Source of book: Borrowed from the library (although I’d like to own it…)
This is one of those books that I read because multiple friends with good literary taste recommended it. I have chosen - for reasons - to read each of the three books in the trilogy separately, then sit on it for a while before moving on. This means that I will be writing this post not knowing all of the other drama that goes down throughout the title character’s life. For those who have read the whole thing, and are eager to spoil it, please refrain. I’ll get to each one in turn. I considered plowing on ahead, but after the way the first book affected me, I want to draw it out a bit more, and think about this first book by itself.
First, some background. Who was Sigrid Undset? And why is she virtually unknown to 21st Century American readers, despite being considered one of the great Scandinavian writers - and one who was popular here for decades? Why did these books go out of style? That last one is the most puzzling to me, as this first book seems timeless, and has aged very well indeed.
My theories would include the fact that Medieval settings became passe in favor of “realistic” contemporary ones, and foreign literature in general isn’t read as often as it used to be. That is sad to me, as there are many books written outside of the United States that are worthwhile.
Back to Undset. She was born in Denmark in 1882, but her family soon moved to Norway. Her father was an archeologist, and young Sigrid was immersed in that world. After her father’s sudden death when she was eleven, Sigrid had to give up her goal of a college education, instead she got a job as a secretary at age 16, a job she held for a decade while working on her writing. She married late, at age 30, an older man who divorced his wife to be with her. The marriage broke up three children later, and it wasn’t until then that Undset wrote her greatest and most popular works, including the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy. Around this time, Undset, who was raised atheist, converted to Catholicism. Near the end of her life, she fled Norway after the Nazis took over, returning after the war briefly before her death.
The Kristin Lavransdatter books were published one per year between 1920 and 1922. In spite of being a century old, the research that Undset put in has stood up. The depictions of Medieval life in Norway are considered largely accurate today. They also won her a Nobel Prize in 1928.
There are two English translations readily available. Originally, in the 1920s, Charles Archer and J.S. Scott did a translation that had two main flaws. First, the language was intentionally made “archaic,” with “thee” and “thou.” Undset’s original is not that way, but is straightforward, simple, clear, and contemporary. Second, some of the sexual parts were bowdlerized, because Americans and Anthony Comstock, I guess. I was able to read the better modern version by Tiina Nunnally, which is beautifully done, and also preserves the sexuality in all its raw humanity.
The trilogy follows the character of Kristin from age seven until her death of the Black Plague in her 50s - a ripe old age in those times. The first book, The Wreath ends with her marriage at age twenty. The title itself is a reference to the wreath of maidenhood that was traditionally worn by daughters of the nobility presented by a bride to her husband at marriage. Given the events of the book, the symbolism of virginity is...not accurate. And indeed, at the core of the book is Kristin’s sexuality, Catholic guilt, and the hypocrisy necessary to sustain appearances.
Kristin grows up in a rural town, the eldest (surviving) child of a respected nobleman, Lavrans, and his depressed wife, Ragnfrid. She has two younger sisters, spaced pretty far apart from her, because all of the male infants have died. This is one of the sources of Ragnfrid’s depression and trauma, along with the middle daughter, Ulvhild, being injured and eventually dying.
At age 15, Kristin’s idyllic life is shattered by a series of events. Her childhood friend, Arne, who is a peasant, confesses his love for her, before leaving to seek his fortune. On the way back from meeting him secretly, the illegitimate grandson of the village priest tries to rape her. She fights back violently (she is a bit of a badass…), but he slanders her claiming she had sex with Arne, and claimed the attempted rape to save her reputation. Not too long after, the rapist fights with and kills Arne, leaving Kristin devastated.
Lavrans agrees with Simon, a young and respectable man, to betroth Kristen and Simon. However, Kristin finds Simon unattractive and boring, and struggles with the trauma from the attempted rape and murder. To attempt to “fix” her, and keep her on the preferred path, Kristin’s parents send her to study at a convent - a common choice for the daughters of the nobility.
While at the convent, Kristin meets her distant cousin by marriage, Erlend. He is dashing, impetuous, passionate, and a bit reckless. He is also a decade older than her, and has a past which is decidedly less than savory, as Kristin discovers.
As a very young man, he had a longstanding affair with a married woman. But, like every sexual relationship in this book, things are...complicated. Married against her will to a much older - but rich and respectable - man, Eline was miserable. Her husband was impotent, and she greatly desired sex, intimacy, and children, none of which were available to her. So she seduces the younger Erlend. They have two children together, but since they are not legitimate, there is nothing he can do to ensure their inheritance. The children have zero legal rights. Erlend is excommunicated from the church, and spends years in exile, before he is able to return on condition of breaking off the relationship. So, Erlend is in a bind. He cannot be with Eline, who is still in love with him, even as she hates him. Erlend needs legitimate offspring in order to keep his property in the family. And Kristin is, shall we say, horny as hell.
Kristin and Erlend meet surreptitiously, and have sex several times in a week. Although Kristin is sure she is pregnant, that turns out to not be the case. She and Erlend promise to marry, but first there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. Kristin has to cut off her engagement to Simon, which he agrees to very begrudgingly - and insists that she has to take responsibility for the break and tell her father. Erlend has to convince Lavrans to let him marry Kristin. Which he has no intention of doing.
It ends up being three years before Lavrans relents, reluctantly. Once Kristin and Erlend are able to see each other again, she gets pregnant for real this time, and she is desperately morning sick during the wedding. She also makes the mistake of looking directly at Erlend when she is “put to bed” in the traditional post-wedding ceremony, which Lavrans takes to mean that his beloved daughter has already been deflowered.
That summary is leaving a lot out, too, particularly about the secondary characters. Oh, and there is a suicide, an attempted murder, and a LOT of drama.
There are a number of things that I thought were wonderful about this book. The characters are very real, very complex, and thoroughly human. Undset does an amazing job of accomplishing that despite placing the characters in a thoroughly unfamiliar world. One of the challenges of historical fiction is how to avoid the two extremes of letting historical norms and beliefs overpower the humanity of the characters, making them seem like aliens; and on the other hand, importing contemporary ideas and beliefs and thus making the historical setting a mere veneer. The challenge in this book was very much how to portray a strong and determined woman in that society. Clearly she couldn’t express herself in modern feminist terms. And society didn’t exactly give her a wealth of options. Undset manages to portray the internal contradictions and battles that the situation entails. In the process, Kristin comes alive better than most historical fiction heroines - and also becomes less “likeable” in a way.
Another thing that I loved is that Undset never glosses over the consequences of actions. This is no “happily ever after” book. Erlend is no prince - he’s flawed, and not a great choice on paper. Kristin chooses love and desire over respectability. And those realities have consequences for both of them. And for other people. Likewise, sex isn’t simple. For Kristin, it is so bound up in external and internal factors. She greatly desires it - and indeed pines for it when she is separated from Erlend. But she also feels tremendous guilt about it, resentment against Erlend for seducing her even as she owns her own complicity in it, and knows that she will suffer consequences for it. And everything in this book has consequences, for good, or more often ill. Everything is connected, socially, emotionally, relationally. Nothing is simple. Everything is complicated. And human nature finds itself continually in conflict with social convention. Few characters are either as good or bad as they seem at first. And the drama and revelations continue to the very last page of the book - more about that later.
I also found myself thoroughly immersed in the world that Undset creates. Norway of the 14th Century was at the crossroads in many ways. Political instability is central to the world in which Kristin lives. In the rural areas, much of the paganism remains, even as Christianity has become the dominant religion. Syncretism - sometimes comfortable, sometimes not - is part of the culture. Priests don’t marry, but they have families nonetheless. The world is beginning to become more global, yet individual places remain provincial. Wealth is on the increase, as is inequality. Traditional ways are, as they always are, giving way to new ways that will become “traditional” in time.
There are a number of lines that really illustrate the themes of the book, I believe. First is the way that Kristin, and indeed many characters, struggle with the dictates of religion, their consciences, and their own desires. Brother Edvin is a wandering monk with occasionally unorthodox ideas and a dark event in his past. He plays a significant role in Kristin’s life, as her confidant and mentor at crucial junctions. (As does her aunt Aashild.) Here is how he explains the idea to young Kristin.
“There is no one, Kristin, who does not love and fear God. But it’s because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and this flesh, that we are miserable in life and death. For if a man knew no yearning for God and God’s being, then he would thrive in Hell, and we alone would not understand that he had found his heart’s desire. Then the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, and he would not feel the pain of the serpent’s bite if he did not long for peace.”
Leaving aside the religious element, Edvin is right that someone who had no desire for transcendence would indeed thrive in hell. (C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which I read in junior high, talks about this as well.) I think, for example, that the Trumps of the world would indeed thrive in that sort of hell, and there are plenty of them among us.
Speaking of Aashild, she is the sort of woman that Terry Pratchett would describe as a witch. She is an herbal healer, who is suspected both of poisoning her first husband, and of some commerce with the Devil. Neither is true, but the rumors persist. It is fascinating that in Kristin’s village, there is a kind of detente between Sira Eirik, the village priest (who is also a doctor after the fashion of the times), and Aashild. Not that they are enemies - indeed, they respect each other and are friends - but the townspeople feel guilt about seeking help from Aashild, as if they were sinning, particularly since the most serious cases end up asking for Aashild, as the superior healer.
Sira Eirik himself said that they [female healers] caused no one any harm, and as for Fru Aashild’s witchcraft, he was not her parish priest. It could be that the woman knew more than was good for the health of her soul - and yet one should not forget that ignorant people often spoke of witchcraft as soon as a woman showed herself to be wiser than the councilmen.
There are several exchanges between Lavrans and Ragnfrid that are fascinating studies of a complex marriage - and they portend some of the revelations at the end of the book. One line is interesting, when Ragnfrid realizes that Kristin has the hots for Erlend - but Lavrans is in denial. Although he sure jumps quickly from that to “are they having sex??” (Answer: yes.)
“I didn’t mean what you think. But no one can know what may have happened or is going to happen. Her only thought is that she loves this man. That much I’ve seen. She may show us someday that she loves him more than her honor - or her life.”
What follows is a searingly intimate scene in which a partial revelation is made. Both of them have realized that Ragnfrid would have rather married someone else. At least at one time. They both love each other now, and chose each other freely. But it is...complicated. And, as it turns out, Lavrans has struggled to be intimate in a truly sexual way with Ragnfrid. He has given her children, but as a duty. In another place, Ragnfrid mentions how much she burns for Lavrans, but he rarely touches her. Now, however, he makes a move, which she rejects, because it is a fast day. (The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages had a lot of days that people were forbidden to have sex. That these rules were widely ignored is probable, but the really upright sorts kept them.) Lavrans, in his rejection and pain, expresses - possibly the only time in his life - a wish to transgress.
“You and I, Ragnfrid, we have observed all the fast days and have tried to live by God’s commandments in all things. And now it seems to me … that we might have been happier if we had had more to regret.”
That’s possibly my favorite line in the entire book.
Another theme in this book is how Lavrans and Ragnfrid struggle to understand just how little they truly understand their daughter. She was always the good child, the one they expected to be easy and compliant and good. And she is the one who is threatening to go bad. (Hey, I think I may resemble that situation a good bit.) Even as he finally gives in and consents to the marriage, he still clings to his vision of that sweet little girl. As he and Sir Baard and Sir Munan, the emissaries from Erlend to negotiate the engagement, talk about Kristin, it is clear that they see her differently.
“But now I must tell you in regard to Erlend’s offer that my daughter has not been raised to manage properties and riches herself, and I have always intended to give her to a man in whose hands I could confidently place the maiden’s welfare. I don’t know whether Kristin is capable of handling such responsibility or not, but I hardly think she would thrive by doing so. She is placid and compliant in temperament. One of the reasons that I bore in mind when I opposed the marriage was this: that Erlend has shown a certain imprudence in several areas. Had she been a domineering, bold, and headstrong woman, then the situation would have been quite different.”
Sir Munan burst out laughing and said, “My dear Lavrans, are you complaining that the maiden is not headstrong enough?”
And Sir Baard said with a smile, “It seems to me that your daughter has demonstrated that she is not lacking in will. For two years, she has stood by Erlend, in spite of your wishes.”
Lavrans said, “I know that quite well, and yet I know what I’m talking about. It has been hard for her during the time she has defied me, and she won’t be happy with a husband for long unless he can rule her.”
“The Devil take me,” said Sir Munan. “Then your daughter must be quite unlike all the women I have known, for I’ve never found a single one who didn’t prefer to rule over both herself and her husband.”
Since I haven’t read the other books, I am curious to see whose opinion turns out to be correct. But I strongly suspect Lavrans is wrong. Kristin may be a bit impetuous in her youth, but she is stronger than her father realizes. In fact, her misery in making him unhappy is so very real that it does demonstrate just how strong she is that she continues to hold to her own wishes against him. I get that. I am very much the sort who wishes to please, but finds himself unwilling (and indeed unable) to do the violence to myself that would be required to go along. I tried so very hard to believe the things my parents wanted me to. I went along with Gothardism even though I protested against it. I made the best of it at the time. But ultimately, I could not continue in that path, and could not rearrange my life (including trying to force my wife to do things they wanted) to make them happy. (As if I could have told Amanda to do anything anyway. That would never have worked.) And yes, these colliding realities have given me a lot of pain over the years. But, like Kristin, I have not and will not back down and compromise what is most important to me.
There is one final bit that I want to look at. Soon before Kristin’s wedding - on the day of her betrothal feast - lightning strikes the church, and it burns to the ground. Kristin is wracked with guilt over her pregnancy, and is, frankly, hormonal as hell. Her internal fortitude is insufficient for the stresses she is under. In the wake of the fire, she finds Sira Eirik, and tells him she wants to forgo the wedding feast as she does not deserve it. And the fire was an omen from God telling her that. Eirik is furious at her, and tells her off.
“Do you think God cares so much about the way you sluts surrender and throw yourselves away that He would burn down a beautiful and honorable church for your sake?”
He advises her to avoid causing further pain to her parents, to go ahead with the wedding, and to try to do better. And to help rebuild the church. (Erlend has already helped trying to put out the fire and save items from the church - and he gets married with burn scars on his face for his trouble.) I think Eirik is right in what he says. Personally, I think God really doesn’t give much of a rat’s ass what we do with our genitals, other than that we act in love and with consent. I know this makes me a minority within my faith tradition, but whatever. Eirik is right, though, that everyone sins, and it seems self-absorbed to believe that this one sin mattered more than anything else. I really wish I could have been able to convince more evangelicals in my life that the chances that God cares so much more about sex than he does about, say, slavery, genocide, deaths from poverty, and so on, is pretty low. I mean, just read the words of Christ - you figure out pretty fast what his priorities were, and it wasn’t policing sex.
There is a corresponding scene a bit later, when Aashild, who figures out really fast that Kristin is pregnant, tells her that she needs to stop obsessing over her lack of virginity, and enjoy the good that she has. There will be plenty of time to pay for her sins later, and - as Aashild would know - for all Kristin knows, she will be dead in childbirth in a few months, so why not enjoy the caresses of her husband now? One of the ways that it is clear Kristin is not her usual self is that she is unable to pull herself together completely. Pregnancy is an...experience. And not everyone experiences it a benign way. My wife had fairly easy pregnancies - that’s one reason we ended up with five kids. But the hormonal cocktail is a real thing.
I should mention the ending scene as well, because it corresponds. If you don’t want a major spoiler, skip this section.
Another book might have ended with Kristen and Erlend in bed together, with the over-emotional Kristin struggling to let go and give herself to her husband, who is so relieved to actually be married, after years of thinking he might not ever have Kristin. It’s a poignant scene.
But Undset takes a different approach. Instead, Ragnfrid goes outside to find her husband, and he is up against a fence, drunk out of his mind. And furious at Kristin. (I mentioned above the look she gave Erlend.) He mentions this to Ragnfrid, who defends Kristin, saying that they had waited three years - she might be expected to look at him as he undresses.
And then things take a shocking turn. His filter crushed by the booze, he ends up starting a series of confessions that unravel a lot of what he and his wife thought about their marriage.
She was older than he, and he was very young. Although he consented to marry her, he felt he had no choice.
In the name of the Devil, he had been married off as a young boy; he had not chosen her himself. She was older than he was. He had not desired her. He had not wanted to learn this from her - how to love. He still grew hot from shame at the thought of it - that she had wanted him to love her when he had not wanted that kind of love from her. That she had offered him everything that he had never asked for.
Lavrans realizes that he is jealous of his daughter.
He once had a crazy crush on the wife of a farmer nearby. They never consummated anything. Indeed, she never spoke to him alone or even knew of his feelings. But he never felt that way about Ragnfrid.
Oh, and she has her own secrets too. She doesn’t intend to share them, until Lavrans says “And yet you might have done better if you had been married as our daughter was today.” Ragnfrid assumes that he has discovered the truth about her, and confesses she wasn’t a virgin when they married. And indeed, she was ambivalent about the death of their first son, because she wasn’t sure that Lavrans was the father.
Her beloved, unlike Erlend, was a true scoundrel, and never offered to marry Ragnfrid. And now, he is dead anyway. This pretty much shatters what is left of Lavrans’ world. But, because he and his wife are who they are, we are left to assume that they muddle on. It’s a truly raw, emotional scene, and the pain both of them are suffering is intense. I had to set the book down a few times and breathe. As I said earlier, none of the sex or romance or marriage in this book is simple. There is always the conflict between desire and respectability, between passion and prudence. (Austen would say...Sense and Sensibility) And wherever there is religion, there is guilt.
I decided I wanted to talk about this a bit, because the book brought some memories back to me, and made me particularly grateful for a really good thing in my life.
As I have mentioned plenty of times on this blog, both my wife and I grew up in Evangelicalism - and all the sexual baggage that includes - and spent our teen years in fundamentalist, patriarchal cults that blamed women for male sexual dysfunction. Hey, I wrote a whole series on that! (The Atlanta shooter is the most extreme result of the poisonous belief system, but many have been badly damaged by it. And some of my own family relationships have been severed as a result.) I count it as a good thing that my parents at least made sure I got a solid course in sex ed, starting from a young age. I am glad I knew the mechanics, the science, and so on. Still, the crazy was in the water, and it is in many ways a miracle that we didn’t end up with a messed up sex life, like a number of people I know who grew up in the same cultic groups. I credit the fact that both of us made the conscious decision to reject most of what we were taught before we had our first relationship.
The common theme running through the various marriages and relationships in this book is that of choice. Is sex and romance a choice, or is it predetermined by others? Lavrans never can give of himself, because he did not choose his marriage. Ragnfrid is suffering as a result, because she craves very much a man who desires her. Simon is too shy to actually express his desire for Kristin - not that she is any help, of course. Kristin can’t love Simon because she feels any love he expresses is out of duty to her - like her father’s love for Ragnfrid. While Erlend clearly is attractive to Kristin for other reasons, it is pretty obvious that one reason she is so attached to him is that he is her choice. And she is his. They are able to experience the rush and joy that is spontaneous sex, spontaneous romance. The whole thing feels a heck of a lot more like Song of Songs rather than Genesis 24. And that makes a profound difference to Kristin.
I fully sympathize. One advantage of waiting for my first romantic relationship until my mid-20s was that both my now-wife and I were living away from our parents, and could court our own way. The way that our relationship grew from friendship into a grand romance and passionately sexual union over time was beautiful. It was loving and consensual and mutual, and satisfying for both of us. We have been married for nearly 20 years now, and we still can’t keep our hands off of each other. We also have zero guilt for anything we did, and really didn’t at the time. I have no idea how we managed to do it, but we really did let our love take us where it would, and rejected the teachings that told us otherwise.
I wonder sometimes if a factor in that for me at least was the fact that there have been a lot of shotgun weddings in my extended family - dating back many generations too. Interestingly, those marriages seem to have been the most loving and long lasting too. Since I became a lawyer, I have had a lot of inside information into people’s lives. It is amazing what birth and wedding dates can tell you - just saying. And people going through divorces are often more candid than you would think. It didn’t take me long to realize that virginity at marriage had nothing whatsoever to do with marital happiness. Rather, sexual experience and timing was only an issue if the parties chose to make it one. Someone like, say, Mark Driscoll, who humiliated his wife over her sexual assault (he said he wouldn’t have married her if he had known - despite his own lack of virginity…) is an example of the destruction caused by this obsession with sex and virginity. It is what you make of it. If your wife’s virginity is “the best gift she can give her husband,” well, you will miss out on a hell of a lot of other things - because the best thing any person can give their spouse is themselves - their love, their friendship, their time, their affection, their caring - their lives. Every day I spend with Amanda is the best gift she can give me. And vice versa.
Kristin’s life won’t be perfect - that much is for sure. Erlend isn’t the sort of guy I would want, or want one of my kids to want, but he also isn’t a horrible person. Life is messy, and if the first book is any indication, it will continue to be messy. The beauty of this book is in the way the mess is so human, so real, so believable. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.