Why has it taken me so long to start reading this book? Dani at A Work in Progress read Kristin Lavransdatter back in 2007 & that’s when I bought this gorgeous Penguin Deluxe edition. But, I didn’t pick it up until a few weeks ago. I was reminded of the book when reading Willa Cather’s letters as she knew Undset in New York in the 1920s. The story of Kristin is told in three books & I’ve just finished the first, The Wreath.
Kristin is a seven year old girl living with her parents in 14th century Norway. She is very close to her father, Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn, & enjoys nothing better than being taken on journeys through the countryside as he inspects his property around their farm, Jørundgaard. Her mother, Ragnfrid, is a quiet, melancholy woman. She has lost several sons, & when the story begins, has only Kristin. On one of these journeys with her father, Kristin wanders away from the campsite & sees a mysterious “elf maiden” beckoning to her from the other side of the river. Kristin is terrified by this apparition that seems to hint at the pagan elements of the country, even though it is nominally Christian. These pagan elements of witchcraft & otherworldly beings are a theme that recurs throughout the story.
Kristin’s family has considerable status within their local farming community. Kristin grows up to be beautiful & kind, working hard on the farm & continually reminded of her obligations by her mother. She also helps to care for her young sister, Ulvhild, who was injured in an accident & needs constant care. She is friendly with one of her father’s workers, Arne, who is in love with her. Arne isn’t considered suitable to offer Kristin marriage &, on the evening that he leaves Jørundgaard for a new job, he asks Kristin to walk with him in the forest to say goodbye. They are watched by Bentein, a man who desires Kristin & attempts to rape her as she returns home. She escapes him but, when the episode becomes known, rumours about Kristin & Arne embarrass Kristin so much that she asks her parents to let her enter a convent for a year. She has also become betrothed to Simon Andressøn, the son of another prominent family. Kristin doesn’t love Simon but wishes to please her father, who is in favour of the match. Simon is a rather self-satisfied young man who sees nothing wrong with his future wife acquiring some virtue & good manners from the nuns.
Kristin’s life at the convent is not harsh. There are several young girls living there with no intention of entering the cloister. On a visit to a fair, Kristin meets the man with whom she will fall in love. Erlend Nikulausson. Erlend is young, handsome, from a noble family & immediately attracted to Kristin. Unfortunately his life has been one of scrapes with the law & unfortunate relationships. He fell in love with Eline, the beautiful young wife of a much older man. Erlend & Eline fell in love & he took her to his estate, Husaby, where they lived as man & wife. Eline had two children but Erlend has tired of her & she has been left with no reputation or social standing, still officially married to her despised husband. Erlend doesn’t tell Kristin about any of this, or the fact that he was excommunicated by the bishop for his behaviour. Kristin is soon in love with Erland & they soon become lovers.
Kristin returns to Jørundgaard, determined to break off her betrothal to Simon but her father disapproves of Erlend & refuses his consent. The lovers manage to meet occasionally but Kristin falls into despair as the years pass & nothing changes. Simon eventually releases her & marries another but her father is resolute. She loves Erlend, even after she finds out about his reckless past but is constantly aware of the sin she is committing, both by being Erlend’s lover & deceiving her parents. Eventually, her father relents & allows the marriage to go ahead but the lavish preparations for the wedding only intensify Kristin’s forebodings. Erlend’s aunt, Fru Aashild, a woman who gave up everything & left her husband for another man, has suffered ostracism & knows what Kristin has suffered. At the wedding, she has some harsh words of advice,
“What should I say to you, Kristin?” the old woman continued, in despair. “Have you lost all your own courage? The time will come soon enough when the two of you will have to pay for everything you’ve taken – have no fear of that.”
A wedding, in this case, is not necessarily the happy ending it often is in fairy tales.
I loved everything about this book. The translation by Tiina Nunnally is excellent, it feels both modern & medieval. The language is modern enough to be readable (no Thees & Thous as there are in an earlier translation I dipped into) yet had a feeling of the medieval world, it wasn’t modern enough to be slangy. Undset wrote the novels in the 1920s & was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, partly for Kristin Lavransdatter & also for her other work which includes another multi-volume saga, The Master of Hestviken. Of course, I immediately want to read this even though I still have two books of Kristin to go.
Undset’s writing about nature & the natural world is so evocative, it reminded me of Hardy. Medieval life on a farm, with the reliance on the weather, the freezing winters & hardship during bad weather, is beautifully described. For all Kristin’s feelings of guilt, there’s also a glorious romance at the heart of the book. She’s like any young girl, dreaming about a handsome young man, ignoring the moral precepts of her parents in the passion of the moment, imagining how she will punish Erlend for his neglect by dying in childbirth & then realising that that’s not a very satisfactory ending for herself. Erlend has charm, & he loves Kristin, determined to marry her no matter how long it takes, but he’s a slippery character, thoughtlessly discarding those he has no longer any use for & ignoring both social convention & the law when it suits him. It will be interesting to see how he treats Kristin once they’re married. Kristin’s journey from child to bride is absorbing & I can’t wait to find out what happens after the wedding in Book II, The Wife.