This incredible classic was on sale (I still can’t believe that!) and I snatched it up because although I’d read the first volume of the trilogy, The Wreath, I wanted to reread it and continiue with the whole thing. I have the Tina Nunnally translation – the newer one, the better one, the one which has the whole book including light (to us) sex scenes. (see criticisms below ) and the one which is translated using the style Undset used – plain old realist lit ala
It is vital to read these books in order because they consist of one chronological story line through the ages and there is no back story repetition as we find in today’s series books.
1. The Wreath; 2. The Wife: 3. The Cross
by Sigrid Undset
1921 – 1925 / 1168 pages
read by Erin Bennett – 44h 59m
(read and listened)
First published in the early 1920s, the trilogy of Kristin Lavransdatter by Ingrid Undset was the main reason the Norwegian author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Undset was the daughter of a Norwegian archeologist and grew up learning and living with the history which she pursued obsessively as an adult. The trilogy takes place in central Norway of the 13th century and the historical accuracy is usually given as the reason for the Nobel Prize as well as the fact they continue to be published classics.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1928 was awarded to Sigrid Undset “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”.
This is NOT the romantic medieval literature of the actual middle ages like King Arthur or like the rough-and-tumble narratives of the old Norse sagas. This is very much in the tradition of 20th century realism with extraordinary historical accuracy.
The Wreath – (Book I) – Kristin Lavransdatter is a young woman living in 14th century central Norway who was raised in a very loving and devout home (Norway was Christianized in about 1000 and it spread rather rapidly but mixed with the old superstitions for a long time.) She was betrothed to a wonderful man, but showing her willfulness and immaturity fell in love with a rich scoundrel. Her father was so upset he sent her to a convent where she learned a lot but never really “reformed” as that wasn’t in her nature. She returned home and … well ….she does what she wants – that’s a part of her very character.
In The Wife (Book II) and The Cross (Book III) the story goes through the next several decades with essentially the same characters plus Kristin’s sons and new friends as she matures and ages. Their lives entangle in a multitude of episodes until Kristin’s last days. There is a lot of death in the second and third books. I won’t go through the overarching plots because the premise of The Wife would be a spoiler in itself. The actual plot line does have a certain soap-operaish feel to it.
It’s basically an incredible domestic drama with some politics thrown in. There are a lot of characters involved and tragic twists based on the human condition. What really gives the novels power and life are two-fold – first there’s the character and nature of Kristin herself, and second there’s the accurate and detailed historical element of the setting which is naturally woven in almost organically, as a natural part of the whole.
I imagine it would be hard to write a book with this much historical research. The author would have to keep it from “showing” and overshadowing other elements like character development and plot. Undset always works her knowledge to best effect, masterfully.
Also problematical for authors of historical fiction is that the if protagonist is a historically accurate depiction of a typical person of that era, a contemporary reader might very well find it difficult to sympathize. On the other hand if the lead characters are not “typical” in their attitudes the book might lose some authenticity. I think Undset bridged that divide wonderfully well – Kristin is not typical – she’s of the upper classes and a beloved child of good parents. (I’d imagine there were plenty of willful and rebellious girls in medieval Norway.)
The idea that God as well as the Church and its priests
were of highest importance to Kristin and her family is emphasized as well as the dress, food, personal names and servant positions of the times. Throughout all three books this attention to detail never lets up.
The superstitions which still abound even a couple centuries after Christianity was introduced are fascinating and in contrast, but not in conflict, with the dictums of the Catholic Church. That said, the trilogy is chock full of drama what with quite a lot of sex between various couples, married to each other or not, lying, fighting, and murdering while floods rampage and churches burn. This is the stuff of life and death, love and honor.
Although Kristin is devout she battles guilt her entire life because she has a temperament which defies control and she has to pay the consequences. To me it gets a bit morbid. But still she can’t quite change her ways. She’s a very determined woman and she pays a price. This is a really devout woman who lives in a real physical body in a very real and often sinful world.
The language is plain in both Norwegian and English – that was the “realist” style of the times which was popular and Undset adopted in keeping with other authors of the times. Very strong character development is also emphasized in realist fiction. Tiina Nunnally’s 1997 translation is supposedly excellent (I wouldn’t know).
Reading the books in the 21st century it’s hard NOT to see a feminist reading whether Undset meant it that way or not. Whatever it is in the feminist canon it’s rather dated with the heroine The protagonist is a strong, devout yet risk-taking woman who has to live under the domination first of her father and then her husband. She has a lot of physical labor, emotional difficulties and family issues while the religious-social constraints are huge.
** Criticism: ” Kristin Lavransdatter was notable and to some extent controversial in its time for its explicit characterization of sex in general and female sexuality in particular; and its treatment of morally ambiguous situations.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kristin_Lavransdatter
Crisis: A View for the Catholic Laity: