Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, translated/edited by Tina Nunnally
This is a wonderful epic of a book by an author (apologies to my Norse grandparents) that I hadn’t heard of until a week ago. Sigrid Undset was winner of the Nobel prize in literature in 1928. Even then I thought “Sure, manipulated because she was on the home team.” What a surprise to find a broad, multi-layered story, nearly 1200 pages long, detailing the life of a medieval woman from childhood through the arrival of the black death in Norway in 1349.
The book deals with several themes. Most directly it deals with sin and its aftermath. Undset was a convert to Catholicism in a country that was robustly Lutheran and anti-Catholic at that time. The setting in pre-Reformation Norway allows her to examine sin in the context of the time and the dominant religion of the period.
Kristin is born into a wealthy family with a noble family lineage. Her father Lavran has arranged a wedding for her with Simon Darre, the son of a neighboring landowner. But Kristin falls in love with another man named Erland. Erland is the son of a family from farther away and he’s been excommunicated for having an ongoing relationship with a woman that has already produced two children.
Kristin gets pregnant by Erland. Because their love is so strong Simon agrees to withdraw from the marriage arrangement and Erland is able to convince Lavran to let him marry Kristin. Part of the shame Kristin carries through her whole life is the believe that they deceived her father, not telling him about the pregnancy and betraying his kindness in accepting Erland into the family.
This seduction, and who seduced whom, will follow both of them to their deaths and will even create friction between Kristin and Erland. Even under this cloud they live a prosperous life and, something of a rarity for the times, Kristin gives birth to several sons.
The book is set at a time in which Norway was part of a larger protectorate that was ruled by the king of Sweden. Erland joins with other noblemen in a plot to regain independence for Norway. He is betrayed, arrested and tortured, and ends up forfeiting all his property. The property that remains was family land Kristin received in her dowry.
The story takes the couple and their children through their lives from wealth to a modest existence. It tells of Erland’s death, Kristin’s life becoming a mother-in-law and grandmother, the lives of her sons, and Kristin’s eventual decision to take a long pilgrimage and live with a group of nuns. It’s at this location that the plague comes to Norway.
Undset does a wonderful job of weaving people in and out of the book. Kristin’s jilted fiance Simon becomes a regular visitor to her family’s home and Kristin’s younger sister sets her sights on him, eventually convincing him to marry her. Erland’s priest brother acts with moral authority over Erland while hiding his feelings for Kristin.
It’s a wonderful story arc filled with incredible characters, but it never falls off the rails into being overly romantic or moralistic. It gives a well-rounded picture of the main character and gives a fascinating look at a time and place that doesn’t receive much realistic attention in literature.
The book was originally published in three volumes, which are available in this translation through Penguin Classics: The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross. These take the book down to a more manageable and less intimidating 400 or so pages each. There’s also an unabridged version at Audible that covers 44 hours of narration.
The book is completely modern in approach, with a translation that makes it easy to read. The book was published in the same years as Joyce was writing Ulysses and Fitzgerald was developing Gatsby and it’s very much a book of its time. In one gulp or easier bites this is an accessible, readable, and wonderful work.