Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset


This book was recommended to me decades ago by a work colleague but I didn't stick with it. This year Jennifer recommended it and I learned there was a 2017 audio version of a translation done in 2005 of the trilogy. I am amazed to find that it held my interest for its 44 hours. 

This saga of a Norwegian family set in the fourteenth century was written in the 1920s and won the author the Nobel Prize in 1928. At times the tale seems simplistic and obvious:  Kristin's younger sister was the most beautiful and beloved child imaginable and everyone doted on her. Just as you begin to realize this does not bode well for her, yes, an accident happens that she will not fully recover from. And yet there is much complexity and subtlety conveyed in Kristin's relationship with her husband Erlend. 

Kristin's father was a much respected, hardworking, very religious nobleman; he delighted in his daughter Kristin. She was betrothed to the son of a respected neighboring family, Simon Darre, but because of an incident that resulted in the death of a friend from childhood and involved a treacherous son of a priest, she spent a year at a convent in Oslo. While there she met Erlend, a nobleman who instantly won her heart. Though he had a married mistress with whom he had children, Kristin would meet him in the most ignoble locations for assignations. 

The two of them were present when the mistress poisoned herself, having tried first to poison Kristin. Despite all the bad publicity, Erlend managed to convince Lavrans to give his daughter in marriage to him. Kristin didn't enjoy the festivities of the marriage as she was pregnant with the first of her seven sons. Their marriage was always mercurial as Erlend was not suited to running an estate and was most successful as a warrior. He lost his property and nearly his life by angering a woman with whom he was having affair while he was involved in a plot to overthrow the king. Simon Darre comes back into the picture when he and Kristin worked together to save Erlend's life. He still loves Kristin and for her part, she comes to realize that while Simon is in many ways a far superior man than Erlend, still, it is the feckless Erlend she loves.

It happened that when Simon was injured, sickened and died, it was Kristin who cared for him through his end. At the time she and Erlend were estranged and Simon, though he meant to confess his love, instead urged her to make it up with Erlend. She did so long enough to get pregnant again. After she returned home and had her baby who did not survive for long, rumors were spread that someone on the estate was the father of her child. Erlend returned to support Kristin, but was killed within moments of arriving.

One of her sons was reasonably well suited to being a farmer; he married and took over the work of the estate. As the estate did not work well with two mistresses, Kristin joined a convent. The story of her death of the black plague, having defended a boy the villagers wanted to sacrifice in hopes of stopping the plague, wraps up the tale. 

I fear I have recounted apparently randomly chosen events, but of course I could go on and on. Ultimately Kristin is shown to be generous, a smart manager of an estate, a hard-working woman, as well as a willful daughter who betrayed her father and others. She is deeply religious though at times understands that her own will is foremost in her heart.

Simon has an especially introspective moment when he describes Kristin's fierce defense of her husband and sons; while he believed that she would have fought for him had they married, he acknowledged that her connection with Erlend had made her able to act in such a fearless way.

Kristin wondered at one point whether she had "conceived in her womb a flock of restless fledgling hawks that simply lay in her nest, waiting impatiently for the hour when their wings were strong enough to carry them beyond the most distant blue peaks….They would take with them bloody threads from the roots of her heart when they flew off and they wouldn't even know it. She would be left behind alone and all the heartstrings which had once bound her to this old home of hers, she had already sundered. That was how it would end and she would be neither alive nor dead." 

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, trans. Tiina Nunnally in 2005, Penguin Classics, 1168 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Each book of the trilogy is available in the public library separately (The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross) and the UVa library and Amazon have the combined trilogy.

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