlöf had become interested in the history and topography of the region, and the novella builds on a reference to a gruesome multiple murder briefly described in an eighteenth-century source, Johan Dedman's Chorografia bahusiensis (1746). Lagerlöf's account conjures up the supernatural forces, which unabatedly send signals both before and after the crime, not subsiding until justice has been done in this stark tale reminiscent of Old Icelandic literature. Lagerlöf's fascination with the supernatural is well documented and ties in with her interest in spiritualism, anthroposophy, and theosophy. Elkan found the novella gruesome and exhorted Lagerlöf's publisher, Karl Bonnier, to persuade Lagerlöf not to publish it, since Elkan believed this bloodcurdling text would harm Lagerlöf's reputation irretrievably. It was published serially in the magazine Idun in 1903, but Bonnier had to set it aside until he received a letter from Lagerlöf, dated 18 October 1904, saying that she was delighted to announce the work had finally received Elkan's imprimatur: "Det är inte alltid så lätt för en nervös människa att veta hvad hon vill och inte vill, men i detta fall bruka alltid förstånd och god vilja bli rådande bara hon får tid på sig" (It is not always easy for a person of nervous disposition to know what she wants and doesn't want, but in this case reason and good will always assert themselves if she is given time). One likely reason Lagerlöf agreed to the long delay was so that Elkan's big historical novel, Konungen (1904, The King), might be published first, in order to avoid the two books being reviewed simultaneously.

Despite Elkan's dislike of the novella, Herr Arnes penningar met with good reviews and had many admirers in the arts. It formed the basis for an opera by the Swedish composer Gösta Nystroem in 1959. It also attracted the attention of German writer Gerhart Hauptmann (the 1912 Nobel laureate in literature), who in 1917 published his dramatization of it, titled Winterballade. Although Lagerlöf did not particularly like the drama and was perturbed by the fact that Hauptmann had not asked permission to use her material, she immediately translated the piece into Swedish and found it a stage. It met with little success in either Germany or Sweden (where it was first performed in Göteborg, 20 September 1918). Finally, the novella attracted the attention of motion-picture directors, two in Sweden alone: Mauritz Stiller, who created a world-renowned silent movie of the material in 1919, and Gustaf Molander, who made into a striking motion picture in 1954.

For the third edition of Legender (1904), Lagerlöf rewrote the chapter "In Palermo" in Antikrists mirakler and rearranged the stories in Osynliga länkar and Drottningar i Kungahälla, jämte andra berättelser. This new arrangement left three oriental legends that were not included in the collection. Lagerlöf combined these legends with three previously published in magazines, and then she wrote five more, building on slender elements in apocryphal or sometimes canonical sources. These eleven stories appeared as Kristuslegender . Believers found value in these stories, and, for different reasons, so did unbelievers, who felt that Lagerlöf's beautiful stories might encourage the faithful to read the Bible, particularly the Gospels, as legendary material rather than the word of God.

Lagerlöf next applied herself to her promised textbook for primary-school children. The school authorities who commissioned the book expected a collection of tales from different parts of Sweden. But Lagerlöf wanted the book to have a unifying idea that would excite and appeal to children. She struggled for quite a while trying to find a way to unify the book; she wrote in the forty-ninth chapter of Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige that only when she returned to her childhood home in search of motivation did she come upon the idea of a young boy on the back of a goose (the tame creature is based on a goose she had known at Mårbacka). With this idea, Lagerlöf began an immense study of Sweden's geography and history. Much material was sent to her by teachers and schoolchildren from different parts of the country: facts about the natural environment, cultural and historical notes, tales and legends, and stories of people who had performed great deeds. In the summer of 1904 Lagerlöf and Elkan also made a special journey to Norrland, the northernmost of the three main regions of Sweden, in order to get an impression of the environment.

This trip was difficult for Lagerlöf, because although she was immensely loyal to her friend, who was then working on Konungen, Lagerlöf's need for peace and tranquility was by now supplied by Olander. Since they met in 1902 Olander had become an essential part of Lagerlöf's life, but she felt left out during Lagerlöf's monthlong journeys with and visits to Elkan, and she had written of moving from Falun to Stockholm. Lagerlöf responded, "Du får lov att alltid vara mig trogen, då får aldrig bli ond på mig och aldrig tvivla på mig och framför allt får du inte flytta ifrån mig" (You must always be true to me, you must never get angry with me and never lose faith in me and above all you must never move away from me), begging Olander to understand her need to be loyal to Elkan and to avoid an embarrassing confrontation. In the summer of 1905 Lagerlöf and Elkan visited London and other places in south England and Wales, after which they traveled home via Belgium.

When Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige was released in 1906 and 1907, it was enthusiastically received by literary critics and the general public, although some adherents of old-fashioned pedagogy were dissatisfied, maintaining that schools should not encourage reading for pleasure and that pupils should learn to exert themselves when studying, and furthermore (disregarding Nils's positive moral development during the course of his adventures) they complained that he was a naughty and heartless boy who set a bad example. In the newspaper Stockholms Dagblad (22 May 1907) a zoologist enumerated a string of zoological errors and pointed to the unsuitability of someone with such inadequate expertise writing a textbook (the errors were rectified in subsequent editions). Days after the zoologist's attack, however, Lagerlöf had an honorary doctorate conferred on her by Uppsala University, on 25 May 1907.

In early 1907 Lagerlöf's much-loved paternal aunt, Lovisa, died in the home she shared with Lagerlöf in Falun; she was laid to rest in the family plot in Östra Ämtervik, so her funeral brought Lagerlöf back to Värmland, where she found that the badly dilapidated Mårbacka was for sale. Elkan had planned a trip for them to Budapest, Vienna, Trieste, Montenegro, and Dinant in Belgium, although, according to Elin Wägner in Selma Lagerlöf (1942-1943), Lagerlöf's thoughts were too occupied with the second volume of Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, due out in December 1907, for her to absorb what they saw. On her return home, encouraged by a fifty-thousand-copy school edition of the first volume, Lagerlöf bought back Mårbacka and finished Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige.

Lagerlöf celebrated her fiftieth birthday in 1908. That year was also, according to Wägner, what Lagerlöf considered "ett vilans år" (a year of rest), which meant that Lagerlöf did not feel she had to complete a masterpiece that year. To commemorate her half-century birthday, her publisher wanted to release a collection of her stories. Lagerlöf collected all that she had lying around and called the volume En saga om en saga och andra sagor . The title piece in the collection was originally written for a 1902 anthology of reminiscences by Swedish authors about the beginnings of their careers. Another story, "Tösen från stormytorpet" (The Girl from the Marsh Croft), was chosen as the title piece for the English translation. In contrast to her usual work ethic, she let the volume out of her hands before she was happy with it (although she was especially pleased with one legend called "Legenden om Julrosen"). During this year of rest, Lagerlöf was mainly concentrating her efforts on Falun and Mårbacka. She had heat and electricity put into Falun and began the restoration of Mårbacka, a project that was extremely costly but also clearly important to her. She was intent on having Mårbacka as her summer home and being there as soon as possible. The question was, though, how to achieve this goal, for she did not have the financial means to do so.

Her answer came on 16 November 1909, when she was informed that she was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings," as the citation read. The conferring of this award was a great honor, for Lagerlöf was not only the first Swede chosen to receive this award but also the first woman. Lagerlöf recognized this honor but was quite reluctant to give a speech at the Nobel ceremony, as was expected. She was an extremely private person and did not enjoy being the center of attention. Moreoever, she was not well that fall. However, once in Stockholm for the ceremonies, Lagerlöf felt compelled to speak and thank all those who had helped her. In her banquet speech, Lagerlöf imagined a dialogue with her father in heaven, explaining that she was heavily in debt--owing not money but the many sources of her inspiration:

Tänk på alla de där fattiga och hemlösa kavaljererna, som brukade fara omkring i Värmland i din ungdom och spela kille och sjunga visor! Till dem står jag i skuld för galna äfventyr och upptåg och skämt i oändlighet. Och tänk på alla de gamla, som ha suttit i små grå stugor i skogsbrynet och berättat om näck och troll och bergtagna jungfrur! Det är väl de, som ha lärt mig hur det kan bredas ut poesi öfver hårda fjäll och svarta skogar.--Och så, far, tänk på alla de bleka och hålögda munkar och nunnor, som ha suttit i skumma kloster och sett syner och hört röster! Till dem står jag i skuld för lån ur den stora legendskatten, som de ha samlat sig. Och tänk på dalbönderna, som drogo till Jerusalem! Är jag inte i skuld hos dem, därför att de gåfvo mig ett stordåd att skrifva om? Och det är inte nog med att jag står i skuld hos människor, far, det är hela naturen också. Det är markens djur och himmelens fåglar och blommor och träd--de ha allesammans haft sina hemligheter att berätta mig.

(Think how many creditors I have. Think of those poor, homeless vagabonds who used to travel up and down Värmland in your youth, playing the fool and singing all those songs. What do I not owe to them, to their mischief and mad pranks! And the old men and women sitting in their small grey cottages as one came out of the forest, telling me wonderful stories of water-sprites and trolls and enchanted maidens lured into the mountains. It was they who taught me that there is poetry in hard rocks and black forests. And think, Father, of all those pale, hollow-cheeked monks and nuns in their dark cloisters, the visions they saw and the voices they heard. I have borrowed from their treasure of legends. And our own peasants who went to Jerusalem--do I owe them nothing for giving me such glorious deeds to write about? And I am in debt not only to people; there is the whole of nature as well. The animals that walk the earth, the birds in the skies, the trees and flowers, they have all told me some of their secrets.)

Lagerlöf also recognized her debts to the Swedish language; contemporary Norwegian, Russian, and Swedish authors; the king and his son; friends and family; her readers; and the Swedish Academy. The days following the Nobel ceremonies were taken up with other festivities, including royal visits, a literary lunch, and a fest given by a Women's Society in her honor.


The days in Stockholm were draining, and she returned home as soon as she could, where she immediately began negotiations to buy back the land around Mårbacka. Despite warnings from friends that she should not take on any new adventures at the moment, Lagerlöf bought the land on 8 January 1910, claiming that the farm wanted to return to the Lagerlöfs. With this purchase, Lagerlöf began a new part of her life--she became a farm owner--and with that came new responsibilities, new experiences, and uncertainty, as she herself wrote in her autobiography from 1910 (included in Från skilda tider: Efterlämnade skrifter [1943-1945, From Various Times: Surviving Works]): "Hon har nu sålunda blivit en jordbrukare såsom hennes far och farfar voro det för henne och brukar samma jord som de. Utan tviviel står hon härmed inför en nybörjad avdelning av sin livshistoria, men vem vågar säga vad den skall bringa henne?" (She had now become a farmer, just like her father and her grandfather were before her, and she tilled the same land as they did. Without question she stands now facing a new chapter in her life history, but who can venture to say what it will bring her?)

Yet, it was not only the farm that took her time and money. Lagerlöf was at the height of her fame at this point, and she was in great public demand. She was often asked to speak for causes in which she believed, such as the women's right to vote (1911), as well as to write articles for social and literary journals. She was also asked, by acquaintances and strangers alike, from all over the world, for financial and professional help. She spent hours a day answering the letters and pleas she received. Lagerlöf found it next to impossible to balance what she called "life" and her writing, as she wrote to Olander in 1910:

Jag står nu liksom vid en vändpunkt i livet. Alla vilja bjuda mig och rycka mig ut i livet, och detta kunde ju vara ett sätt att driva bort ett par år på. Naturligtvis finge jag se mycket och vara med om mycket roligt, men med författarskapet blev det nog slut för en lång tid framåt. Och författare är väl ända min kallelse att vara framför allt annat.

(I stand now at a turning point in my life. Everyone wishes to invite me and push me out into life and that could, of course, be a way to let a few years drift by. Naturally I would be able to see much and participate in a great deal of fun, but it would mean the end of my writing career for a long time. And to be a writer is my calling above all else.)

Although she did not let herself be pulled "out into life," Lagerlöf did, as a result of all the demands on her, have to put off writing what she called her big project--an historical chronicle of Mårbacka (as opposed to her "biography," Mårbacka), which she never did write.


She did, however, use some of the history of Mårbacka in her next work, Liljecronas hem. In this novel Löfdala is the home, in the early nineteenth century, of seventeen-year-old Maja Lisa (based on Lagerlöf's paternal grandmother), who adores her widowed clergyman father. He commits the fatal error of bringing into the house a singularly wicked stepmother who reserves her bitterest malice for her beautiful and submissive stepdaughter and succeeds in turning father against daughter (Lagerlöf family history spoke of a cruel stepmother, although in this case she assumes mythical proportions). An intelligent thirteen-year-old servant girl is Maja Lisa's only ally. In the end the stepmother is revealed as a nix, a wicked water sprite, and returns whence she came, but Maja Lisa would not have survived her ordeal had not the tormented violinist Liljecrona revealed the stepmother's infamies. Liljecronas hem received enthusiastic reviews from two of the leading critics in the country, John Landquist in Dagens Nyheter (2 December 1911) and Fredrik Böök in Svenska Dagbladet (3 December 1911). Its psychological and symbolic depths have also become the subject of (predominantly feminist) scholarly research. At her death Lagerlöf left uncompleted drafts of a sequel to Liljecronas hem. She told Olander in an undated letter (probably 1912) that the author Per Hallström had written admiringly to her about Liljecronas hem but had added that it would have been even more enjoyable if it had not touched on "Liljecronas redan kända öde" (Liljecrona's already familiar fate), a reference to the chapter bearing his name in Gösta Berlings saga. This observation struck Lagerlöf as true; faced with a sequel that everyone already knew the ending to, she decided for her next novel to write instead on two pressing social problems, tuberculosis (at the request of the national society for its prevention) and alcoholism (with which she was all too familiar from her father's declining years).

Although Lagerlöf's 1912 novel Körkarlen was translated as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! (1921), the original title means "The Coachman" and is derived from the superstition of Breton folklore that whoever dies on the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve must drive Death's cart, collecting the souls of all who pass away during the following year. Lagerlöf mingles realistic slum interiors with hallucinatory descriptions of the state of mind of the new coachman, David Holm, a tubercular drunkard who has tormented his wife and children. Lagerlöf had firsthand knowledge from her Landskrona days of the social work of the Salvation Army, and the dynamic of the story is played out between Edith, the Salvation Army worker assigned to David's case, who loves him despite herself, and the man himself, full of anger and resentment, but who ultimately is moved by Edith's goodness and determines to take responsibility for his family and make amends for his past--and hence is supernaturally granted a reprieve from death, although death is what he longs for. David prays, "Gud, låt min själ får Komma till mognad, innan den skall skördas!" (Lord, let my soul ripen before it is harvested!).

The novella develops something of a moral in the form of a prayer to God to let souls ripen before they are harvested, and Lagerlöf writes vividly of the frontier between life and death. She wrote to her publisher that she had in mind something resembling Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843), but that her novella had turned out to be somber, serious, and fantastical. Reviewers in 1912 read it as indicative of Lagerlöf's wish to undertake a difficult literary experiment, and Sven Delblanc wrote in Selma Lagerlöf (1986): "In terms of technique, it presented enormous difficulties which she surmounted with an intricate system of 'indirect' narration--thoroughly refuting all notions of her lack of narrative sophistication." He also makes the point that in her work the supernatural and mythical often emerge where the doctrine of love is most severely tested (as in En herrgårdssägen). An interesting psychological study (1997) by the playwright Per Olov Enquist reads the triangle of David Holm, Sister Edith, and Mrs. Holm as a symbolic representation of Lagerlöf's father and the two sides of her own personality, the alternately adoring and resentful daughter.

Early in 1914 Lagerlöf wrote to Olander that she was working on "två stora romaner" (two big novels), but only Kejsarn av Portugallien (1914; translated as The Emperor of Portugallia , 1916) was completed. Set in Värmland, it features the dour day laborer Jan, whose life is transformed by the birth of his daughter, Klara Gulla. With her in his arms he learns for the first time what it is to love. When she becomes a prostitute in Stockholm later in life, the knowledge is too grim for him to bear, and he goes out of his mind, claiming that she has become the empress of Portugallia. He himself becomes emperor and wears an old military casque on which he has glued stars of gold foil. Jan's love for his daughter burns so brightly in his sick mind that it finally melts the hardened heart of his daughter, who had rejected and abandoned Jan.

Lagerlöf transforms this story so that it is about more than just an escape into insanity. The worst state of man is not anger but hardheartedness. Indeed, in his madness Jan has the wisdom to see that his daughter the empress is surrounded by her enemies--Pride, Lovelessness, and Lust. In order to save her from them he throws himself into a lake and drowns attempting to reach her as she sails away. She keeps a lengthy vigil by the jetty, waiting for his body to be found, because she is terrified that her father's spirit will haunt her unless he is given a Christian burial. She embarks on her vigil in fear and anger, but it turns into one of repentance and reconciliation. In the autumn of 1914 reviewers ranked Kejsarn av Portugallien equal to Gösta Berlings saga and the first volume of Jerusalem. The public also loved her dramatization of "Dunungen," which premiered in Stockholm in September. Lagerlöf was elected a member of the Swedish Academy, the first woman to be so honored.

In 1915 Lagerlöf read the Swedish scholar Martin Lamm's recently published Swedenborg, in which he traces Emanuel Swedenborg's transition from scientist to religious mystic. According to Wägner, she told Olander that she recognized in herself and her own experiences many of the stages through which Swedenborg had passed. Shortly after she had read Lamm's book, her mother died. Lagerlöf grieved that she had been attending a meeting in Stockholm that day, but in an undated draft of a short story, which was found after Lagerlöf's death, she describes how during the funeral her mother flew invisibly to her right shoulder and conveyed to her that she was happy and liberated: "Min mamma hade förstått olycklig jag var. Hon ville trösta mig. Och jag tackar henne" (My mother had understood how unhappy I was. She wanted to comfort me. And I thank her).

Despite constantly struggling at her writing desk, Lagerlöf found it impossible, in the climate of World War I, to produce literary works. She wrote to her friend Ida Bäckmann in 1917 that she felt that people expected her to write "världs förbätt rarbok" (world-reforming books), but that she was simply unable to. She and Bäckmann had met in 1911 at a congress of the International Alliance for Female Suffrage, which Lagerlöf addressed with the speech Hem och stat (translated as Home and State, 1911), a persuasive argument that women, creators of the home since the dawn of time, should join forces with men to create a good government. The eccentric Bäckmann claimed to have befriended the recently deceased poet Fröding and claimed that he now, from the other side, wished Lagerlöf to be the one "som sådde grönt gräs där han själv och andra farit fram som hunner" (who sowed green grass where he and others had rampaged like Huns).

Lagerlöf's attitude toward Bäckmann was ambivalent, but she considered her someone with whom she could speak the language of the beyond, which greatly interested her. Bäckmann was reviled by Fröding's family for her book Gustaf Fröding (1913); Lagerlöf sympathized with her but was unwilling to enter into public controversy. Hence, she avoided writing the foreword to Gustaf Fröding, which greatly upset Bäckmann. She did, however, write a foreword to Bäckmann's second book about the poet, Gralsökaren (1940, The Grail Seeker).

In 1917 Victor Sjöström was the first motion-picture director to approach Lagerlöf about filming her work, which led to a series of silent movies. That same year he directed Tösen från Stormyrtorpet, based on Lagerlöf's 1908 play, and in 1918 he directed Ingmarssönnerna (The Sons of Ingmar), based on the first volume of Jerusalem, and a sequel, Karin Ingmarsdottar (Karin, Daughter of Ingmar) in 1920. He also directed an adaptation of Körkarlen in 1920. Stiller directed Herr Arnes pengar in 1919, Gunnar Hedes saga (based on En herrgårdssägen) in 1922, and an adaptation of Gösta Berlings saga in 1924 (to which he--with Lagerlöf's disapproval--added a happy ending, in which the Major's wife rises from her sickbed to general rejoicing), with Garbo playing Elisabeth Dohna, Gösta Berling's beloved.

During World War I the lifelong pacifist Lagerlöf sought divine inspiration for her writing, as a note on a draft from the time indicates: "Gode Gud, hjälp Selma Lagerlöf! Kristus Jesus, kom och hjälp mig, säg vad jag skall skriva" (Dear God, help Selma Lagerlöf! Christ Jesus, come and help me, tell me what to write). Early in 1918 inspiration came to her aid in the form of a new novel. Bannlyst (1918; translated as The Outcast , 1920) has two narrative strands--one concerning the violent jealousy exhibited by Pastor Rhånge toward his beautiful and virtuous wife, and the other the unbounded horror and disgust felt by fellow humans toward the outcast of the title, Sven Elverson, who is pursued by the accusation that he, while sick, delirious, and in the company of starving companions, ate the flesh of a dead man. When a seemingly endless mass of bloated corpses from the naval Battle of Jutland in 1916 is encountered by local fishermen, the townsfolk realize that it is far worse to kill the living than to eat the dead. Both Elkan and Olander insisted that Lagerlöf should absolve Sven from the accusation of even excusable cannibalism. She believed this alteration would be inartistic but was unwillingly persuaded to follow their advice and introduced in the novel a letter from one of the expedition's members declaring Sven to be innocent of the act committed by some of his companions. In a 5 April 1919 letter to a friend, Kaja Hansen, Lagerlöf wrote that Swedish critics had concentrated on the romantic part of Bannlyst, not wanting to see what lay behind it, since moralizing books were not in fashion.

In 1920 Lagerlöf commissioned the distinguished architect Gustaf Clason to design a new main house at Mårbacka, and he built her a grandiose, three-story, neoclassical one. She intended it to represent a moving act of filial piety toward her father, whose unrealized and impossible improvement schemes had been, to her, heartbreaking symptoms of his decline. Her biography of the Finnish writer and historian Zacharias Topelius appeared late in 1920. Gripped by her subject, she wrote to her Danish translator: "Topelius var en ovanligt älskvärd och rikt utrustad människa, såd an som man vill tänka sig att människosjälarna skola bli då de genom ett mångtal av inkarnationer ha nått fulländningen" (Topelius was an exceptionally lovable and richly endowed person, such as one would like to think that human souls become when they have undergone numerous incarnations and achieve perfection), which tells as much about the biographer's spiritual beliefs as about Topelius's merits. Next, in 1921 she collected short stories and articles in a second volume of Troll och människor. She was in her sixties and was tired and plagued by hip pains. A Danish book on yoga and Indian wisdom provided some relief. Elkan, however, died of a cerebral hemorrhage early in 1921. While busy building the new Mårbacka, Lagerlöf embarked on writing about the old house. Mårbacka portrays her childhood as an idyllic fairy tale, over which her father reigns as Prince Charming.

Eight years later Lagerlöf recommenced her memoirs, but first came the Löwensköld trilogy. The first volume, Löwensköldska ringen (1925; translated as The General's Ring, 1928), is a ghost story set in the eighteenth century, first serialized in the journal Bonniers Veckotidning. The second volume, Charlotte Löwensköld (1925; translated, 1931), is set in the 1830s, but the style is modern, assured, witty, and ironic; in the manner of the modern psychological novel, characters reveal their thoughts and emotions not by authorial explanation but by what they say and do. A descendant of General Löwensköld, the insufferably self-centered, increasingly obsessive young curate Karl Artur Ekenstedt has similarities to a real-life pastor, C. C. Estenberg (born 1807), about whom Lagerlöf had seen some documents--Estenberg fell out with his fiancée, married a simple Dalecarlian girl, quarreled with his parents, and fell into the clutches of an obsequious flatterer. Lagerlöf's portrayal of Karl Artur is both fascinating and appalling; it is balanced by the charming portrayals of his fiancée, Charlotte, and his subsequent Dalecarlian wife, the title character of the final volume, Anna Svärd (1928; translated, 1931). Equally memorable is the unctuous snake-in-the-grass Thea Sundler, who destroys Charlotte's engagement and breaks up Anna's marriage. Delblanc wrote that Lagerlöf had shaped her characters "with unsurpassed mastery" and that Anna Svärd "would be considered by many to be her best. One can only regret that Sartre never had the opportunity to analyze this book. He never could have found better examples of authenticity and self-deception than the farm girl Anna Svärd and the garrulous Karl Artur." According to Wägner, Lagerlöf wrote to Olander that Anna Svärd really should end at the point when Thea has done her worst, but that unresolved remnants of the intrigue from volume one entailed a final twist that Lagerlöf had neither the time nor the strength to solve to her own satisfaction. Ulla Torpe, who offers a feminist reading of the work in her "Den vedervärdiga kvinnan från Korskyrka" (1983, The Repugnant Woman from Cruciform Church), advances the theory that Thea is metaphorically the female writer, the motor behind the action, who liberates Charlotte and Anna from Karl Artur.

On Lagerlöf's seventieth birthday she was feted with a gala performance at the Stockholm Opera of the Italian composer Riccardo Zandonai's I cavalieri di Ekebù (The Cavaliers of Ekeby), an opera based on Gösta Berlings saga that had opened to great acclaim in Milan on 7 March 1925. Shortly afterward, she made a new friend of her own age, Coyet. In a muted way Lagerlöf felt the same surge of happiness and vitality that she had when meeting Elkan years before. On 20 July 1930 she wrote to Coyet: "jag tänker nog, att jag föreföll dig bra likgiltig i början, ty jag var sådan då, jag väntade mig inte, att livet skulle kunna tillföra mig någon människa, för vilken jag kunde känna varmt och innerligt, någon som var värd att intressera sig för, jag var så desillusionerad" (I can imagine that I seemed very indifferent to begin with, because that's how I was then, I had no expectation that life would bring me someone for whom I could care warmly and deeply, someone worth being interested in, I was so disillusioned). Their friendship lasted the remainder of Lagerlöf's life.

Ett barns memoarer depicts Lagerlöf's life from the ages of ten to thirteen years. A seminal experience was playing cards and erupting in fury at being cheated (as she believed) of her victory by an adult. She was carried upstairs in disgrace, and suddenly her eyes turned inward and she had a vision of a pit inside herself, from which a monster began to push its way up, aroused by her fury. She determined to be quite still, for if it emerged in its full length it might be impossible to force it down again. The experience taught Lagerlöf the necessity of balancing imagination with discipline and self-control.

Dagbok was published as a diary covering the time that Lagerlöf stayed in Stockholm with her aunt and uncle when she was fourteen years old so that she might attend gymnastics classes. The work is not a genuine diary, however, as Lagerlöf wrote it while in her seventies. It provides invaluable insights into her painful realization of her adored father's increasing helplessness and her struggles to contain a vividly imagined, malicious imp that emerges in her self-pitying or angry moods and, like the slimy monster, must be subdued. On the train journey to Stockholm with her brother Daniel, a student friend of his joins them and wins her heart, and she spins fantasies around him. When Olander asked where the student came from, Lagerlöf replied that he was a figure who had accompanied her ever since childhood. He provided Lagerlöf with the stuff of dreams; in her diary she sees him in historical paintings, devises a role for him in an historical novel she plans to write, and dreams that she intervenes on his behalf at court so that he can marry his fiancée and become governor of St. Barthélemy. In return he tells Lagerlöf that so ignoble an emotion as jealousy could never arise in her breast. He performs a moral function by bringing out the best of Lagerlöf in her fantasy life.

In 1933 Lagerlöf's complete works, up to that point, were published. In 1935 she dramatized Gösta Berlings saga as a four-act play, which premiered at the Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm in early 1936. Its success stimulated her, and she had the pleasure of finally meeting Garbo, who called at her invitation.

Yet, the 1930s were grim years in Europe politically, and Lagerlöf could not ignore this fact. A growing number of intellectual, largely Jewish, refugees from Germany were fleeing the Third Reich. Lagerlöf supported them by donating one of her legends about Christ, "Skriften på jordgolvet" (The Writing on the Earthen Floor), which was translated into many languages and sold to raise money for the refugees. The legend was published in Höst (1933; translated as Harvest, 1935), a collection of stories and speeches written between 1914 and 1933. The official German radio network had planned a birthday program in her honor that year, but it was canceled. Despite the threat of losing popularity in Germany, the foreign country in which she was most popular, Lagerlöf stood by her convictions. In fact, in 1940, despite great illness, she worked to get Nelly Sachs, a young Jewish poet, and her mother out of Nazi Germany. She agreed to sponsor the two in Sweden and arranged for their care once they had arrived. Sachs and her mother escaped Nazi Germany on the last passenger plane to leave for Sweden. In 1966 Sachs also became a Nobel Prize laureate for her writing.

After her eightieth birthday Selma Lagerlöf was tired, but as late as the fall of 1939 she began preliminary work on a biography of Elkan. She also had other things on her mind; in 1940 she gave, as a symbolic gesture, the gold medal bestowed on her by the Swedish Academy to a collection for Finland, whose situation in its defensive war with the Soviet Union was desperate. Correspondents, who invested her with great moral authority, had beseeched her to intervene and help. On 8 March, Lagerlöf had a cerebral hemorrhage, and on 16 March 1940 she died. She was laid to rest in the family grave in Östra Ämtervik.


From: Petherick, Karin, and Jennifer Watson. "Selma Lagerlof.Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 3, Gale, 2007. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 331.


  • Further Reading


    • Hanna Astrup Larsen, "A Chronological Checklist of the Books of Selma Lagerlöf Published in America," in her Selma Lagerlöf (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1936).
    • Nils Afzelius, Selma Lagerlöfs bibliografi: Originalskrifter, edited by Eva Andersson, Acta Bibliothecae Regiae Stockholmiensis, no. 23 (Stockholm: Royal Library, 1975).
    • Sibylle Schweitzer, Selma Lagerlöf: Eine bibliographie, edited by Gunilla Rising Hintz (Marburg: Universitätsbibliothek Marburg, 1990).



    • Walter A. Berendsohn, Selma Lagerlöf: Her Life and Work, adapted by George F. Timpson (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1931).
    • Sven Thulin, ed., Mårbacka och Övralid: Minnen av Selma Lagerlöf och Verner von Heidenstam, volumes 20 and 21 of Hågkomster och livsintryck av svenska män och kvinnor, edited by Thulin (Uppsala: Lindblad, 1940-1941).
    • Elin Wägner, Selma Lagerlöf, 2 volumes (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1942-1943).
    • F. S. de Vrieze, Fact and Fiction in the Autobiographical Works of Selma Lagerlöf (Stockholm: Almkvist & Wiksell, 1958).



    • Nils Afzelius, "The Scandalous Selma Lagerlöf," Scandinavica, 5, no. 2 (1966): 91-99.
    • Afzelius, Selma Lagerlöf--Den förargelseväckande (Lund: Gleerup, 1973).
    • Karl-Rainer Ahe, Rezeption schwedischer Literatur in Deutschland: 1933-1945 (Hattingen: Verlag Dr. Bernd Kretschner, 1982).
    • Walter A. Berendsohn, Selma Lagerlöf: Heimat und Leben / Künstlerschaft / Werke / Wirkung und Wert (Munich: Albert Langen, 1927).
    • John Budd, "Selma Lagerlöf 1858-1940," in Eight Scandinavian Novelists: Criticism and Reviews in English, compiled by Budd (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1981), pp. 21-39.
    • Sven Delblanc, Selma Lagerlöf (Stockholm: Swedish Institute, 1986).
    • Vivi Edström, "'Gud styr': Motivförskjutningen i Jerusalem," in Lagerlöfstudier, volume 1 (Malmö: Selma Lagerlöf-sällskapet, 1958), pp. 157-187.
    • Edström, "Livets stigar: Tiden, handlingen och livskänslan i Gösta Berlings saga," dissertation, Göteborg University, 1960.
    • Edström, Selma Lagerlöf, translated by Barbara Lide (Boston: Twayne, 1984).
    • Bengt Ek, Selma Lagerlöf efter Gösta Berlings saga: En studie över genombrottsåren 1891-1897 (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1951).
    • Hjälmar Gullberg, Selma Lagerlöf: Inträdestal i Svenska Akademien den 20 december 1940 (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1940).
    • Alrik Gustafson, "Saga and Legend of a Province," in Six Scandinavian Novelists: Lie, Jacobsen, Heidenstam, Selma Lagerlöf, Hamsun, Sigrid Undset (Princeton: Princeton University Press / New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1940), pp. 177-225.
    • Birgitta Holm, Selma Lagerlöf och ursprungets roman (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1984).
    • Lagerlöf-studier, 13 volumes (Sunne, Sweden: Selma Lagerlöf-sällskapet, 1958- ).
    • Erland Lagerroth, "The Narrative Art of Selma Lagerlöf: Two Problems," Scandinavian Studies, 33 (1961): 10-17.
    • Lagerroth, "Selma Lagerlöf Research 1900-1964: A Survey and an Orientation," Scandinavian Studies, 37, no. 1 (1965): 1-30.
    • Ulla-Britta Lagerroth, Körkarlen och Bannlyst: Motiv och idéstudier i Selma Lagerlöfs 10-talsdiktning (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1963).
    • Lagerroth, "The Troll in Man--A Lagerlöf Motif," Scandinavian Studies, 40, no. 1 (1968): 51-60.
    • Jørgen Ravn, Menneskekenderen Selma Lagerlöf (Copenhagen: Gad, 1958).
    • Ulla Torpe, "En enda lång variation över ordet vilja: Om Selma Lagerlöf," in Vida världen 1900-1960, volume 3 of Nordisk kvinnolitteraturhistoria, edited by Elisabeth Møller Jensen and others (Höganäs: Bra Böcker, 1996), pp. 113-125.
    • Torpe, "Den vedervärdiga kvinnan från Korskyrka," Kvinnoras litteraturhistoria, 2 (1983): 57-71.
    • Jennifer Watson, Swedish Novelist Selma Lagerlöf, 1858-1940, and Germany at the Turn of the Century: "O Du Stern ob meinem Garten," Scandinavian Studies Series, 12 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004).
    • Gunnel Weidel, Helgon och gengångare: Gestaltningen av kärlek och rättvisa i Selma Lagerlöfs diktning (Lund: Gleerup, 1964).
    • Henrik Wivel, Snödrottningen--En bok om Selma Lagerlöf och kärleken, translated by Birgit Edlund (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1990).