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Lagerlöf, Selma (1858-1940)  

Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize winner in 1909, Selma Lagerlöf became, in 1914, the first woman elected to membership in the Swedish Academy. As early as 1942, biographer Elin Wägner emphasized the importance of friendships with women in Lagerlöf's life. It was not until 1990, however, when the enormous collection of Lagerlöf's private letters became available to the public that more explicit information concerning her relationships with women became known.

Lagerlöf's letters to Sophie Elkan, You Teach Me to Be Free (Du lär mig att bli fri), published in 1992, tell a passionate love story that began in 1894 and apparently remained the most important relationship of Lagerlöf's life until Elkan's death in 1921. A writer from a Jewish merchant family in Gothenburg, Elkan accompanied Lagerlöf on trips to Italy, Jerusalem, and Egypt. Lagerlöf dedicated her novel Jerusalem I (1901) to "Sophie Elkan, my companion in life and letters." Other women, however, also competed for the novelist's favors. Valborg Olander, who taught at the teacher's college in Falun, was probably Elkan's most important rival. Lagerlöf's relationship with Olander precipitated scenes of jealousy, according to the letters.

Did Selma Lagerlöf's love for women affect her writing? The love stories in her novels are heterosexual, but they frequently focus on the conflicts and ambivalences of love and the transgression of boundaries. Her earliest writing portrays Margareta Celsing's forbidden love for Altringer in Gösta Berling's Saga (1891). In this work, any person who kisses Gösta Berling runs a risk of being ostracized.

In Lagerlöf's canon, the course of true love never runs smoothly; book after book dramatizes the obstacles to love. In The Outcast (Bannlyst [1918]), for example, the hero is a banned man, who at last finds his love. Unlike in other parts of Europe, the 1864 Swedish law against homosexuality included women. Homosexual relations between consenting adults were not legalized until four years after Lagerlöf's death. The legal and social stigma associated with homosexuality surely affected her work and probably accounts for her recurrent concern with ostracism and outcasts.

In the short story "Downie" in Invisible Links, written in 1894 (the year she first met Sophie Elkan), Lagerlöf uses a very telling expression, "That which she dares not call by name," when dealing with the forbidden love between a young woman and her fiancé's uncle. Lagerlöf's story precedes by a few months the poem by Lord Alfred Douglas that contains the familiar line referring to homosexuality as "the love that dare not speak its name."

It may well be that Lagerlöf picked up the phrase during her visits to Copenhagen while she was a teacher in Landskrona in southern Sweden (1885–1895). In her letters to Elkan during the period in which she wrote the story, Lagerlöf observes "many relations between women" on her visits to the Danish capital. It is possible that the expression "the love that dare not speak its name" was widespread within the homosexual subcultures of Europe at this time, and that Lagerlöf, like Douglas, picked it up and used it as a cover in her writings.

Kerstin Munck


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A portrait of Selma Lagerlöf created by Carl Larsson in 1908.
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Edström, Vivi. Selma Lagerlöf. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Holm, Birgitta. Selma Lagerlöf och ursprungets roman. Stockholm: Norstedts, 1984.

Munck, Kerstin. "Makt, sexualitet och gränsöverskridanden hos Selma Lagerlöf." Tidskrift för litteraturvetenskap 2 (1998): 31-38.

Stenberg, Lisbeth. "Text och förklädnad." Lambda nordica 2 (1996): 34-47.

Torpe, Ulla. Orden och jorden. Stockholm: Gidlunds, 1992.

Wägner, Elin. Selma Lagerlöf. 2 vols. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1942-1943.


    Citation Information
    Author: Munck, Kerstin  
    Entry Title: Lagerlöf, Selma  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  


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