Kristin Lavransdatter is a Norwegian literature classic by Sigrid Undset. In fact, Undset is so revered that she won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, after Kristin was published. But, let’s also clarify that this is actually a trilogy, now published as a 1100+ page behemoth. Or, as I read it, a 45 hour long audiobook. Yes, it took me almost the entire month of May to read.
Kristin is a woman living in Norway during the Middle Ages—the early to mid 1300s. The original English translation also used Medieval English language, which made it much less popular. Thankfully, it was translated again in 2005 into more modern and readable English.
Fundamentally, this is an epic telling of Kristin’s life starting at age seven. She lives a typical life, in many ways. But in others she’s rebellious and unlike most Norwegian women of her time. The themes are quite modern, including women’s sexuality and the significant downsides of her turbulent marriage. On the flip side, Kristin is incredibly pious, as Undset was for part of her life. So the discussion of Catholic themes—including copious amounts of guilt—is also strong. Kristin is a conflicted woman, and I couldn’t help but be drawn into her dilemmas.
Book One: The Wreath
This book was the hardest for me to connect with. For most of it, I was frustrated with Kristin’s childish behavior. She’s the treasured daughter of Lavrans Bjørgulfsson, oldest of three sisters. Undset spends plenty of time on the family relationships, especially Kristin’s with her younger sister Uvhild. But partway through, Kristin meets Erlend Nikulaussøn, the love of her life. Problem is, she’s already betrothed to Simon Andresson (also called Simon Darre). And much wringing of hands, along with furtive embracing ensues.
Kristin is both tween and teen in this book. Of course, in that time period people faced more challenge and perhaps grew up sooner. In other ways, she’s alarmingly sheltered and naive. This sets us up for her lifelong struggle of the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. Kristin wants to be a good pious daughter. But Erlend seduces her and ignites a fire of passion within her. She’s naturally mildly defiant, and this amps up as she gets more deeply involved with Erlend. He’s basically a cad, but seems to genuinely love her, even though he knows he’s asking her to step outside conventions of the time.
Book Two: The Wife
I can’t avoid the spoiler here, Erlend and Kristin get married at the end of The Wreath. She proceeds to give birth to multitudes of sons. And also becomes the lady of his large estate, married to a guy who isn’t very skilled at much beyond swordplay and wooing. Kristin shoulders the burdens though, and becomes a strong and capable young woman.
Erlend was my least favorite character in the entire trilogy, because he’s both selfish and reprehensible. He gets involved in a life-changing folly, which is the nicest way to say it. This is the man who, in our time, would lose all his money in a card game, the stock market, or crazy business ventures. Right along with cheating on his wife regularly. But Kristin can’t kick him to the curb. Again, her piety and the passion she feels prevent her from kicking him in the b*lls.
Undset delves deeply into themes of anger, resentment, and pride in this book. She never loses sight of piety either, especially as she writes a least one long soliloquy by a local monk. Since the author was a converted Catholic living in a mostly Lutheran country, she uses Kristin’s story as a soapbox for her Church and its beliefs.
I liked this book for Kristin’s strengths. But other parts just left me cold. And every time Erlend did something moronic, I wanted to wring his neck. But Undset keeps the suspense going, and fills her story with many other likable characters and unique situations. There was no way I wouldn’t have continued on in the trilogy.
Book Three: The Cross
This was the most tragic of the books. It was also my favorite in terms of writing style and use of language. As Kristin ages, she finds Erlend more and more difficult to live with. She knows what she’s capable of, and knows she doesn’t really need him. On the other hand, they still have that spark.
Kristin’s sons are growing up, and Undset spends some time with their life decisions. Each of the boy’s choices affect Kristin as well, and there are eloquent passages about what a mother feels when her children don’t need her anymore. At the same time, we have the opposing periods of time when Kristin gets so involved in her own feelings that she doesn’t parent her youngest children effectively at all. She is conflicted in so many ways.
This book is the most tragic of the three. As time progresses, more people die than are born. Kristin must cope with harder realities. And yet she keeps reaching for peace in her own sense of piety. At one point, she goes on a pilgrimage, and Undset’s descriptions here of Norway are breathtaking. The older Kristin gets, the more lyrical the writing becomes. Perhaps it’s the gloss of age, or the fuzziness of memory.
This is a tour de force historical fiction trilogy. It’s translated in a completely readable and compelling manner. Kristin is a modern style heroine living in an incredibly difficult time period. Undset takes it all on with a sober and realistic writing style. Nothing feels romanticized, despite all the focus on Kristin and Erlend as a couple. Plus, there’s plenty of discussion of dirt, grime, manure, etc.
Undset is a conservative writer, with deeply Catholic beliefs, who takes her main character into quandaries over and over. It’s a moralistic story, with plenty of preaching. But somehow the story line and characters remain the focus. For every dose of religious fervor, there’s an equal dose of realism and down-to-earth action.
For me, learning about the customs of Norwegian farm communities was a great balance to our recent binge of the Vikings TV series. And I’ve also been exploring my own Norwegian heritage in the last year, which Kristin Lavransdatter fills out admirably.
I recommend this if you like historical fiction from early times, with strong feminine characters.
If you decide to venture into Kristin’s world, take a moment to understand patronymic names. As was the convention at the time, Undset’s characters don’t use a common surname in each family. Instead, they are named based on their father’s name. There’s also a family tree image in Wikipedia, which I wish I’d found before the end of the book. And considering this audiobook is 45 hours long, I recommend getting the Kindle version as well. That way you can read both ways, as I did. Nevertheless, it takes a long time to finish Kristin’s trilogy!