Authors Who Made History: Selma Lagerlöf



Selma Lagerlof, photographed in 1909

Selma Lagerlöf was a Swedish author born November 20th 1858, died 16th March 1940. She was honoured with a gold medal from the Swedish Academy in 1904 and in 1909 was selected as the first female ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She also became the first female member of the Swedish Academy in 1914 and hers was the first female portrait to be used on a Swedish banknote, featuring on the 20 Kronor bill, since 1992. In 2008, 150 years after her birth, two commemorative coins were issued in Sweden – one in silver (200-kronor) and one in gold (2000-kronor).

Lagerlöf was a founding member of the Stockholm literary academy,The Nine Society (Samfundet de Nio). This was established for the purpose of promoting literature, peace and women’s issues and distributes eleven prizes for literature.

One of the craters on the planet Venus is named ‘Lagerlöf’, after Selma Lagerlöf.  There are at least two Swedish hotels and a street in Jerusalem also named after her.

Swedish artist Carl Larsson painted her portrait in 1902 and 1908. Several public sculptures exist in Sweden, depicting the author or her stories.

In 1959 her portrait featured on a commemorative USSR postage stamp.

Mårbacka, the mansion home in Värmland (Sweden) where she was born and raised, is now a museum. She repurchased her former family estate and reconstructed the house with her Nobel prize money.

Selma Lagerlöf was the fifth of six children – their father was a Lieutenant and as per the norm for families of wealth and privelege, the children were educated at home by visiting tutors. Selma was an avid reader (she read the entire bible aged ten while concerned about her father’s ill health), she enjoyed story-telling -especially the Nordic tales she heard from her grandmother,  and she frequently wrote poetry from a young age.

In 1882, aged 24, Selma attended teacher training college at the Royal Seminary in Stockholm for three years. From 1885 to 1895 she taught girls at a country school in Landskrona during which she began her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. She submitted work toward this novel to a magazine competition in 1891 and won. She completed the novel and it was published, enabling her to leave her job as a teacher and earn her living as a writer.

Selma travelled to Denmark and involved herself with the women’s movement there. Her writing gained in popularity after a favourable review of the Danish translation of her first novel from a renowned critic. She also benefitted from several financial benefactors supporting her early writing career, including the Swedish royal family. Such patronage allowed her to focus on her writing and also enabled her travels to Italy, Palestine and Jerusalem. These experiences influenced some of her works, including the novel Jerusalem, published in two parts in 1901-2.

In 1902 Lagerlöf was commissioned to write an elementary reader’s book of geography, as an educational text intended for use in schools. Published in 1906-7, Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, translated in English as The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, to date it has been translated in over 60 languages. This became the work that earned her international recognition as a children’s author (although most of her writing is for an adult audience).

Lagerlöf received an honorary degree in 1907 from  Uppsala University; in 1928, she received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Arts of the University of Greifswald. She was an active speaker and campaigner against women’s suffrage. Her political efforts included donating her Swedish Academy gold medal and Nobel prize medal to the government of Finland to aid fundraising to fight the Soviet Union at the start of the Second World War, although these were returned to her with funding for that cause secured otherwise. In 1940, shortly before her own death, she appealed to the Swedish royal family on behalf of the poet Nelly Sachs, securing her release from Nazi Germany to Sweden, along with Sachs’ mother.

A significant amount of letters, manuscripts, fragments and other documentation originating from Selma Lagerlöf is contained in over 70 metres of shelf space in the archives of the National Library of Sweden. The author bequeathed in her will for her papers to be transferred to the safekeeping of the library upon her death; some of this collection has been donated or purchased since that time.

Lagerlöf sold the movie rights to all her unpublished works in 1919 and there have been many adaptations by Swedish film-makers especially around that time. Greta Garbo was cast in a silent movie adaptation of Gosta Berling’s Saga early in her acting career, in 1924. A Danish film-maker’s adaptation of Jerusalem in 1996 received critical acclaim, was shortlisted for the Swedish entry to the 69th Academy Aawards (1997) and was also broadcast as a television series.

Sources and Further Reading:

Wikipedia’s English article on Selma Lagerlöf and at the Swedish wikipedia page (including chronological list of writings);

Other media – at YouTube:

Results at Silent Hall of Fame for silent movie adaptations of Lagerlof’s work – some previews; full movie of ‘The Phantom Carriage’ (104mins approx).

Online sources of Selma Lagerlöf’s writing (in the public domain):

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[Image credit: Selma Lagerlof 1909 Image: Public Domain, source:]