Swedish icons 8: Selma Lagerlöf

Selma Lagerlöf was a legendary Swedish author, born in 1858 in the county of Värmland. Today, 16th March, is the anniversary of her death in 1940.

Selma Lagerlöf is considered to be one of the most groundbreaking female writers in the Nordics. Three of her many novels are ‘The Wonderful Journey of Nils’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Gösta Björling’s Saga’. Her works have been translated into 50 languages.

In 1909, she was the first woman, and Swede, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Five years later, in 1914, she was invited to join the highly-respected Swedish Academy – the body that chooses the Nobel prize for Literature. In doing so, she became the first woman to sit at the table.

In 1991, she was the first woman to appear on a Swedish bank note. The 20 crown note, referred to as a ‘Selma’, was removed from circulation in 2016 and she was replaced with an image of another iconic writer Astrid Lindgren.

She was highly politicized, leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Sweden and an active critic of nazism and the persecution of the Jews. She never married, and had two long-standing partnerships with two women. Love between people of the same sex was illegal in her day, but their passion was undeniably clear in a series of letters that became public knowledge in the 1990’s.

Selma Lagerlöf was born into a privileged middle class in a large house called Mårbacka, which today is open for visitors. Around Sweden, there are several statues of her, as well as one in Minneapolis in the USA. When planet Venus was discovered, the larger craters were named after famous significant women. One of them is called Lagerlöf, reflecting the size of her legacy.

Selma Lagerlöf died aged 81. She is buried in the churchyard at Östra Ämtervik not far from her family home.

Swedish icons 4: Birgit Nilsson

The diva of all divas, Swedish opera singer Birgit Nilsson was born 1918 in the county of Skåne in southern Sweden. She had an impressive global operatic career spanning decades, and was most known for her performances of Wagner and Strauss.

She had a belter of a voice – the New York Times referred to it as ‘a voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina’. She was like an Olympian athlete, and with her enormously powerful voice, she became the most famous Wagnerian soprano of her time. During her career she played most of the significant roles for a soprano, such as Aida, Tosca, Electra, Brunhilde, Turandot and Salome.

Birgit Nilsson received numerous prestigious awards, one of which was Court Singer to the Swedish Royal Court. Once, asked what was her favourite role, she answered: “Isolde made me famous. Turandot made me rich“.

Birgitta Nilsson was often called ‘La Nilsson’ and, although she wasn’t considered difficult, she was notorious for her assertiveness, directness and her wit. When asked what it was like to sing Isolde with an unattractive male colleague, she responded : “I just close my eyes and think of Plácido Domingo.” When answering a question about her rival Joan Sutherland and if her bouffant hair was real, she gave the iconic response: “I don’t know, I haven’t pulled it yet.’’

Birgit Nilsson died in county Skåne in 2005, at the grand age of 87. She had no children but left an huge musical legacy behind her.