Back to the Classics: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)
My monthly book club scheduled The Wreath, the first book in Sigrid Undset’s trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, for the month of May.
I didn’t have the book and had no idea if it could be read as a stand-alone, so I decided to order the Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition which includes all three titles in the trilogy. I’m thankful I did because The Wreath doesn’t have a satisfying end! Each book deals with a different time in Kristin’s life and The Wreath ends with Kristin’s marriage and the revelation of a secret her mother had kept hidden from Kristin’s father. If you decide to read Kristin L, make sure to get either the book above or the individual books - 'The Wreath,' ‘The Wife,’ and ‘The Cross.’
Kristin Lavransdatter is Sigrid Undset’s most famous work and is set in medieval Norway. It is a saga, the pilgrimage of a woman from childhood to the end of her life, transporting the reader back in time and place to 14th Century Scandinavia. Despite its setting, and the peculiarities of the time period, this story could fit right into our own times. There is nothing new under the sun and time doesn't alter the fact that we all struggle with wrong decisions, weakness of character, and our own wilfulness.
Kristin Lavransdatter was originally written in Norwegian between 1921 and 1923. It was translated into English soon after but the result was considered to be severely flawed with omissions, archaic language, and misunderstandings. The Penguin Classics' Edition is the first unabridged English translation of the trilogy and I found it easy to read - all 1,144 pages of it. The only difficulty I experienced was keeping up with the different Scandinavian names and some vagueness as to what the author meant or implied in a couple of instances but it certainly wasn’t something that marred the story.
Regardless of whether you were wealthy or poor, life was harsh in that northern clime. Lice, plague, feuds, superstition, the bitter cold, were either constant companions or looming threats. I sat by the fire as I read a good part of this book thinking about Kristin getting up from under her pile of skins in the dark to get the fire going for the household. That alone would have been enough to kill me!
The overarching theme of Kristin Lavransdatter is that of actions and consequences - sowing and reaping. Following your heart isn't a recipe for a happy life, despite what we are told.
Kristin was betrothed to a young, steady man named Simon but she asked to go to a cloister for a short time before they married. It was while she was away from home that she met the charismatic and impulsive Erlend and secretly began a relationship with him.
She began looking for evidence that other people, like herself, were not without sin. She paid more attention to gossip, and she took note of all the little things hints around her which indicated that not even the sisters in the convent were completely holy and unworldly.
She deceived her father, persuaded him to break off her betrothal to Simon and he reluctantly agreed to her marrying Erlend. The deception she played upon her father was to haunt her ever afterwards and much of her anguish over her own children was to stem from this act.
The monotonous drone of the waterfalls resonated through her overwrought body and soul. It kept reminding her of something, of a time that was an eternity ago; even back then she realised that she would not have the strength to bear the fate she had chosen for herself. She had laid bare her protected, gentle girl’s life to a ravaging, fleshly love; she had lived in anguish, anguish, anguish ever since - an unfree woman from the first moment she became a mother. She had given herself up to the world in her youth, and the more she squirmed and struggled against the bonds of the world, the more fiercely she felt herself imprisoned and fettered by them. She struggled to protect her sons with wings that were bound by the constraints of earthly care...
But always with that secret, breathless anguish: If things go badly for them, I won’t be able to bear it. And deep in her heart she wailed at the memory of her father and mother. They had borne anguish and sorrow over their children, day after day, until their deaths; they had been able to carry this burden, and it was not because they loved their children any less but because they loved with a better kind of love.
There is much about motherhood in this book. Kristin struggles with hopes and fears in the midst of her tumultuous relationship with her husband and his influence on their seven sons. Her upbringing was so different to Erlend's and she didn't value the stability and love she grew up with until she became a mother herself. She reflected much on the path she had chosen for herself by following her own desires and rejecting her parent's choices.
Was this how she would see her struggle end? Had she conceived in her womb a flock of restless fledgling hawks that simply lay in her nest, waiting impatiently for the hour when their wings were strong enough to carry them beyond the most distant blue peaks?
...They would take with them bloody threads from the roots of her heart when they flew off, and wouldn’t even know it.
Simon remains on the scene throughout and although he eventually marries twice, he always retains a place for Kristin in his heart. He proves himself a loyal friend and is a contrast in character to Erlend.
Another character who plays a major part in Kristin’s life is Ulf Haldorsson, Erlend’s kinsman. For a while he seemed to be a surly, unreliable sort of character but he turns out to be a true friend of both Kristin and Erlend and has a fatherly relationship with their boys. He loved Kristin but didn't allow his feelings to manifest. They only come to the surface when he confides in a priest many years later.
Undset magnificently portrays the historical events and Norway’s religious climate of those times. The reader feels the bitter cold, smells the smoke of the cooking fires, cringes at the lice ridden beds, and grasps the uncertainty of the political and family feuds.
Although the Christian faith came to Norway in the 9th Century, the old pagan practices arose from time to time. Superstition was still ingrained in people’s minds and became mixed up with religious beliefs. These beliefs tended to surface during such events such as childbirth e.g. it was thought that if a pregnant woman looked upon a burning building her child would be born with a blood-red birthmark.
There is a melancholy feel to the writing which stems partly from the medieval setting and also from the Kristin's emotional turmoil.
She had seen the water from the well back home. It looked so clean and pure when it was in the wooden cups. But her father owned a glass goblet, and when he filled it with water and the sun shone through, the water was muddy and full of impurities.
Her eyes had been open to the fact that after the burdens and toil of a young mother comes a new kind of fear and concern for the aging mother.
Judging by some of the reactions from others who have either read this trilogy, or started and never finished, there is possibly a time of life when reading this epic would be difficult. Maybe it should be read after you’ve weathered a good number of years of marriage, or when your children have grown up; when the reality of life has softened your idealism. I think I may have found it depressing had I read it twenty years ago, but at this stage of my life, I was able to be absorbed in the story without it burdening my thoughts.
On the other hand, Kristin’s choice to follow her heart is a cautionary tale. She knew so little of Erlend to begin with and their relationship which began in haste leaves her repenting in her leisure. Perhaps it is a good book to read prior to entering marriage.....
I glanced over some literary reviews of the book and I thought they were a bit over the top and made the book sound almost R-rated. It was no more like that than something that came from Thomas Hardy’s pen. Madame Bovary was more discomfiting for me than Kristin Lavransdatter. Kristin at least had a brain and a conscience.
Some background context:
Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism in 1924 after writing Kristin Lavransdatter and received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928, at the age of forty-six, "Principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages."
She was involved with the Underground during WWII and when the Nazis invaded Norway she fled to the USA travelling by train through Russian and Japan to get there. Undset must have put an enormous amount of research into her writing. Here are some of the people, places & events she mentioned in her trilogy:
The Church in Norway
Some Norwegian history - many of these people were mentioned in Kristin Lavransdatter
Ingeborg of Norway
Magnus IV of Sweden & Norway
Erling Vidkunsson - Norwegian nobleman and regent of Norway
Norway's Black Plague also here
Kristin Lavransdatter is my choice for the Back to the Classics Challenge, 2018 : A Classic in Translation