6.8 Selma Lagerlöf Wins the Nobel

Selma Lagerlöf

The Nobel Prize in Literature , and the first woman to win it for Literature.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is one of the most prestigious awards an author can win. The first woman to win it was the Swedish novelist, Selma Lagerlöf.

This episode is part of Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.

Full Transcript

We start today with the birth of a baby boy, which is quite a departure for me, but we’re going for it.

In 1833, the Nobel family of Stockholm, Sweden, was pleased to welcome baby Alfred. But times were hard and the family ended up in Russia, which had greater opportunities. As a boy, Alfred liked chemistry, physics, and literature. His dad was pleased about the chemistry, pleased about the physics, but concerned about the literature, which was no place for an intelligent young man to earn a decent living.

Alfred was amenable because he really did like chemistry and physics too. So it was that he found himself as a young man in Paris working on nitroglycerin. Then back in Russia working on the same. And then back in Sweden, still working on the same.

The word nitroglycerin means pretty much nothing to me since pretty much nothing is exactly what I learned in high school chemistry. If you are similarly ignorant, do not look at me for answers. I was going to enlighten you on the subject, but I found that every explanation led to words I didn’t understand, and all research on those words led to still more words I also didn’t understand. For my purposes, all you really need to know is that nitroglycerin is exothermic, which means that it generates heat. So much so that if you don’t know what you are doing, your entire facility will go kaboom! Which is exactly what happened. More than once. The original inventor of the stuff considered it too dangerous to use. But not Alfred. He persisted. Even after he blew up his own brother and the government forbade experiments within their city limits.

The result of all this hard work was the invention of TNT, otherwise known as sticks of dynamite. It still went kaboom, but was much, much safer than nitroglycerin in its original form. The patent came just in time for an expanding, industrializing world, which needed to blast through mountains for train tunnels, or blast apart hills for deeper mines, etc. etc., etc. Business was very, very good.

Our boy Alfred built 90 factories, took out 355 patents, and made an absolute boatload of money. Along the way he made a friend who was very involved in the peace movement. Peace was not one of his original interests, but he was impressed by her.

Also along the way, he racked up a number of health problems, including chest pains. His doctors prescribed: nitroglycerin. I’m not sure who first thought of taking a dangerous explosive and swallowing it, but somebody did. Alfred wrote “Isn’t it the irony of fate that I have been prescribed nitroglycerin, to be taken internally? They call it Trinitin, so as not to scare the chemist and the public.”[1]

The rebranding didn’t work in Alfred’s case. He was scared, and he declined the doctor’s advice. He died only a few weeks later in Paris.

His will made a few personal bequests and then left the rest of his fortune to provide annual prizes to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons

There would be five equal prizes every year: one in physics, one in chemistry, one in medicine, one in literature, and one in peace. He named the Swedish organizations who were supposed to choose the winners, and they were told to give no consideration to nationality.

Other than that, Alfred gave no details whatsoever, nor had he bothered to consult a lawyer. The French naturally wanted to adjudicate the will themselves as the place where he had his last residence. He had houses all over Europe, and those countries would also have been glad to get their fingers on all that money. His executor actually had to smuggle the papers out and back to Sweden.

Alfred’s relatives felt cheated. Swedish politicians said it was unpatriotic, as he should have prioritized Sweden. The designated prize-giving organizations hated it too. They thought it would damage their academic credentials for objectivity. And they wanted clearer instructions. “Greatest benefit to mankind” is unbelievably vague. How are you supposed to judge that?

Only the newspapers loved it. It was a grand symbolic gesture. Very good for selling newspapers. It took several years, but eventually the family was paid off, the politicians appeased, and the academies given instructions and lots of encouragement. The first prizes were given in 1901.

And here is where we shift gears and go back for the her half of history part of this episode.

Selma Lagerlöf was born in 1858, the fourth of five children. Her father had a modest estate called Mårbacka, which my biography informs me was in Värmland. I peeked at a map, and it is one of the few landlocked provinces in Sweden, as it borders Norway. Not that that meant anything at the time because at the time Norway and Sweden were still united.

Selma had a physical problem that at age three left her paralyzed. I’ve not been able to track down any medical explanation for that or for her sudden cure, but she did walk with a limp for the rest of her life. Perhaps it was a childhood of forced immobility that made her so interested in stories and folktales. The family read Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, Dumas, and Scott together, which is just a bit loftier than my family has managed, but good for them.

The Lagerlöfs were members of the landed gentry, but this is the time period where that was meaning less and less. An estate just wasn’t the economic guarantee it had been for previous generations. Selma was educated at home by governesses, but times were hard and she herself was the governess for her younger sister.

Her first forays into writing were poems and puppet plays intended for the family’s entertainment. In 1880 she was a bridesmaid for a friend. She wrote a poem for the occasion. One of the guests was Eva Fryxell, a dedicated feminist. She pulled Selma aside and told her she ought to get a formal education.

A formal education was not in the plans for a young lady like Selma, and her father opposed it. Even if he’d thought it was a good idea, he couldn’t afford it. Mårbacka was sinking into debt, just as he was sinking into drink. The genteel career options for Selma were to be either a governess or a lady’s companion, and she didn’t need a degree for either of those.

Selma didn’t want to be a governess or a lady’s companion. Both of those professions were on their way out with the landed gentry. She borrowed the money to attend Stockholm’s Higher Teacher’s College for Women. While there she wrote many sonnets, but she also realized that her childhood home gave her an infinite supply of source material: the fairytales, the traditions, the history, the wild beauty. It was all there waiting to be turned into prose.

1885 was a watershed year. She graduated and took a teaching job in a small unexciting town on the coast. “We sleep very soundly,” was Selma’s comment on the place.

It was also the year that her father died and Mårbacka was sold. The loss hit Selma hard. She later wrote “They say that a great sorrow or a deep loss is necessary to teach a person to write, and I experienced such a thing when my old, dear home had to be sold a few years ago. It has been since then that I taught myself to write, to throw myself, with my sorrow and joy, into my work. And in one way or another, this book has, so to speak, returned my home to me.”[2]

The book in question was Gösta Berling’s Saga, a novel set in her home province, combining both realism and legend. The first five chapters won Selma an award and a leave of absence from her teaching job to complete it. When it was published in 1891, she’d hoped for a success big enough to give up teaching, but it wasn’t.

Critics were confused. The prevailing style at the time was realism without the legend. Selma’s novel gained acclaim only gradually.

In 1895, Selma went to Italy to gather material for a novel that is intriguingly named Miracles of Antichrist. Teaching was now a thing of the past. Back in Sweden, she moved to be near her sister, and she read an account of thirty-seven farmers from that area who in 1896 sold up and moved to Jerusalem in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ.

Selma was not particularly religious herself, but she was always interested in belief and morality and spirituality. She wrote “I believe that heaven is open but that we are imprisoned.”[3] So anyone who felt they had broken that prison was of interest to her. She went to Jerusalem and interviewed the colony there. She came home and interviewed their friends and family members. Then she wrote the book Jerusalem, which brought her international fame The reviews were so favorable that a friend claimed they weren’t really reviews, they were hymns of praise.

In 1901 the Swedish National Teacher’s Society wanted Swedish children to read works by the most prominent Swedish authors, which definitely included Selma Lagerlöf. She was commissioned to write a book that would introduce the geography of Sweden, and she did not look down on the idea of writing for children. “I want this to be one of my best books,”[4] she said, and it was. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils became her best known work in and out of Sweden.

Nils is an obnoxious boy of 14 who shrinks and flies all around Sweden on the back of a goose, before regaining his size and a personality upgrade. Along the way Selma refused to dodge the difficult issues of her day: poverty, tuberculosis, animal cruelty, and environmental destruction. But for all that, the book is hopeful. Selma’s biographer Vivi Edström writes “One of the main points of the story [is] that people can cope with even the most difficult circumstances. In one instance this is expressed with almost American optimism: ‘Even today, cleverness and competence can change a beggar into a prince.'”[5]

As an American, I appreciate both optimism and the dig. About her book, Selma said “through my reader, I want the young people to get an accurate picture of their country and to learn to love and understand it, I want them also to learn something about its many resources and the possibilities of development it offers, so that they won’t dash off to America at the first temptation.”[6]

Since my own family history contains more than one Scandinavian who dashed off to America, that’s an ouch. In American history, we certainly study the waves of immigration into our country. But rarely the impact on those left behind. In 1910, every fifth Swede on the planet lived in the US. This meant a labor shortage at home and also another crisis: Sweden was not yet the modern country with government-funded benefits. In an earlier age, children were your retirement plan. If they lived half the globe away, they were of very little help. Swedes left behind were not pleased.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils was internationally acclaimed, and all these successes together added up to an event that was a personal triumph for Selma. In 1908, Mårbacka, her beloved childhood home, came back on the market and she bought it, house and land. She was now again a member of the landed gentry and unlike her father, she had enough of her own hard-earned money to keep it afloat.

She grew oatmeal and raised pigs and hired help, but none of that stopped her from writing. She also got an honorary doctorate from the University of Uppsala.

By 1909, the Nobel prizes had been given eight times and Selma had been nominated five of those times. There are hints that she didn’t win because she was a woman, but I’ve had a hard time tracking down a credible source to confirm that. In 1909, her time had come. Twenty-two members of the Swedish Academy nominated her, and a united front broke the opposition of the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who up until that point held a stranglehold on the selection process. The prize was given not for any particular work, but in the committee’s words “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination, and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.”[7]

Selma gave a very pretty acceptance speech, but I personally found it less interesting than the one she gave in 1911 at a women’s suffrage congress in Stockholm. The speech was called “Home and State” and in it she points out that women have been denied jobs, equal pay, equal education, etc. “Have we done nothing that can justify us to the same rights as man?” Selma said. “Our time on earth has been as long as his. Has it passed without a trace? Have we not created anything that is of irreplaceable value for life and culture?”

Selma’s answer is yes, women have. The odd woman here and there has been a queen or a nun, but those voices would be utterly drowned out by the women who would say “I have done nothing but create a good home.” And, Selma proposes, a good home is of value and should be treated as valuable.

In contrast, man’s great creation was the state. The difference is that while men have always had a role to play at home, women have not been given an equivalent role in the state. In a time when the state was clearly not meeting the needs of social upheaval, was it not time to improve it by giving women that role? “Alas, we women are not perfect beings,” Selma concluded. “You men are no more perfect than we are. How are we to reach that which is great and good, without helping one another? We do not believe that the work will go fast, but we believe it would be a sin and folly to reject our help. . . The little masterpiece, the home, was our creation with the help of man. The great masterpiece, the good state, is to be created by the man, as he takes the woman seriously as his helper.”[8]

It’s really a powerful speech, even in the less-than-ideal translation I found. But even if it had not been, her sheer presence was a powerful argument. There she was, a self-made woman, a Nobel laureate, an estate owner, an employer, an internationally famous writer. If a person like that could not vote, there was something glaringly ridiculous about the system. For the record, Swedish women were granted the vote eight years later in 1919.

In 1914, Selma took her place on the Swedish Academy, which is the body that chooses the Nobel winners for literature. She was the first woman there too, another little triumph against the Secretary who had not wanted to give her the prize.

Now in all of this you may have noticed that there is not even a sniff of a husband. And if you run even the most cursory internet search on Selma, you will quickly see that the LGBT community has claimed her as one of their own. The biography I am using stops just short of actually saying that. It’s not entirely clear to me whether that’s a reflection on the year it was published (1984) or whether that’s because Selma herself stopped just short of saying so. Neither would surprise me. What I can say with confidence is that there was not even a sniff of a husband. There were close friendships with women. People can and have interpreted that in multiple ways. You can do so too.

Selma continued to write in the 20s and 30s, and her works found expression in other mediums as well. In 1924, The Saga of Gösta Berling was made into a silent film in Sweden. It featured a young and unknown actress named Greta Garbo. The chief executive of MGM saw it and brought her to the United States, which was the beginning of Garbo’s career as one of the great women of classic Hollywood cinema.

The other story of note in Selma’s life is that she also played an important role in the life of Nelly Sachs, a German Jew, who would win the Nobel in 1966.

Nelly had first written to Selma as a fan in the 30s. But she was terrified when the Nazis took power in Germany. Having Selma as a pen pal saved her life, because Selma asked the Swedish royal family to grant Nelly safe passage to Sweden, which they did. Nelly and her mother caught the very last flight out of Nazi Germany to Sweden, one week before her scheduled appearance at a concentration camp.

Sadly, Nelly never got to meet the woman who had saved her life because Selma died on March 16, 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is not the most famous of Nobel laureates, but she did open a door, and one that is maybe still not fully open.

As of this writing (March 2022), there have been 975 total Nobel laureates, of which only 58 are women.

Image from Wikimedia Commons. Note that the image only accounts for winners through 2020, which is why the total does not add up to the 975 that I gave in the episode.

Okay, you may say, but in the past, women were more or less excluded from chemistry, physics, and medicine, so we cannot expect them to have taken half the prizes and that is true. But women have always been involved in literature. There have been 118 laureates in literature. Of those 16 are women. Yup, we come in at 13.559%, and Selma Lagerlöf was the first.

My major source for today was Vivi Edström’s book Selma Lagerlöf. As always, there are links and pictures and a transcript at herhalfofhistory.com. Many thanks to my friend Rebecca who helped me with the Swedish pronunciation. If you have given me a review, you are a lovely person. If you are still listening, you are a lovely person. And you’ll be even more lovely if you come back next week to hear about the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. Thanks!


[1] Nobel Prize. “The Official Website of the Nobel Prize – NobelPrize.org.” NobelPrize.org, 2019, nobelprize.org.

[2]  Edström, Vivi, trans. by Barbara Lide. Selma Lagerlöf. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1984, p. 10.

[3]  Edström, 92

[4] Edström, 58

[5] Edström, 63

[6] Edström, 65

[7] Nobelprize.org

[8] “Selma Lagerlöf: Hem Och Stat.” Svenska Tal, 25 June 2012, http://www.svenskatal.se/19110612-selma-lagerlof-hem-och-stat/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2022.

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