Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kristin Lavransdatter : The Wife - Sigrid Undset

The first part of Kristin Lavransdatter ended with a wedding, but this was not the conventional happy ending of romances & fairy tales. Kristin & Erlend had waited years for this moment & Kristin, especially, had been weighed down by the guilt she felt at transgressing against God's laws as well as deceiving her beloved father. She also realised that she was pregnant & faced the prospect of shaming her parents even more if this became known. Erlend & Kristin travel to his estate at Husaby after the wedding & Kristin begins her new life as a wife & mistress of a great estate. At first, all she can think about is the child that will be born too soon after the wedding. This first section of the book is called The Fruit of Sin. When Erlend finally realises that Kristin is pregnant, he is dismayed but he has never really understood the wrong he did to Kristin in seducing her & encouraging her to carry on their affair. Kristin's labour is horrendous & she barely survives. Her son, Naakkve, is her only consolation. Soon after the birth, she goes on pilgrimage, barefoot & alone except for the baby, to pray at the altar of Christ Church.

And here knelt Kristin with the fruit of her sin in her arms. She hugged the child tight - he was as fresh as an apple, pink and white like a rose. He was awake now, and he lay there looking up at her with his clear, sweet eyes.
Conceived in sin. Carried under her hard, evil heart. Pulled out of her sin-tainted body, so pure, so healthy, so inexpressibly lovely and fresh and innocent. This undeserved beneficence broke her heart in two; crushed with remorse, she lay there with tears welling up out of her soul like blood from a mortal wound.

The pilgrimage soothes Kristin in some ways, & her work at Husaby also helps to relieve her feelings. The estate has been left to run down. Erlend is no farmer & his travels & adventures have left him little time to settle down. Kristin is a good & careful manager & soon gains the respect of the servants & tenants. She has more children - seven sons in all - & her absorption in the children & her lingering sense of grievance over Erlend's past behaviour & thoughtlessness, lead to tensions between them. Erlend's two children from his relationship with Eline are another source of guilt to Kristin. She establishes a good relationship with the boy, Orm, after a rocky start, but Erlend's daughter, Margret, is proud & arrogant. Erlend feels guilty about these children. They're illegitimate & so can't inherit his property. He spoils Margret & is hard on Orm, a frail, gentle boy who will never be a great warrior. He resents Kristin's advice & blames her for supporting Orm & trying to correct Margret.

Kristin's brooding on her sins often threatens to dominate her life. The local priest, Sira Eiliv, counsels her to stop worrying about her own sins. She should pray & do good deeds, much more useful than dwelling on the past. Erlend's brother, Gunnulf, is a priest, & Kristin looks to him for help as well. She also realises that Erlend is not respected by his peers & worries about what this will mean for their future. Erlend is impetuous & rash, not a steady man like her father or Simon Andressøn, the man she rejected when she fell in love with Erlend. Simon has stayed on good terms with her parents. He married a rich widow &, after her death, marries Kristen's younger sister, Ramborg. When Kristin & Erlend travel to her childhood home, Jørundgaard, they see how her father relies on Simon as his health fails.

The political situation in Norway plays a larger role in this book than in the first. The King, Magnus, succeeded to the throne as a child. His mother, Lady Ingebjørg, ruled as Regent but was forced out by another faction. She remarried & left Norway with her new husband, who was considered below her in rank. Some years later, when Magnus began to rule alone, his mother began plotting with some nobles, including Erlend, to return to Norway with one of her other sons. She hoped to regain control of the country through her younger son. When the plan is discovered - partly through Erlend's thoughtlessness - he is arrested & charged with treason. It's now, when their relationship has been nearly destroyed by old resentments, that Kristin is forced to realise how tightly her life is bound up with Erlend & she turns to her brother-in-law Simon to help them both.

He shook hands with his eldest sons and then lifted the smallest ones into his arms, while he asked where Gaute was. "Well, you must give him my greetings, Naakkve. He must have gone off into the woods with his bow the way he usually does. Tell him he can have my English longbow after all - the one I refused to give him last Sunday."
Kristin pulled him to her without speaking a word.
The she whispered urgently, "When are you coming back, Erlend, my friend?"
"When God wills it, my wife."
She stepped back, struggling not to break down. Normally he never addressed her in any other way except by using her given name; his last words had shaken her to the heart. Only now did she fully understand what had happened.

As well as an exciting plot, full of drama & incident, Sigrid Undset gives the reader access to Kristin's mind & heart. There are many beautiful set pieces of quiet description, in the natural world & often in church, as Kristin prays for her dead loved ones,

She sat on the bench along the wall of the empty church. The old smell of cold incense kept her thoughts fixed on images of death and the decay of temporal things. And she didn't have the strength to lift up her soul to catch a glimpse of the land where they were, the place to which all goodness and love and faith had finally been moved and now endured. Each day, when she prayed for the peace of their souls, it seemed to her unfair that she should pray for those that had possessed more peace than  she had ever known since she became a grown woman. Sira Eiliv would no doubt say that prayers for the dead were always good - good for oneself, since the other  person had already found peace with God.

Undset paints a picture of medieval Norway where the pagan past has not quite been banished by the Christian present. There's also a real sense of the loneliness of life in the forests & remote countryside where violence is often the response to unhappiness or a sense of being wronged. Society's laws aren't always respected & the Church struggles to supplant the old gods & the power of the feudal past. I'm looking forward to the last part of the story, The Cross, very much.


  1. I bet you will miss these characters at the end of the sequence. Enjoy the last volume!

    1. I finished the last volume at the weekend & it was very difficult to put the book down. Very moving ending & I'm so glad I read it. Definitely one of my Top 10 for the year.