Selma Lagerlöf, born November 20, 1858, was a Swedish author and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was born to Lieutenant Erik Gustaf Lagerlöf and Louise Wallroth Lagerlöf, in Värmland, in western Sweden, the fifth of six children. An injury at birth and a childhood illness left her lame in both legs for a time. Although she eventually recovered, she was a quiet and serious child who loved to read.
From 1885 to 1895, Selma worked as a teacher at a girl’s high school. She loved telling stories and particularly the legends she learned as a child. During this time, she also began work on her first novel, “Gösta Berling’s Saga.” She submitted the first few chapters to a writing contest and won a publishing contract for the book. She also attracted the attention of Fredrika Limnell, a Swedish feminist and philanthropist, who supported her to allow her to concentrate on her writing.
Most of Lagerlöf’s works are set in Värmland, but the proceeds of her first book and financial support allowed her to take several journeys to Italy and places in the East such as Palestine. These trips gave her material for several novels. She also became involved in the women’s suffrage movement, giving speeches for the Country Association for Women’s Suffrage.
In 1904, the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, honored Lagerlöf with a gold medal. Then in 1909, she became the first woman to win the Literature Prize. In 1914, she was also honored when she became the first woman to be made a member of the Academy. She was honored in many other ways as well, including having her name and portrait on streets, hotels, postage stamps and the Swedish 20 kroner bill.
Mårbacka, Selma’s childhood home, had to be sold after her father’s death and her brother’s lack of success in running the farm. In 1907, Selma was able to buy back the main building and in 1910, with money received with the Nobel Prize, she was able to buy back the rest of the estate. It is now kept as a memorial to Lagerlöf and her writings, and is open to the public for tours.
Find out what else happened on November 20 in Women’s History.