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Revisiting Favorite Books: Kristin Lavransdatter

by Julia Sneden

We have been re-reading books that we loved many years ago, and it has occurred to us that you might enjoy seeing them reviewed.

If you've never read them, the reviews may pique your interest. If you have read them already, you might consider dipping back into them as we have.

We find that it an interesting process, looking back at books we read in our twenties and thirties. The books themselves haven't changed, but thanks to the varied experiences that another twenty or thirty years have added to our lives, we read them from a different perspective. Herewith, the first review of an old, beloved book (actually, three books):

 

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), the author of this trilogy, "Kristin Lavransdatter", was a remarkable woman. We suggest that you read the fascinating introduction to Volume 1, "The Wreath," as the story of Undset's life is far too complex to repeat here. Suffice it to say that she is one of the great women of the 20th century: wife, mother, authority on the Middle Ages, writer, freedom fighter, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Volume 1: The Wreath

The wreath referred to in the title is the floral wreath that young Norwegian girls in the Middle Ages were entitled to wear atop their unbound hair until marriage. All three volumes of "Kristin Lavransdatter" take place in the first half of the 14th century, roughly 1300-1350.

The story begins when Kristin is seven years old, the eldest and beloved daughter of Lavrans Bjorgulfson, Lord of the Manor called Jorundgaard. Her mother, Ragnild, is described as rather moody and melancholy, traits that may be understandable considering that she lost two male children before Kristin was born, and of her three daughters, the middle one was badly injured in an accident, and died young.

Although at first it may seem confusing to enter into the culture of the Middle Ages, Undset's true ear and her knowledge of the period soon draw the reader in. Her ability to deliver characters of depth and complexity makes her story as compelling as anything set in modern times. And if ever you wondered what differentiates great literature from soap operas or romance novels, these books should make it clear.

We follow Kristin from childhood to adolescence, during which she learns not only to read and perform housewifely duties, but also becomes familiar with the many medicinal uses of herbs and plants. Lavrans betroths her at a young age to Simon Andresson, an eminently good catch. Because of her youth, she is sent to live in a convent for a year before the wedding, and during this time, she falls in love with a dashing nobleman ten years her senior, Erland Nikulausson.

Erland has been in disgrace, having been banished and excommunicated for his affair with a married woman who bore him two children while her husband was still living. He has since broken off with the woman and done penance, and has been allowed to return to his homeland. After her husband died, however, out of pity for his former mistress and his love for his children, he has allowed her to live on his estate at Husaby, creating more scandal. He has paid dearly for his actions, and has lost the respect of his aristocratic family and connections.

Erland's seduction of Kristin; their clandestine affair; the confrontation when she must finally confess it to Simon; and the dreadful effect that her deceit and duplicity has on her family, makes up the last half of the book. Although Kristin could not have hoped to marry someone so far above her rank under normal circumstances, Erland's rakehell reputation makes him less than acceptable in Lavrans' eyes. We see Kristin's shame and the helplessness of her sexual involvement, but it is clear that the true message of this book isn't about the perils of illicit love, but about loss of honor - Kristin's, Erland's, and the damage they have done to the honor of their families. Their efforts to redeem it will continue throughout their lives, and there will be many stumblings and woundings in that process.

Volume I ends with the reconciliation of Kristin with her father, the marriage of Erland and Kristin, and a heartbreaking revelation about her parent's marriage.

Volume 2: The Mistress of Husaby

This book tells the story of the early years of Kristin's married life. Three months pregnant at her wedding, Kristin has kept her secret to herself. When it ultimately becomes obvious to Erland, he shows clearly his disappointment that the world will know that his first legitimate son was conceived before the wedding. Kristin finds his lukewarm response hard to bear, especially because she herself is convinced that her child may be malformed as payback for her sin. The description of Nikulaus's birth is harrowing, and Kristin's joy when she finds the baby perfect is palpable.

Eventually, Erland and his father-in-law, Lavrans, become reconciled. Simon, Kristin's former fianc, marries her youngest sister, Ramborg. The families become very close, and things seem happy until Lavrans dies. Two years later, Ragnild follows her husband in death.

As the years pass, Erland and Kristin have seven sons. Erland is a faithful and loving husband, but often impulsive and tactless. The manor of Husaby, let drift during the years of his disgrace, thrives under Kristin's capable management. Erland, however, has little interest in farming or running his estate. He takes to a more adventurous life and has great success at it. Slowly he wins his way back to positions befitting his family's background.

As Erland's duties as warden (a high official) of a northern district expand, Kristin, left at home to rear the seven sons, is often bitter and exhausted. During one of their times of conflict and anger, Erland briefly takes up with another woman, more to spite Kristin than from any fondness for the woman. When he breaks off with her, the woman sets out on a revenge that will cost him dearly. She has taken letters from his wallet that implicate him in a scheme to threaten the monarchy. Imprisoned for high treason, he endures the rack without implicating his accomplices. Kristin stands by him, and Simon, her brother-in-law and former fianc, eventually wins his release.

Volume 3: The Cross

Forced, as one of the terms of his release, to forfeit his estate at Husaby, Erland, Kristin and their sons now live at Jorundgaard, the estate Kristin inherited from her father. Simon Andresson and his family have become very dear to Erland and to Kristin. The two families are bound ever more tightly by many shared experiences, not only Erland's rescue from prison, but also by Kristin's care of her nephew Andres, Simon and Ramborg's eldest child, when he was deathly sick.

The years pass and it becomes apparent that Ramborg has begun to resent Kristin, sensing that Simon has never stopped loving her - as indeed he has not. Despite Simon's pains to conceal his feelings, Erland, too, recognizes them, and the two men have a final falling out. Their enmity puzzles and distresses Kristin and her family, but Kristin will not gainsay her husband, who declines to discuss the matter, so the families no longer share visits.

As their sons grow up and become involved with girls, Kristin and Erland have many arguments. Erland accuses Kristin of smothering them; Kristin accuses Erland of being too lax. Tensions build, and at last there is a terrible confrontation during which Erland's resentment of having to live on Kristin's land bursts out. The upshot is that he removes himself to a small property he owns in the mountains. For many months, although their sons try to broker a peace, the two pridefully remain at a standoff.

Kristin is called to Simon's deathbed, but her knowledge of herbs and cures cannot save him. At the end, he extracts from her a promise to journey to her husband's retreat and make up the quarrel. She makes good her promise, and is reconciled to Erland. An ecstatic few days ensue, during which an eighth child is conceived. Kristin leaves believing that Erland will soon come down the mountain to live with the family, but Erland believes she will come to live with him. He considers the older boys capable of going out into the world to make their own ways, and expects Kristin to bring the two youngest ones with her.

When Kristin's pregnancy becomes obvious, there is gossip in the village concerning Kristin and Ulf, Erland's kinsman and the manager of Jorundgaard. The baby is born, but is very weak, too weak to eat properly. Despite Kristin's efforts, he dies before he is three months old. An angry priest accuses Kristin of adultery and neglect of the child. The bishop, who is called in, believes in her innocence, but wants to know why her husband has not come forward to defend her. One of the sons rides secretly to his father, and Erland rushes to testify for Kristin - but a confrontation with the crowd when he arrives erupts into violence, and Erland receives a mortal wound.

A year later, in the spring, Munan, her youngest surviving son, also dies.

The other sons go their ways, except for Gaute, the third born, who is now manager of Jorundgaard. As the years pass, he, who is most like Kristin's father, Lavrans, shows himself to be a good guardian of the estate. His two older brothers, Nikulaus and Bjorgulf, have gone to a monastery, and given up their claim to the land. When Gaute brings home a woman whom he will make his wife, Kristin agrees to turn over the running of the household to her new daughter-in-law.

After the first child is born, the tensions between old mistress and new make it clear to Kristin that she must move on. She is not embittered by her situation, realizing that the young people need the opportunity to have their turn at life, but her departure is a very poignant moment for all of them. She goes to a convent near the monastery where her oldest sons are novices, and lives there as a lay sister, intending eventually to take the vows. The year is 1349, the year of the Black Plague. In 1350, the plague reaches Norway. Kristin puts her medical skills to use, but nothing can stop the spread of the disease. Having cared for others, heedless of her own well-being, she finally succumbs to the Black Death herself.


To say that these are great books is pathetically inadequate. Herewith, a passage that shows better than any outside comment can indicate, the depth and pertinence of this tale. Kristin's grown son, Ivar, has offered her a home with him, now that she has given over her role at Jorundgaard to her daughter-in-law.

"Kristin sat with her little grandson in her lap, and thought that it would not be easy for her at either place. It was a hard matter, growing old. It seemed that she herself was the young woman, just lately...Now she had drifted into a backwater. And not long ago her own sons had been like this child on her knee...Recently, the thought of her own mother rose often in her mind - her mother that she could only remember as an ageing, heavy-hearted woman. Yet she had been young, once; she, too, lay and warmed her baby girl with her body's warmth. Her mother too had been marked in youth, body and soul, by the bearing and nourishing of children; and she had thought perchance no more than Kristin herself, when she sat with that sweet young life at her breast, that so long as they two lived, each single day would lead the child farther and farther from her arms.

"'When you yourself had borne a child, Kristin, I thought you would understand,' her mother had said once. Now, she understood that her mother's heart had been scored deep with memories of her daughter, memories of thoughts for her child from the time it was unborn and from all the years a child remembers nothing of, memories of fear and hope and dreams that children never know have been dreamed for them, until their own time comes to fear and hope and dream in secret - "


Notes about the books:

Vol. I: The Wreath, 297 pp

Vol. II: The Mistress of Husaby, 403 pp

Vol. III: The Cross, 424 pp

Originally published in Norwegian in 1920, US copyright 1925, by Alfred A. Knopf.

My bookstore had The Wreath only in the 1997 edition. The other two volumes reviewed here were from a 1987 edition by Vintage Books, translated by Charles Archer. We strongly recommend the '97 Penguin edition translated by Tiina Nunnally for the smoothness of the translation. The Archer version is filled with archaic language (t'was and t'were and "sooth," for example) and awkward grammar that is possibly a too-literal translation of Norwegian construction. A quick search shows that the Nunnally version exists in all three volumes, and we recommend that you search it out.

E-mail us if there are favorites of your own that you intend to or have reread and why.

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