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    Selma Lagerlöf: A Nobel Mind

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky

    When Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940) became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, no one except her most intimate friends knew she also was making history as the first lesbian to be given that high honor. To the world, she seemed to personify the classic image of everyone’s favorite great aunt, her hair piled high into a bun and who told stories of days past that were inspired by the traditions of her rural childhood. Actually, she was a complicated, multi-faceted soul who succeeded in a Victorian world where “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist,” as W. S. Gilbert cuttingly put it in The Mikado, was seldom taken seriously.

    The Nobel Committee chose Lagerlöf “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.” Some disagreed with that assessment, however. “She writes idiotically,” said former Swedish Prime Minister Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, although he admitted that as a member of Swedish Academy, which chooses recipients, “she votes quite intelligently.” Perhaps he preferred one of that year’s other nominated authors: Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy or Mark Twain. His son, Dag, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961.

    Lagerlöf first achieved success as a writer with Gösta Berling’s Saga, published in 1891 when she was 32. Characterized by a vivid imagination, its lyrical, experimental style, which deliberately rejected the then-prevailing realism and naturalism of August Strindberg and other contemporary Swedish writers, made it a forerunner of the Swedish Romantic Revival movement at the turn of the 20th century. In 1923, it became a film. Directed by Mauritz Stiller, it starred his protégée, Greta Garbo, in the performance that brought her to the attention of Hollywood, where she arrived in 1925.

    The Wonderful Adventures of Nils appeared in 1906. The complete opposite of Gösta Berling’s Saga in style, tone, and intended audience, the book was written to teach Swedish schoolchildren the geography of their country. Its hero, a young farm boy, is punished for his bad behavior by being reduced to the size of a mouse by the local gnome. Now able to ride on the back of the farm’s gander, he travels across Sweden, learning not only about the country’s mountains and rivers, but also about modesty, generosity, and kindness.

    The book became an international success, and the most popular and beloved work that Lagerlöf ever wrote. “For many, many years I reread this story at least once a year,” the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his autobiography. When the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, he began his acceptance speech with an homage to the work, telling his audience of the ways it formed him during his adolescence.

    All her life, Lagerlöf had strong, passionate ties to other women, who inspired and supported her intellectually and emotionally. Although she kept her private life private, the letters she wrote to her most intimate friends, sealed for 50 years after her death, reveal someone of great passion, with intense physical and ardent feelings toward many of the women she knew.

    It was Sophie Adlersparre, a pioneer of the 19th century movement for women’s rights in Sweden, who encouraged and helped her with Gösta Berling’s Saga while Lagerlöf was still a schoolteacher. Fredrika Limnell, a patron of the women’s movement and other women’s causes, helped her financially so she could concentrate on her writing.

    Lagerlöf met translator and author Sophie Elkan, whom she called “my companion in life and letters,” in 1894. Their correspondence suggests that Lagerlöf fell deeply in love with her, although Elkan, a widow who wore black after her husband died for the rest of her life, may not have responded with physical intimacy. The two women often traveled together, visiting Italy in 1895, and journeying to Egypt and Palestine in 1899. Lagerlöf ‘s 1901 bestseller Jerusalem, which earned her the reputation as Sweden’s foremost novelist, is dedicated to Elkan.

    Teacher and women’s suffrage activist Valborg Olander, who met Lagerlöf in 1897, became both her literary assistant and dear friend. The two women never lived together, but theirs was a loving and supporting companionship that lasted 38 years. Lagerlöf and Elkand remained friends too, but her involvement with Olander complicated their bond. The relationship between the three women was the basis of the two-part drama Selma, which was broadcast on Swedish television in 2008.

    Like many of the women with whom she was close, Lagerlöf was deeply involved with women’s issues, especially the women’s suffrage movement. She spoke often on behalf women’s right to vote, bringing the enormous respect the nation had for her to the cause. In 1911, she gave the keynote address at the International Suffrage Congress in Stockholm. When Swedish women’s right to vote finally was recognized in 1919, the National Association for Women’s Suffrage celebrated with a rally that featured a speech by Lagerlöf.

    Shortly before she died in 1940, Lagerlöf saved the life of a woman who would herself become a Nobel winner. A longtime friend of the German-Jewish writer Nelly Sachs, she personally intervened with the Swedish royal family to allow Sachs and her mother to come to Sweden from Nazi Germany, a week before Sachs was scheduled to be deported to a concentration camp. Sachs received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.