‘Kristen Lavransdatter’ by Sigrid Undset – a look back

1920, 1921, 1922 1047 pages

I read Kristen Lavransdatter about twenty years ago, and I have never forgotten it. My enthusiasm for it built up over the three volumes in the trilogy, and I ended up viewing it as one of my favourite books of all time (FBOAT). I even ended up with two copies of the trilogy at one stage, because my face-to-face group decided that as a Christmas Kris Kringle we would each buy a second-hand copy of a book that we had loved during the year to put in the Kringle. My recipient returned it to me unread, because she said that it was just too long to be bothered reading. Ah- her loss!I can’t find the second copy now, so perhaps I have inflicted it on someone else.

To be honest, I don’t think I know anyone else who has read it – perhaps this posting will bring them forward?- and so I was very excited when I saw that the hosts of Lit Century, a podcast that chooses one emblematic book for each year of the 20th century, had chosen it for 1922. Their podcast on the book, hosted by Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols, extended over two sessions. In the first, On Desire (and its Absence), they talk about Kristen Lavransdatter and whether it fits within the ‘romantic novel’ genre, given that it deals with 14th century Norway, with its medieval mentality. In the second episode On Catholicism and Doomscrolling they are joined by Timothy Paulson, whose great-grandfather won a Nobel Prize for Literature (as did Sigrid Undset, largely on the strength of Kristen Lavransdatter.) He is of Norwegian heritage, and first read the book as a Lutheran 13-year old. He spoke about the sense of betrayal that Lutheran readers felt when Kristen converted to Catholicism. They also discussed whether it was a feminist book back in the 1920s when it was released, given the emphasis on the whole life of a female character, and decided that it wasn’t.

So what I did I write about it back in 2001? I wasn’t blogging then, and my reviews tended to focus on the plot of the book, largely as a reminder to myself.

In relation to Part 1 ‘The Garland’, I wrote:

Set in medieval Norway Kristen is betrothed to Simon, but falls in love with Erland. Her father opposes the marriage because Erland has been living with a married woman by whom he had had two children. Kristen eventually marries him, pregnant and scared of her father finding out, and wracked with guilt over the murder/suicide of Erland’s paramour Eline.The story finishes at her wedding, where her father realizes that she is no virgin, but then he learns that his own wife, Ragnfrid, had not been faithful either. Sort of like Heidi meets Anna Karenina.

What an odd coupling- what on earth did I mean? Anyway, by January 2002 I was back for more with Part II ‘The Mistress of Husaby’. I wrote:

Second in the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy. Kristen has not forgiven herself, or Erland, for betraying her father’s trust, and despite fifteen years of marriage and the birth of seven sons. Their marriage is tortured- she can see Erland’s shortcoming and lack of discipline. She holds grudges for literally years, and is quite a shrew. Both her parents die and her younger sister marries Kristen’s former fiance Simon. Erland is arrested for treason for plotting against the King, but Simon intercedes for him and gains a pardon for him at the cost of forfeiture of Erland’s goods.

In July 2002 I finished the final book in the trilogy ‘The Cross’. This time I wrote:

A long break between Volumes 2 and 3, and I found it hard at first to pick the story up again. Kristen is still a hard woman, ready to throw at the slightest provocation the criticism that Erland is not the man her father was; that he had cheated on her, and that he had lost their lands as part of his punishment for treason. Erland and Simon argue when Simon declares his lifelong love for Kristen, and the two families are estranged. Simon dies, with Kristen nursing him. Erland and Kristen also separate, with Erland going to a farmhouse in the mountains. As part of her promise to the dying Simon, Kristen goes to the mountain and reconciles with her husband and falls pregnant again. But neither will budge- Erland will not come down and she will not leave her children to go to him. When the child dies, she is devastated. She takes one of her sons to be confirmed and is confronted by the gossip that Ulv Haldersson (a long time servant) is said to be the father, and when set upon by the villagers who resent her return, Erland comes to the rescue. But he is injured in a fight for her honour and dies.

Kristen is left with fewer sons as they die, travel abroad and marry. When she feels usurped by her daughter-in-law, she decides to become a nun in Trondheim. She catches the Black Death and dies.

What I really liked about this trilogy is the unity of the medieval world view- family, Church and King. The language is archaic, and constantly maintained throughout the whole trilogy. Her characters are all flawed, and yet good- as in life- and act with an authentic mixture of wisdom and stupidity.

I admit that it all sounds a bit melodramatic, when you see it all laid out. Now that I’m older than when I read it the first time, I appreciate even more taking a woman’s life from childhood right through to old age. These are all complex characters, often governed by unworthy motives. I’m pleased to learn from the podcasts that Undset’s treatment of the historical background has held up well, informed by extensive research into Norse medieval culture and literature. I might even read it again if there is another lockdown (perish the thought!)

3 responses to “‘Kristen Lavransdatter’ by Sigrid Undset – a look back

  1. I read it …um .. a year or so ago? I quite liked Vols 1 & 2, but Vol 3 was a slog.

    • You were much fuller in your review than I was! (although, in self-defence, it was before blogging and I was only writing for myself then). In the podcast, they talk about Undset’s conversion to Catholicism, and I wonder if that lay behind the increasing emphasis on sin and consequences.

  2. Well, I spread it out over some months too.
    I’ve got a lot of very cursory reviews in my journal from my pre-blogging days, and honestly, sometimes I really can’t tell from what I wrote, what I thought at all…

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