Selma Lagerlöf (1858 - 1940)

Biography of Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlof at her desk
Selma Lagerlof on her 75th birthday. General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Selma Lagerlöf Facts

Known for: writer of literature, especially novels, with themes both romantic and moral; noted for moral dilemmas and religious or supernatural themes. First woman, and first Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Dates: November 20, 1858 - March 16, 1940

Occupation: writer, novelist; teacher 1885-1895

Also Known as: Selma Lagerlof, Selma Ottilia Lovisa Lagerlöf, Selma Otti Lagerlöf

Early Life

Born in Värmland (Varmland), Sweden, Selma Lagerlöf grew up on the small estate of Mårbacka, owned by her paternal grandmother Elisabet Maria Wennervik, who had inherited it from her mother. Charmed by her grandmother's stories, reading widely, and educated by governesses, Selma Lagerlöf was motivated to become a writer. She wrote some poems and a play.

Financial reversals and her father's drinking, plus her own lameness from a childhood incident where she'd lost use of her legs for two years, led to her becomind depressed.

The writer Anna Frysell took her under her wing, helping Selma decide to take a loan to finance her formal education.


After a year of preparatory school Selma Lagerlöf entered the Women's Higher Teacher Training College in Stockholm. She graduated three years later, in 1885.

At school, Selma Lagerlöf read many of the nineteenth century's important writers -- Henry Spencer, Theodore Parker, and Charles Darwin among them -- and questioned the faith of her childhood, developing a faith in the goodness and morality of God but largely giving up traditional Christian dogmatic beliefs.

Starting Her Career

The same year that she graduated, her father died, and Selma Lagerlöf moved to the town of Landskrona to live with her mother and aunt and to begin teaching. She also began writing in her spare time.

By 1890, and encouraged by Sophie Adler Sparre, Selma Lagerlöf published a few chapters of Gösta Berlings Saga in a journal, winning a prize that enabled her to leave her teaching position to finish the novel, with its themes of beauty versus duty and joy versus good. The novel was published the next year, to disappointing reviews by the major critics. But its reception in Denmark encouraged her to continue with her writing.

Selma Lagerlöf then wrote Osynliga länkar (Invisible Links), a collection including stories about medieval Scandinavia as well as some with modern settings.

Sophie Elkan

The same year, 1894, that her second book was published, Selma Lagerlöf met Sophie Elkan, also a writer, who became her friend and companion, and, judging from the letters between them that survive, with whom she fell deeply in love. Over many years, Elkan and Lagerlöf critiqued each others' work. Lagerlöf wrote to others of Elkan's strong influence on her work, often disagreeing sharply with the direction Lagerlöf wanted to take in her books. Elkan seems to have become jealous of Lagerlöf's success later.

Full Time Writing

By 1895, Selma Lagerlöf gave up her teaching completely to devote herself to her writing. She and Elkan, with the help of proceeds from Gösta Berlings Saga and a scholarship and grant, traveled to Italy. There, a legend of a Christ Child figure that had been replaced with a false version inspired Lagerlöf's next novel, Antikrists mirakler, where she explored the interplay between Christian and socialist moral systems.

Selma Lagerlöf 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 woman suffrage movement in Sweden.

Selma Lagerlöf continued to write, especially on medieval supernatural and religious themes. Her two part novel Jerusalem brought more public acclaim. Her stories published as Kristerlegender (Christ Legends) were received favorably both by those whose faith was rooted firmly in the Bible and by those who read the Bible stories as myth or legend.

The Voyage of Nils

In 1904, Lagerlöf and Elkan toured Sweden extensively as Selma Lagerlöf began work on an unusual textbook: a Swedish geography and history book for children, told as a legend of a naughty boy whose travels on the back of a goose help him become more responsible. Published as Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Voyage of Nils Holgersson), this text came to be used in many Swedish schools. Some criticism for scientific inaccuracies inspired revisions of the book.

In 1907, Selma Lagerlöf discovered her family's former home, Mårbacka, was for sale, and in terrible condition. She bought it and spent some years refurbishing it and buying back the surrounding land.

Nobel Prize and Other Honors

In 1909 Selma Lagerlöf was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She continued to write and publish. In 1911 she was awarded an honorary doctorate, and in 1914 she was elected to the Swedish Academy -- the first woman so honored.

Social Reform

In 1911, Selma Lagerlöf spoke at the International Alliance for Female Suffrage. During World War I, she maintained her stance as a pacifist. Her discouragement about the war diminished her writing in those years, as she put more effort into pacifist and feminist causes.

Silent Films

In 1917, the director Victor Sjöström began to film some of the works of Selma Lagerlöf. This resulted in silent films in every year from 1917 to 1922. In 1927, Gösta Berlings saga was filmed, with Greta Garbo in a major role.

In 1920, Selma Lagerlöf had a new house built at Mårbacka. Her companion, Elkan, died in 1921 before the construction was completed.

In the 1920s, Selma Lagerlöf published her Löwensköld trilogy, and then she began publishing her memoirs.

Resistance Against Nazis

In 1933, in Elkan's honor, Selma Lagerlöf donated one of her Christ legends for publication to earn money to support Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, resulting in German boycotts of her work. She actively supported the Resistance against the Nazis. She helped support efforts to get German intellectuals out of Nazi Germany, and was instrumental in getting a visa for the poet Nelly Sachs, preventing her deportation to the concentration camps. In 1940, Selma Lagerlöf donated her gold medal for war relief for the Finnish people while Finland was defending itself against the Soviet Union's aggression.

Death and Legacy

Selma Lagerlöf died on March 16, 1940, some days after sufering a cerebral hemorrhage. Her letters were sealed for fifty years after her death.

In 1913, critic Edwin Björkman wrote of her work: "We know that Selma Lagerlöf's brightest fairy raiments are woven out of what to the ordinary mind seem like the most commonplace patches of everyday life -- and we know as well that when she tempts us into far-off, fantastical worlds of her own making, her ultimate object is to help us see the inner meanings of the too often over-emphasized superficial actualities of our own existence."

Selected Selma Lagerlof Quotations

• Strange, when you ask anyone's advice you see yourself what is right.

• It is a strange thing to come home. While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.

• There isn't much that tastes better than praise from those who are wise and capable.

• For what is a man's soul but a flame? It flickers in and around the body of a man as does the flame around a rough log.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Selma Lagerlöf (1858 - 1940)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Selma Lagerlöf (1858 - 1940). Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Selma Lagerlöf (1858 - 1940)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).