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Thoughts on Catherine of Siena

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

A friend who runs a book club is looking at adding Sigrid Undset's Catherine of Siena to their list and asked me for my thoughts on the book. Here is my reply:

The first thing to note is that Catherine of Siena was the last thing Undset wrote, having completed it just before she died. It was published posthumously in Norwegian in 1951 but Doubleday in America refused it (despite having commissioned it), not believing it to have sufficient interest. Sheed and Ward picked it up and published it in 1954, five years after her death. I think it is fair to say that of all the biographies of St Catherine, hers is the most read and loved.

By the time she wrote Catherine of Siena, she had been through the wars - literally. Or the Second World War, at least. She saw the Nazis roll in and bomb the south of Norway, and was convinced to flee the country on account of her being a special target of the enemy. As one of the first of the European intellectuals to have written against Hitler and the rise of Naziism (something she mercilessly continued to do), they were out to get her. She managed an escape worthy of a film: she skied and was pulled on a sled to the Swedish border. From there to Vladivostok, Japan, San Francisco and finally to New York where she was based for the duration of the war. During these years she was tireless in raising awareness of the Norwegian situation and money for the impoverished Norwegians. When the war was over and she returned to her home in Lillehammer, she was worn out and died in 1949, aged 68.

All of her works are characterised by “realism”. There’s never any sugar-coating in Undset. As you saw in Kristin Lavransdatter, even the heroes of her novels make infuriatingly stupid decisions and find it difficult to shake off their pride and selfishness. Some never do. No simplistic hagiography for Undset! It’s the struggle of the flesh and the spirit. In Lavransdatter, it’s only at the end that Kristin finds her salvation in complete forgetfulness of self, illustrated by the gentle snowfall at the very end of the book. She was well aware of the degradation of man by sin - to which she was no stranger before she converted - but I’d say she wrote her sketches on the saints (such as in Stages on the Road) to demonstrate the triumph of grace in those who desire it, regardless of their inclinations or dire situations (such as the martyrs). Perhaps she found this more pressing in a secular age of ennui and despair.

Undset was a meticulous researcher and clearly loved her history. For Catherine of Siena, she drew heavily from St Catherine’s own biographer and spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua. What she did in addition was to contextualise her life with ample historical background and explanations as to what was going on in Tuscany, Rome and France at the time. Clearly Undset believes in the supernatural and doesn’t shy away from the mystical phenomena in St Catherine’s life (perhaps why Doubleday refused to publish the book but S&W did) . Surrounded by the death and destruction of the war, she may have seen in St Catherine an emphatic reminder that this world neither has all the answers, nor the final say over our destiny. There are little asides peppering the book - references to her contemporary age, politics and attitudes - that seem to support this. I’ll have to go back and find these for my thesis. (Or you can find them for me when you read the book!) You could start by reading the last couple of pages though, which sums up the secular age beautifully and passes judgement on it.

Equally as interesting as the saint herself - to me, at least - were the secondary characters in the biography; particularly the young men who sought her advice and prayers, but who still found it so difficult to leave behind their lives of sin. We can relate more easily to them than to the saint!

While the book’s focus is St Catherine’s incredible life, the depressing reality of the Church throughout the Avignon schism and everything that went with it is not at all hidden. Undset loved the Church with a passion, and set herself about dispelling her Protestant compatriots' ideas of the Catholic Church. Catherine of Siena concedes the sinfulness of players in the Church’s history, but demonstrates that God always steps in to save her, sometimes by extraordinary and miraculous means. She remains a holy Church, albeit not without sinners.

A final thought is that Undset was fiercely pro-woman, but not in a feminist sense. She saw the woman as one capable of immense sacrifice but tempted in the modern age to seek her own advancement through gender competition and conflict. Her feminist interpreters find all of this hard to understand, because they lack insight into her worldview grounded in the unchangeability of human nature (an important theme in her writings) and Catholicism. This may be another reason she wrote this when she did: as a kind of last testament to women to reiterate her belief that true greatness requires humility, sacrifice and docility to the ultimate Bridegroom. With these, a woman changes the course of history.

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