Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlof (20 November 1858 – 16 March 1940) was a Swedish author and the first woman writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Known internationally for Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (a story for children, in the most common translation The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, but the literal translation would be “Nils Holgersson’s Wonderful Journey Through Sweden”), she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1909 “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.”
Sweden (1992) 20 Krona (front) – Portrait of Selma Lagerlof
Born at Marbacka an estate in Varmland in western Sweden, Lagerlof was the daughter of Lieutenant Erik Gustaf Lagerlof and Louise Lagerlof nee Wallroth, and the couple’s fourth child. She grew up isolated from other children. Selma was born with a hip injury, and an early sickness left her lame in both legs, although she later made a remarkable recovery. She was more serious and quiet than her siblings and other children her age as a result of her condition. She was also a gifted child, though, who enjoyed reading — including her first novel by the age of 7, and the entire Bible by the age of ten.
Lagerlof, painting by Carl Larsson, 1908
The forced sale of Marbacka, following her father’s illness in 1884, had a deep impact on Lagerlof’s development.
Lagerlof worked as a country schoolteacher in Landskrona for nearly 10 years 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, Lagerlof had reacted against the realism of contemporary Swedish writers such as Johan Ludvig Runeberg. She began her first novel, The Story of Gosta Berling, 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.
Lagerlof’s other important works would later include The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Jerusalem, The Ring of the Lowenskolds, and The Treasure. Most of her stories were set in Varmland, though a trip through continental Europe inspired such works as her The Miracles of the Antichrist, set in Sicily. Jerusalem, which bore the effect of Lagerlof’s visit to a commune in the city of like name (see American Colony), was adapted in 1996 into an internationally acclaimed motion picture.
In 1909 Selma Lagerlof won the Nobel Prize in Literature “in appreciation of lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. In 1914 she also became a member of the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize in literature. At the start of World War II, she sent her Nobel Prize medal and her gold medal from the Swedish Academy to the government of Finland to help them 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.
She lived in Sunne, where two hotels are named after her. Her home, Marbacka, is now preserved as a museum. She wrote a large number of letters to her two partners, Sophie Elkan and Valborg Olander.