Here is a massive achievement, a shining star of twentieth-century literature that revolves around the everyday life of the fourteenth century. This is a book that makes history relevant and accessible. Despite its massive length (over eleven hundred pages), the suspense never slackens, nor does the exquisitely wrought detail grow tedious. The book is Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Beloved for decades yet underread today, Kristen Lavransdatter is the life story of its title character, a humane epic that finds its heart in its capacity to revel in the human abilities to love, wonder, and believe. Kristen Lavransdatter is generally published in three separate volumes: I, The Wreath, II, “The Wife” and III, “The Cross”. At least those are the translated titles of my editions. Undset wrote in Norwegian, during the early decades of the twentieth century. For years the only English translation used slightly different titles, making the prose flowery and omitting certain subplots. About a decade ago a new translation of the trilogy was released, an unexpurgated version with less affected wording. I read the newer version, and upon comparison I find it much more readable than the earlier translation.
As the trilogy opens, Kristen is a young girl, discovering the world that is fourteenth-century Scandinavia. Mortality rates are high and country life is often difficult. The community is held together by their regard for one another and their religious faith. Kristen has a devoted father, a caring yet distant mother, and a seriously ill younger sister. In The Wreath, Kristen gradually becomes accustomed to the details of the complexities of life and love. After a series of incidents and introductions to memorable characters,
Kristen is led into an arranged engagement to Simon, an amiable and decent young man who is unfortunately not Kristen’s type. Soon, Kristen meets Erlend, a handsome, dashing rake with a scandalous past. They begin a secret romance, carefully hiding their deepening relationship with the rest of the world.
The details I am about to give will not spoil the plot. I am not revealing anything that cannot be found on the back covers of the books. After a series of maneuvers, tragedies, and shocks, Kristen marries Erlend. To me, the best part of this book wasn’t the relationship between Kristen and Erlend, it was the frequently turbulent yet always caring relationship between Kristen and her blustering, upright father that really drew me in, as well as her connection to Simon, who gradually matures from Kristen’s rejected lover to her closest friend and advisor over the course of the trilogy. “”The Wife”” opens where “The Wreath”ends. Here, Kristen and Erlend begin their married life at Erlend’s family estate.
The couple has seven sons, copes with the difficulties of farming, loses a few beloved friends, and develops deeper connections with those around them. Unfortunately, while
Kristen matures and grows into adulthood, Erlend remains headstrong and selfish. Eventually, Erlend brings tragedy and disgrace upon his loved ones, and the family is forced to relocate.
“The Cross” brings a complex story to a close. Erlend and Kristen gradually drift apart. Those closest to them try to help keep them together. Here, Kristen reflects upon
the mistakes of the past and how every error is now impacting her life for the worse. By the end, Kristen’s life has moved in an unexpected direction, and the book closes with grace, clarity, and honesty.This is slow reading. The Scandinavian names can be confusing, and the numerous historical and religious references often require the reader to consult the endnotes or an outside reference source. But it is thoroughly rewarding.
Some massive ‘classics’ leave the reader feeling tired, angry, or relieved. Kristen Lavransdatter, in contrast, left me wanting more. As it ends with its triumphant yet mournful stanzas, the book remains true to its vision of romance, family and faith.
Sigrid Undset is a master of the form. She prevents the plots and twists from devolving into contrived melodrama, and makes history as viewed by an ordinary individual compelling and real. Undset deservedly won the Nobel Prize in 1928. Much of her work is only now being translated into English. Seek it out. It’s demanding, but exhilarating.