I have always loved long books, the sort you can bury yourself in for weeks, becoming immersed in a fully-formed fictional world and getting to know characters who, by the time you reach the final page, feel almost like personal friends. Kristin Lavransdatter, though, is more than just a ‘long’ book – it’s a very long book! With over 1,100 pages in the edition I read, it’s similar in length to classics like War and Peace, Don Quixote and Les Miserables and left me with a similar mixture of feelings on finishing: a sense of achievement at making it to the end; sadness at having to say goodbye to Kristin and her family; and, I have to admit, relief at finally being able to move on to something else. I enjoyed Kristin Lavransdatter – loved it at times – but it’s not always an easy book to read, for reasons which I’ll explain below.
So far I have been describing this as a ‘book’, but in fact Sigrid Undset originally wrote three individual books about Kristin – The Wreath (first published in 1920), The Wife (1921) and The Cross (1922) – which have been combined into one volume in this Penguin Classics edition. It’s still possible to buy them separately (and it would probably seem less daunting that way) but they don’t stand alone very well at all and really do feel like three sections of a longer novel. After finishing the first part I moved straight on to the second and then the third and I was glad I took this approach otherwise I would probably have lost track of what was happening.
Set in the 14th century, Kristin Lavransdatter is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kristin, daughter of Lavrans. We first meet Kristin as a young girl growing up on her parents’ manor at Jorundgaard in Sil, a rural area of Norway. A good, honourable, hard-working man, Lavrans gains respect and admiration wherever he goes and he and Kristin are very close. His wife, Ragnfrid, however, has never fully recovered from the loss of three young sons and as a result her relationships with both Lavrans and Kristin are strained.
Early in the novel, Kristin is betrothed to the quiet, reliable Simon Darre, whose family own a neighbouring estate. She has no reason to dislike Simon, but she feels nothing for him and longs to experience the sort of passion her own parents’ marriage lacks. Her chance comes when she meets and falls in love with Erlend Nikulausson, a man who is handsome, charming and romantic – in other words, everything Simon isn’t. Kristin knows that this is the husband she has been dreaming of and even the knowledge that he has been excommunicated by the church for living with another man’s wife doesn’t change her mind. When Simon finds out about Erlend he agrees to break off the betrothal, but it takes a lot longer for Kristin to persuade Lavrans and Ragnfrid – so long that by the time she is eventually allowed to marry Erlend she is already pregnant with his child.
In case you’re thinking I’ve given away too much of the plot, all of the above happens in The Wreath alone. The other two parts of the book – The Wife and The Cross – explore the consequences of Kristin’s decision to marry Erlend rather than Simon. And the consequences are varied and far-reaching, affecting not only Kristin herself but everyone else around her. It’s a sad and tragic story and this is one of the reasons why, as I mentioned earlier, this is not the easiest of books to read. Whether it’s a death, an illness or an accident, a murder, an act of betrayal or an unhappy marriage, each and every character is subjected to a relentless stream of misery.
My heart ached for Kristin as she discovered that the man she had married was not all that she had hoped he would be – not a hero but a flawed human being – and that making their relationship work was going to be difficult. However, I also had some sympathy for Erlend; he is not a bad man but he is sometimes a weak one, with a tendency to act before he thinks and with none of the skills necessary to manage a farm and household effectively. He makes mistakes and has to live with those mistakes, but so does Kristin and I thought it was unfair of her to place so much of the blame on him. I also felt sorry for their young children, for Simon (who ended up being one of my favourite characters) and for Kristin’s sister, Ramborg. As I said, this is not a happy story for anyone!
As we accompany Kristin on her journey through life, we are also given a lot of information on the history and politics of the period. This becomes increasingly important as Erlend finds himself embroiled in a plot against the king and, I have to admit, I found some of this difficult to follow. If I read the book again (as I’m sure I will want to at some point in the future) I’ll have to concentrate more on that aspect of the story. Of more interest to me was the portrayal of daily life in the valleys and mountains of medieval Norway, a way of life strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, but also steeped in superstition and folklore. The publication of Kristin Lavransdatter led to Sigrid Undset being awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”.
Finally, I should mention that Kristin Lavransdatter was originally written in Norwegian. The English translation I read was a recent one by Tiina Nunnally and I had no problems with it; I thought it was very clear and readable. I’ve heard that the earlier translation from the 1920s by Charles Archer and JS Scott is not as accessible, so I’m happy that I made the right choice.
Kristin Lavransdatter was the book selected for me in the Classics Club Spin back in March – and it kept me busy until June! Now I’m looking forward to starting my next Spin book: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger.