THE LIFE of Björnstjerne Björnson was so full and active, and involves to such a degree the intellectual and political history of his country in the second half of the nineteenth century, that it is impossible in a short sketch to do more than indicate its main outlines.
He was born, the son of a pastor, in Kvikne, Osterdal, Norway, on December 8, 1832, but his youth was spent mainly in the picturesque district of Romsdal. He was educated in Molde and Christiania, and early began a career as a journalist and dramatic critic. His first book of importance was Synnöve Solbakken (1857), and it was followed by Arne, A Happy Boy (1860), and The Fisher Maiden. These works deal with the Norwegian peasant, portrayed with understanding and sympathy, and, though true to nature, have an idyllic quality which separates them from much of the fiction of rural life that was being written elsewhere in Europe at that time.
Meantime he was also experimenting in drama, and in a series of plays beginning with Between the Battles in 1855 and culminating in the trilogy of Sigurd the Bastard in 1862, he sought to develop national feeling on another side by reviving the heroic life of the old sagas. After acting as director of the theatre at Bergen for two years, and editing a Christiania newspaper for a short time, Björnson traveled through Europe from 1860 to 1863; and on his return he assumed the directorship of the Christiania theater, where he brought out with great success his Mary Stuart in Scotland, and a modern comedy, The Newly Married (1865). His reputation was still further enhanced by the publication of Poems and Songs and the epic cycle Arnljot Gelline, which placed him in the front rank of Norwegian poets.
Between the ages of thirty-five and forty Björnsons literary activity was suspended, and he threw himself with great vigor into radical political propaganda, becoming the hero of one party and anathema to another. When he returned to literature a great change was evident in his ideas and methods. His next plays, Bankruptcy and The Editor, deal in realistic fashion with modern social problems: the early tendency to the idyllic and romantic has gone. The King was, in effect if not in purpose, an attack on the monarchical principle; Leonarda (1879), and A Gauntlet (1883), dealt with the relations of the sexes in a fashion that roused violent discussion; The New System was a keen satire on political and industrial conditions. In the same period he published his study of mystical religion, Beyond our Powers, which was not acted, however, till 1899.
The violence of Björnsons political activity led to his withdrawing for a time to Germany under threat of prosecution for high treason; and for a time he returned to the writing of novels. Here also he now introduced his theories on such modern subjects as heredity, in The Heritage of the Kurts (1884), and In Gods Way (1889). Of his later work the most important are the stories Dust, Mothers Hands, and Absaloms Hair, and the plays Geography and Lovea great theatrical successLaboremus, At Storhove, and Daglannet (1904).
In 1903 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; and in spite of the enemies he had created by the vigor with which he championed the causes he espoused, he was recognized not only at home but throughout Europe as one of the great literary figures of his age. He died on April 26, 1910.
It is clear that the varied productions of such a man cannot be represented by any one work. A Happy Boy, however, though one of his early books and written before he became immersed either in political controversy or modern social problems, is typical of his work in the period when he was recording the simple life of the peasantry among whom he had been born; and by the vividness of its background and the delicate charm of its characterization it has won a wide popularity far beyond the boundaries of Norway.