A Hero’s Heart

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Photo montage by Christine Sunde

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to some truly inspiring heroes: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela, to name a few. To know not just the crafted public face of these remarkable people but also to peer into their innermost souls would be priceless. That is what Eric Utne has done by publishing the love letters to his stepgrandmother Brenda Ueland from Norway’s great explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, who was awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize and whose bold work with the League of Nations and the Red Cross repatriated countless prisoners of war and saved the lives of millions of international refugees.

The Norwegian statesman met Ueland, author of the best-selling If You Want to Write, only in one flaming-hot weekend, when he was 67 and she was 37. The two fell immediately in love and wrote letters across the ocean for a year until his death. The charismatic Ueland once told Utne that she had “three husbands and a hundred lovers”–but Nansen earned a special place. “A letter from [Nansen] was the light of my days, and I have never in my life felt just this way at any time. . . . And all the time, you understand, it was a sort of dream love affair, a literary one.”

Nansen’s letters to his extramarital lover show a powerful contrast to his austere public persona. They are vulnerable, sensual, and startlingly candid about his emotional isolation, his disgust with life and politics, and his uncertainty and humility. He bares his inner self to Ueland, who years later wrote in an essay: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing. . . . My attitude is: ‘Tell me more. This person is showing me his soul. . . .Then he will be wonderfully alive.’ ” —The Editors

April 25th, 1929

Dear Brenda,

You cannot possibly understand what your letter means to me, it is as if a flood of strength suffuses my whole body and soul. How very sweet of you to write so soon. I needed it badly. And what a letter! Just you as I was sure you must be. Free and upright, who scorns to pose as another than what you are. With the full confidence and real love, not wishing to hide anything, knowing that I will understand everything, and will love you if possible still more. What an irresistible attraction, what a warm feeling of tenderness, also because you wish me to know you exactly as you are. And I feel the same desire; there is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into–not because I think that there may not be much which is ungraceful or offensive. I have a feeling that I could talk to you about everything, as I have never had before, and you would always understand.

How very sweet of you to be arrested with agony after we parted because you had not made me come home with you. Oh yes, it would have been wonderful, a last farewell!

You promise me you could make me ten times a greater man than I am. Yes I think you are right, though I am not really much, chiefly a dreamer, with some scattered attempts at action. You could give me so very, very much, but I feel keenly that I could give you a great deal too, and have the conceited confidence that you would not grow smaller by the contact.

Since I left you I have had to write some articles; but how I have missed you also then. One article was a summary of the humanitarian work I have helped to carry out since the war, it could perhaps have been quite good if you had been with me. I have promised to write an article on my religion and views of existence and the future of humanity and the world, and then I shall miss you, your views, your judgment and your opinion more than ever. How easy if you were here, and how I would love to write it with you. But without you?–I shall feel very lonely and uncertain; and miss you for every line.

Sunday, April 28th, 1929

Brenda, my darling, all you say about your love and your feelings makes me so deliriously happy, and that you feel that we must meet again. It cannot be otherwise; let us trust to time, fancy to meet in some undisturbed place–and marry, so wonderful a dream, I dare not dream it. How I wish to have a child with you; I am convinced it would be something quite unusual. Why cannot life be like our dreams. Is it cowardice, or rather fear of doing too much harm to others?

I do not wish to disturb you in your work, my darling, but still please, do write, at least a few lines. You cannot imagine what it is to receive your letters. Perhaps it would be best if you do not use envelopes with your name and address outside, and also if you sometimes could write my address on the envelope with typewriter, it might perhaps cause less attention, when there is some variation. And see to it that the envelope is closed safely with the gum. Much harm can be done by an open or opened letter.

May 22nd, 1929

Darling Brenda,

This morning I got your letter of May 8th, in which you say that you are afraid you have written me too perfervid letters. But, my darling, can our letters ever be too hot if we feel it so? Can we not be quite frank with each other? It does me more good than you can imagine, gives me new vigour, new inspirations, new hope. But if it disturbs you, darling, of course I will try to be very sensible. I hope you will not be so very circumspect but be perfectly frank, and say things as they are. After all isn’t that the most natural, and perhaps also the most wholesome?

Did I really ask you to destroy my letter? I have forgotten; but I dare say that it was pretty hot, and my thought was probably that such things are only fit to be read for the moment, while the right conditions are there; but not to be read later with cold blood. I must confess that it will to me be like murder to burn your dear letters, your children, a part of your soul.

I long wildly to be with you again, and what happiness to hear you say that you would walk through machine gun fire to spend a night with me.

May 23rd, evening

O Brenda,

My darling, my girl, my mistress, my everything! I had written the letter and was going to mail it when yours of May 10th arrived this evening, and I must open the envelope again and add these few lines. Oh, happiness, it is as if I had you here in my arms, and felt your lovely body pressed close to mine. You are a sorceress, indeed, you have tied me hand and foot, soul and body, everything. I remember well before I had seen you, I was curious to know what you would be like, and whether perhaps there might be waiting some nice acquaintance. When after dinner with your sister I spoke to you about meeting, and touched your hand and you pressed mine just so much that I thought I could feel it, and you proposed that I might come to Stamford, I thought that perhaps it might develop into some more or less innocent adventure. But you have perfectly entranced me, I am carried off my feet, and cannot reach ground any longer.


Sunday morning, June 2nd

You say you have “a longing for exploring, wandering over the world on its loneliest and saddest rims.” O, if only we could wander together, my darling! And you wish to go with me on the north polar expedition. Dear darling, I feel like you, I would not mind what happened as long as we two were together.

That I have temperament and passion is right I hope, at least some. My nature needs a woman to be complete. I never had a male friend to whom I could confide my most intimate emotions. Most of my time I have lived alone, ever from my youth a lonely man. And now I never go out to parties or to friends, refuse all invitations (except to my daughter and son-in-law, and a brother-­in-law a few times when they have no parties). And I live in my work, only see wife and daughter at meals, know no women and never see any, live the life of a hermit, take just a short walk in the wood before dinner at 3:15 p.m. or I may take a walk to the post office about 2/3
of a mile, to mail a letter to you.

Morning, July 31st, 1929

Today my wife is coming probably, and I will no more be alone, and there will be no peace for writing to you for a fortnight. I do hope you will understand though, and be patient.

I went out last night fishing down the river, had a wonderful time and did not come back till nearly midnight. I love those nights between the lofty snow-mountains and with the river rushing along, and I wade into it, and the trout are rising, taking the fly, and the line runs out, and I play with them and take them in through the foaming waters. It is all so mysterious and beautiful, and you are in my thoughts and I only wish you could be there with me. And then I would make up a fire, and we would spend the night there, together, wonderful, and I would have you in my arms, and when the day breaks we would fish again, and live the life of Savages.


Tuesday evening, August 27th, 1929

My dear Brenda, my darling,

It is going better with the preparations for the polar expedition now, and everything looks more hopeful. I am afraid in about four days I shall have to leave for the Assembly of the League [of Nations] in Geneva. I hate it. This is my tenth year. I have certainly done my duty. I earnestly hope it will be my last. I shall probably be there towards four weeks. How I wish I could be in Minneapolis with you. I love you my dear darling, my mistress, my every thing, and wish I were in your arms. Goodbye and do not forget your lonely Viking.


December 14th, 1929

My darling Brenda,

Oh, my dear, dear girl how I long for you. So many, many things I wished to say, so many things to talk about, just to dive into your dear soul with all my thoughts, find rest and kindred thoughts, intermingle, just be ourselves and nothing else, far far, far away from this restless, empty, worrying, tiresome, disgusting life, which I really loath, and still have to go through and try to make the best of, and it gives no peace, always more than one can overcome. But I won’t think of it now. What a wonderful blessing it would be, to be with you, dear Brenda, to hear your voice, to sink into your bright wonderful eyes, to talk to you about everything that is nice and beautiful, and loveable and to forget everything that is tiresome and ugly.

Your Viking Fridtjof

April 2nd, 1930

Brenda my darling,

I am so sorry. I am still lying here and cannot really write but will try to send you a few lines. Have been in bed for more than a month now. After I sent you a few lines I had a bad time: suddenly got a blood clot in one lung, and it was a little serious. But I am all right now but must keep perfectly quiet on my back, and cannot do any work. How I wish you could have been here.

I got your letter where you mention your new love affair. So very, very nice of you to tell me all about it, and you know I understand perfectly. You certainly need it, you cannot live so lonely. Oh, how sad that there is such a distance between us and that I do not know when we can meet. But now I cannot write more. Goodbye my darling, keep well and do not forget me. I love you and am your Viking.


This was Nansen’s final letter to Ueland. He passed away on May 13, 1930.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Readerand the Utne Institute, a think tank devoted to education, volunteerism, and promoting an ethic of service. Excerpted fromBrenda, My Darling (Utne Institute, 2011), a collection of love letters from Fridtjof Nansen to Brenda Ueland. http://utneinstitute.org

Have something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

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