- “Doubleday affaren”:The Story of Sigrid Undset’s Caterina av Siena1
Caterina av Siena, written by Sigrid Undset, recipient of the 1928 Nobel Prize in literature, has been described as the Roman Catholic convert’s spiritual testimony (Thorn 1975, 218). In the work, Undset details the life of fourteenth-century Dominican tertiary Catherine Benicasa from her birth in 1347 until her death in 1380, focusing on her mystical experiences and visions as well as her efforts to bring about reform in an era of religious and political corruption—issues that, Undset explicitly argues, resonated in her mid-twentieth century European context. The biography, which Undset first wrote in English as Saint Catherine of Siena and later adapted to Norwegian, was initially commissioned by the American publishing house Doubleday & Company of New York; however, Doubleday ultimately rejected the work (Ørjasæter 2011, 376, 386, 393, 409). At a Catholic conference in Hamar, Norway, on May 29, 1949, Undset said of the project: “Den blir aldri ferdig” (Thorn 1975, 218) [It will never be finished].2 Two weeks later, on June 10, 1949, an already very ill Sigrid Undset [End Page 383] died (Thorn 1975, 219). The Norwegian version of the biography was finalized by, among others, Dominican priest Finn Thorn (Thorn 1975, 219), and was published posthumously by the Norwegian publisher Aschehoug in 1951. Kate Austin-Lind’s English translation of the Norwegian, Catherine of Siena, was published in 1954 by the London-based Catholic press Sheed & Ward.
Very little has been written on Undset’s Caterina av Siena,3 and even less attention has been given to the circumstances surrounding the commissioning and subsequent rejection of the original English edition by Doubleday. This is likely due to the paucity of source material on the matter at both of the major Norwegian archives holding material related to Undset (Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo and Opplandsarkivet, Maihaugen). American archives that house the records of Doubleday from this time period (Princeton University and the Library of Congress) are similarly bereft. The first and most comprehensive explanation of the situation comes from Borghild Krane, who writes:
Før Sigrid Undset reiste fra USA hadde hun gjort avtale med forlaget Doubleday & Doran om å skrive en helgenbiografi, som skulle utgis i Amerika. Men da manuskriptet var ferdig og kom til forlagets bord, var det blitt så annerledes enn man der hadde tenkt seg. Det var vel tilfelle for Sigrid Undset selv også at boken var kommet til å bli mere omfattende, mere storslagen enn egentlig planlagt. Men hun var neppe forberedt på forlagets reaksjon og har vel hatt vanskelig for å tro sine egne øyne da hun fikk manuskriptet i retur. Så skulle hun da oppleve det også, på slutten av sin karriere, å bli refusert.(Krane 1970, 128)
(Before Sigrid Undset left the USA she had entered into an agreement with the publisher Doubleday & Doran to write a biography of a saint, which was to be released in America. But when the manuscript was finished and came to the publisher’s table, it was different from what they had expected. It was also the case for Sigrid Undset that the book ended up to be more exhaustive and more massive than originally planned. But she was hardly prepared for the publisher’s reaction and had found it difficult to believe her own eyes when she received the returned manuscript. Thus she had to experience that also, being rejected at the end of her career.) [End Page 384]
Later Undset biographies have little more to add to the topic, since they are largely indebted to Krane’s summary of events. Tordis Ørjasæter paraphrases Krane’s account, and adds a transcription of a 1946 letter from Undset to Aschehoug’s publishing director Mads Nygaard, in which the author describes the project:
Imidlertid har jeg et par arbeider som jeg har lovt amerikanske forleggere—en kort Norgeshistorie for amerikansk ungdom, om det blir noe å gi ut her vet jeg ikke, og jeg skriver den jo på engelsk. Og en biografi av den Hellige Katarina av Siena for en serie biografier som blir gitt ut av Doubleday & Co. Katarina-biografien faller jo forsåvitt innenfor rammen kvinnens...