Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf (20 November 1858 – 16 March 1940) was a Swedish author. She was the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and most widely known for her children’s book Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils).
Born at Mårbacka (now in Sunne Municipality) an estate in Värmland in western Sweden, Lagerlöf was the daughter of Lieutenant Erik Gustaf Lagerlöf and Louise Lagerlöf née Wallroth, the couple’s fifth child out of six.
She was born with a hip injury. An early sickness left her lame in both legs, although she later recovered.
She was a quiet child, more serious than others her age, with a deep love of reading. The sale of Mårbacka following her father’s illness in 1884 had a serious impact on her development.
Lagerlöf was educated at the Högre lärarinneseminariet in Stockholm from 1882 to 1885. She worked as a country schoolteacher at a high school for girls in Landskrona from 1885 to 1895 while honing her story-telling skills, with particular focus on the legends she had learned as a child.
Through her studies at the Royal Women’s Superior Training Academy in Stockholm, Lagerlöf reacted against the realism of contemporary Swedish language writers such as August Strindberg. She began her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga, while working as a teacher in Landskrona.
Her first break as a writer came when she submitted the first chapters to a literary contest, and won a publishing contract for the whole book. She received financial support of Fredrika Limnell, who wished to enable her to concentrate on her writing.
In 1894 she met Swedish-Jewish Sophie Elkan, also a writer, who became her friend and companion. Judging from letters between them, Lagerlöf fell deeply in love with her. Over many years, Elkan and Lagerlöf critiqued each other’s work. Lagerlöf wrote of Elkan’s strong influence on her work, often disagreeing sharply with the direction Lagerlöf wanted to take in her books.
A 1900 visit to the American Colony in Jerusalem became the inspiration for Lagerlöf’s book by that name. By 1895, she gave up her teaching to devote herself to her writing. With the help of proceeds from Gösta Berlings Saga and a scholarship and grant, she made two journeys which were largely instrumental in providing material for her next novel. With Elkan, she traveled to Italy, and she also traveled to Palestine and other parts of the East.
In Italy, a legend of a Christ Child figure that had been replaced with a false version inspired Lagerlöf’s novel Antikrists mirakler (The Miracles of the Antichrist). Set in Sicily, the novel explores the interplay between Christian and socialist moral systems. However, most of Lagerlöf’s stories were set in Värmland.
She moved in 1897 to Falun, and there met Valborg Olander, who became her literary assistant, friend, and associate. Elkan’s jealousy of Olander was a complication in the relationship. Olander, a teacher, was also active in the growing women’s suffrage movement in Sweden.
Selma Lagerlöf was herself active as a speaker for the Country Association for Women’s Suffrage, which was beneficial for the organisation because of the great respect which surrounded Lagerlöf, and she spoke at the International Suffrage Congress in Stockholm in June 1911, where she gave the opening address, as well as at the victory party of the Swedish suffrage movement after women suffrage had been granted in May 1919.
Selma Lagerlöf was a friend of the German-Jewish writer Nelly Sachs. Shortly before her death in 1940, Lagerlöf intervened with the Swedish royal family to secure the release of Sachs and Sachs’ aged mother from Nazi Germany, on the very last flight from Germany to Sweden, and their lifelong asylum in Stockholm.
In 1919 Lagerlöf sold all the movie rights to all of her as-yet unpublished works to Swedish Cinema Theatre (Swedish: Svenska Biografteatern), and so over the years many movie versions of her works were made. During the ‘Golden Age’ of Swedish silent cinema her works were used in film by Victor Sjöström, Mauritz Stiller and other Swedish cinema pioneers.
Sjöström’s retelling of Lagerlöf’s tales about rural Swedish life, in which his camera recorded the detail of traditional village life and the Swedish landscape, provided the basis of some of the most poetic and memorable products of early silent cinema. Jerusalem was adapted in 1996 into an internationally acclaimed film Jerusalem.
In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. But the decision was preceded by harsh internal power struggle within the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize in literature.
In 1904, the Academy had awarded her its great gold medal, and in 1914 she also became a member of the Academy. For both the Academy membership and her Nobel literature prize, she was the first woman to be so honored. She was the first woman to be depicted on a Swedish banknote of 20 Kronor.
In 1907 she received the degree of doctor of letters from Uppsala University.
In 1928, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Greifswald’s Faculty of Arts. At the start of World War II, she sent her Nobel Prize medal and gold medal from the Swedish Academy to the government of Finland to help raise money to fight the Soviet Union.
The Finnish government was so touched that it raised the necessary money by other means and returned her medal to her.
Two hotels are named after her in Östra Ämtervik in Sunne, and her home, Mårbacka, is preserved as a museum. Since 1992, her portrait has been featured on the Swedish 20 kronor-bill.