Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter 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!

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)
Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)
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.

Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.

Shirley I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to decide to read Shirley. I have read all of the other novels by the Brontë sisters (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a teenager and Agnes Grey, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Professor in more recent years) but for some reason haven’t felt motivated to read Shirley – until a few weeks ago when, looking at the remaining titles on my Classics Club list, I decided I couldn’t leave it to languish unread on my shelf any longer.

Shirley (published in 1849) is set in Briarfield, a small Yorkshire community in which a mill is the major employer. The year is 1811 and England’s economy is suffering from the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert Moore, owner of the mill, is struggling financially and, as the novel opens, he is preparing to take delivery of some new machinery which will enable him to lay off some of his employees. Needless to say, the millworkers are enraged by this and set out to destroy the machines; uprisings like these would take place all over the country and become known as the Luddite Riots.

Against this political and social backdrop, the stories of two very different young women are played out. One is the local clergyman’s niece, Caroline Helstone, a quiet girl of eighteen. Caroline is in love with Robert Moore but he is reluctant to return her feelings due to her lack of money and position. The other is the title character, Shirley Keeldar, a beautiful young heiress. Shirley is a strong and spirited person with independent wealth – and although Caroline likes her very much, she becomes convinced that her new friend is going to marry Robert.

The title of the novel is Shirley, but this is as much Caroline’s story as Shirley’s (in fact, Shirley herself doesn’t appear until Chapter Eleven). I found them both interesting characters; there are many differences in personality, situation and outlook on life, but as the two become close friends we see a bond developing between them as they discover shared values and interests. They are described in the novel as ‘a graceful pencil sketch compared with a vivid painting’. After finishing the book I learned that Charlotte Brontë is thought to have based the character of Caroline on her sister Anne, and Shirley on Emily (she would lose both of her sisters to tuberculosis during the writing of the novel).

Another interesting fact about Shirley is that before the book was published, Shirley was usually a male name rather than a female one:

…she had no Christian name but Shirley: her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy, if with a boy they had been blessed.

I can’t say that I loved this book – maybe because, as Brontë hinted in the opening lines (quoted at the beginning of this post) it lacked passion and I never felt that I had been truly drawn into the stories of Shirley and Caroline the way I had been drawn into Jane Eyre’s or Lucy Snowe’s. This was a slow read for me and at times quite a dry one, but I did find a lot to like and appreciate, from the relationships between the main characters to the historical background. Even though this hasn’t become a favourite, I’m pleased to have now read all of the Brontë sisters’ novels.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier

Mary Anne I fell in love with Daphne du Maurier’s writing as a teenager when I read Rebecca for the first time, quickly followed by Jamaica Inn, and since then, I have been (very slowly) working through the rest of her novels, short stories and non-fiction. I have thoroughly enjoyed most of her books, with only a few exceptions – and sadly this one, Mary Anne, was one of the exceptions. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t enjoy it at all – there were still a lot of things that I liked – but I didn’t think it was as strong as most of the other du Maurier novels I’ve read.

Du Maurier often draws on her own family history as an inspiration for her work; The Glass-Blowers is the story of her ancestors who lived in France during the Revolution, while The Parasites also has autobiographical elements and the houses in both Rebecca and The King’s General are based on her own home, Menabilly. Mary Anne is a fictional account of the life of Mary Anne Clarke, du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother, best known for being a mistress of Prince Frederick, Duke of York.

I loved the first few chapters of the book which follow Mary Anne throughout her childhood and teenage years. Born into a poor London family in 1776, Mary Anne Thompson grows up on Chancery Lane with her mother, younger brother and stepfather, who works as a copy editor. When her stepfather becomes ill and is unable to go to work, the thirteen-year-old Mary Anne secretly collects his copy from the printer and corrects it herself – and from this moment I knew she was going to be a great character: strong, clever and resourceful from an early age.

Mary Anne is also an ambitious person but she makes a big mistake when, in 1791, she elopes with Joseph Clarke, a stonemason. The marriage is an unhappy one; Joseph is an alcoholic who drinks and gambles away most of his money, leaving Mary Anne desperate to escape and build a new life for herself and her children. The breakdown of her marriage proves to be a turning point and it’s not long before Mary Anne comes to the attention of Frederick, Duke of York.

Portrait of Mary Anne Clarke by Adam Buck, 1803
Portrait of Mary Anne Clarke by Adam Buck, 1803
As the Duke’s mistress, Mary Anne enjoys the comfort and luxury that comes with her new status, but she quickly discovers that the money he provides her with is not sufficient to pay for the lifestyle she wants. Taking advantage of Frederick’s position as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, she decides to add to her income by secretly accepting payments in exchange for using her influence with the Duke to obtain army commissions. Mary Anne is sure nothing will go wrong, but to the reader it’s obvious that she is playing a dangerous game and that if her relationship with the Duke should ever come to an end, her life could begin to fall apart.

As I’ve said, I thought the first part of the book was wonderful and I enjoyed watching Mary Anne use her wits and her charm to rise from her humble beginnings to a position of power. She’s a real social-climber and reminded me of characters like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair and Amber St Clare from Forever Amber. Remembering that du Maurier was writing about her own ancestor, I think her interest in and affection for Mary Anne come across strongly, while at the same time she is open about Mary Anne’s faults and flaws.

The second half of the novel is devoted to several court cases and scandals in which Mary Anne becomes involved, and this is where I started to get bored. The court proceedings are described in great detail, with page after page of witness statements, letters, testimonies and dialogue, which I just didn’t find very interesting to read. I can appreciate that du Maurier was trying to stay true to history here and incorporate her research into the story, but I don’t think she got the balance quite right between fact and fiction.

I’m glad I’ve had the chance to meet and get to know Mary Anne Clarke but this book left me slightly disappointed. I’m hoping for better luck with the remaining du Maurier books I still need to read (Frenchman’s Creek, Castle Dor and some of the non-fiction and short story collections).

Love and Other Happy Endings, edited by M. R. Nelson

This is a collection of five classic short stories from five very different authors: Katherine Mansfield, L.M. Montgomery, Wilkie Collins, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Oliver Curwood. The title given to the collection by its editor, M.R. Nelson, means that we know before we begin that each story will have a happy ending of some sort, but I can assure you that this doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading them. The interest is in seeing how each happy ending is reached and how the conflicts or problems in each story are resolved.

Love and Other Happy Endings First is The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield, a story which appeared in her 1922 collection, The Garden Party and Other Stories. This is a very short story, but Mansfield (a new author for me) manages to pack a lot of meaning into it. The story follows Miss Meadows, a singing teacher, who has had some bad news and begins the day “With despair — cold, sharp despair — buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife”. We see how Miss Meadows’ state of mind affects not only herself but the girls in her class; she is someone who brings her personal troubles into work with her. Later in the day, something happens to change the teacher’s mood and the way she perceives the world is suddenly quite different.

Story two is Akin to Love by L.M. Montgomery, best known for her Anne of Green Gables series. I read her Anne novels (or most of them anyway) as a child, but this is the first time I’ve read any of her other work. Akin to Love is from her 1909-1922 collection of short stories. It’s a simple tale of two single people, Josephine Elliott and David Hartley, who are friends and neighbours. David has proposed to Josephine many times over the last eighteen years and she has turned him down every time. Eventually Josephine begins to experience a feeling akin to love, but will she act on her feelings?

The third story, Mr Lismore and the Widow is by Wilkie Collins, who has long been one of my favourite Victorian authors, so it’s not surprising that this was one of the stories I enjoyed most from this collection. Originally published in 1883, it’s the story of a man in need of money and a woman in need of a husband. It’s easy to predict what will happen – or is it? This is a tale with a twist…a slightly implausible twist, but a fun one!

Next is Head and Shoulders, a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers (1920). It’s a great story, again with a twist, about Horace Tarbox, a clever, intellectual student and Marcia Meadow, a dancer (a philosopher and a flapper?). Despite being complete opposites, the two fall in love, but their relationship does not follow the course you might expect. I’m not really a fan of Fitzgerald, but this is a bright, witty story which really stands out from the others in the book.

The final story is The Other Man’s Wife, taken from the 1920 collection Back to God’s Country and Other Stories by James Oliver Curwood, another author I have never read before. In this story we meet a man who has taken refuge in the wilderness because he needs some time away from the woman he loves – and from her husband, whom he describes as “a scoundrel, a brute, who came home from his club drunk, a cheap money-spender, a man who wasn’t fit to wipe the mud from her little feet, much less call her wife.” This is another very short story, and I found it easy to guess how it would end, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying to read.

Reading these five stories one after the other encouraged me to look for common themes and ideas and to think about the ways in which different authors tackle the subject of love. I wondered why, out of all the short stories in the world, Nelson chose these particular five, so I was interested to read her notes at the end explaining her choices. I really enjoyed this little collection and am pleased to be able to give this review a happy ending!

Thanks to M.R. Nelson for providing a copy of Love and Other Happy Endings for review.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in 80 Days When Frenchman Jean Passepartout starts a new job as valet to a wealthy English gentleman called Phileas Fogg, he is pleased to find that his master is a quiet, solitary man who lives his life to a strict routine. Having previously worked as a singer, a circus acrobat and a fireman, Passepartout is looking forward to leading a settled, domestic life for a change. To his dismay, no sooner has he taken up his new position than Phileas Fogg informs him that they will be leaving at once to go on a journey around the world. He has made a bet with some friends at London’s Reform Club based on a newspaper article which claims that, with the opening of a new railway in India, it is now possible to travel around the entire world in eighty days.

Travelling by train, boat, sledge and even by elephant, Fogg and Passepartout begin a race against time through Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, crossing both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Along the way they rescue an Indian widow, are attacked by Sioux warriors…and find themselves pursued by a detective who believes there is more to Fogg’s eccentric behaviour than meets the eye.

Around the World in Eighty Days is the first book I’ve read by Jules Verne. It has been on my Classics Club list from the beginning, while other titles have been added and deleted, but it has never seemed to be the right time to read it. Last week I wanted to take a break from the very long novel I’m in the middle of reading (Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset) and have a change of pace, so I decided to give this one a try – and it was the perfect choice. This is a short book with short chapters, and the rate at which Fogg and Passepartout move from one adventure to the next makes this a very quick and entertaining read.

Putting the novel in historical context – it was published in 1873 – it really must have seemed that the world was getting smaller and more accessible. It seems such a waste, though, to be determined to travel the world at such a speed! If I had the opportunity – and the money – to make a journey like that, I would want to spend some time exploring each of the countries I passed through on the way, but Phileas Fogg appears to have no curiosity at all:

Mr. Fogg, after bidding good-bye to his whist partners, left the steamer, gave his servant several errands to do, urged it upon him to be at the station promptly at eight, and, with his regular step, which beat to the second, like an astronomical clock, directed his steps to the passport office. As for the wonders of Bombay — its famous city hall, its splendid library, its forts and docks, its bazaars, mosques, synagogues, its Armenian churches, and the noble pagoda on Malabar Hill, with its two polygonal towers — he cared not a straw to see them.

We do still learn a little bit about the geography and history of the various places Fogg and Passepartout visit (and Passepartout, who shares my frustration at Fogg’s lack of interest, does occasionally manage to do some sightseeing on his own, with mixed results) but the main focus of the story is on the journey itself and whether they actually will succeed in going around the world in eighty days. There’s also a romance, which I found difficult to believe in as we rarely even see the characters involved speaking to each other, but I suppose the hints were there! I loved the relationship between Fogg and Passepartout, though; they are such different men yet have so much loyalty to each other.

I enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days much more than I thought I would when I first decided to put it on my Classics Club list. I’ll have to keep Jules Verne in mind for my second list – which I’ve already started to compile despite still having twenty books to read from the first one!

The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte M Yonge

The Heir of Redclyffe I was supposed to be writing about Kristin Lavransdatter today – it was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and today is the deadline for reading it – but there’s been a change of plan. For the last few weeks I’ve been engrossed in a completely different classic novel, so Kristin has had to wait. I’ve started reading it at last (and like what I’ve read so far) but for today, I’m going to talk instead about The Heir of Redclyffe.

When the elderly Sir Guy Morville dies, his title and his estate of Redclyffe pass to his grandson, another Guy. Being only seventeen years old, the new Sir Guy is taken in by another branch of the family, the Edmonstones, who provide him with a home and an education. With his generous, warm-hearted nature, Guy quickly wins the respect of Mr and Mrs Edmonstone, the friendship of three of his cousins – Charles (crippled with a disease in the hip), the beautiful Laura, and little Charlotte – and the love of the fourth, Amabel (known as Amy). In fact, the only person who doesn’t seem to like Guy is Philip Morville, another cousin.

To Guy’s dismay, Philip – who happens to be the next heir to Redclyffe – makes no secret of his dislike for him. Philip is a well-educated, confident and accomplished young man, and based on a long-ago family rivalry, is determined to disapprove of Guy, finding fault with everything he does. After Guy and Amy declare their love for each other, Philip decides to do everything he can to put a stop to their marriage. Meanwhile, he himself has fallen in love with Amy’s sister, Laura, but due to his financial situation he is reluctant to make their romance public and so he asks Laura to keep their relationship secret from her parents.

And that’s really all I want to say about the story, as it does become quite convoluted and I wouldn’t want to spoil things for future readers. I knew very little about this novel before I started it (although I remember that Lisa enjoyed it a few years ago) and part of the pleasure in reading it was wondering how things would turn out for Guy and Amy, Philip and Laura, and the others. Yonge took me completely by surprise once or twice with some plot developments that I hadn’t expected, one of which was very sad – although I would have been prepared for that if only I’d remembered that in Little Women, Jo March is found “eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe”!

I liked Guy – it would probably be difficult not to – and I also liked Amabel, although it irritated me that she is always referred to (by herself and others) as ‘silly little Amy’ when it’s obvious that she has far more sense and strength of character than anybody gives her credit for. I never felt that I really knew or understood Laura, but as for Philip, I found him completely annoying, arrogant and overbearing. He’s not a villain exactly (there are no villains in this book – only flawed human beings) and he does seem to believe that he’s acting with the best intentions, but those actions cause a lot of unnecessary misery for a lot of people. My favourite character, though, was probably Charles, one of the few people prepared to stand up to Philip and say what he thinks, while also trying to come to terms with his own illness and disability.

First published in 1853, The Heir of Redclyffe was a popular bestseller throughout the 19th century, yet how many people still read this book today? It seems that Charlotte Mary Yonge’s novels haven’t stood the test of time as well as books by other female Victorian authors, which is a shame as I found a lot to like about The Heir of Redclyffe. Maybe it’s too sentimental for modern tastes and with too much emphasis on faith and spirituality – not that any of those things stopped me from enjoying this book. I would definitely consider reading more of Yonge’s work in the future!

Mauprat by George Sand

Mauprat When I was looking for suggestions for books to read for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, Camille de Fleurville suggested the French author George Sand (a pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) and pointed me in the direction of her 1837 novel, Mauprat. Having never read George Sand before, I had no idea what her books would be like, but whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this!

The novel begins with a description of Roche-Mauprat, an abandoned château in the French countryside, once home to Bernard Mauprat, an orphan raised by his wicked grandfather and violent, brutal uncles:

On the borders of La Marche and Berry, in the district known as Varenne, which is naught but a vast moor studded with forests of oak and chestnut, and in the most thickly wooded and wildest part of the country, may be found, crouching within a ravine, a little ruined château. The dilapidated turrets would not catch your eye until you were about a hundred yards from the principal portcullis. The venerable trees around and the scattered rocks above bury it in everlasting obscurity; and you would experience the greatest difficulty, even in broad daylight, in crossing the deserted path leading to it, without stumbling against the gnarled trunks and rubbish that bar every step. The name given to this dark ravine and gloomy castle is Roche-Mauprat.

Mauprat is set in the eighteenth century, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and in Varenne an ancient feudal system is still in place with the peasants living in fear of the powerful Mauprat family, who rule over them with tyranny and corruption. One night Bernard’s uncles take a young girl captive in the woods and bring her back to Roche-Mauprat. Her name is Edmée and she is a cousin of Bernard’s belonging to another, more civilised branch of the family. Instantly attracted to his beautiful cousin, Bernard helps her to escape, but not before making her promise to marry him in return.

Unfortunately for Bernard, he didn’t specify exactly when Edmée will have to marry him. Once she is free of Roche-Mauprat, she insists that she cannot possibly become Bernard’s wife until he proves himself worthy. And so Bernard begins a seven-year struggle to gain an education and transform himself into the sort of respectable, well-mannered man Edmée is happy to love. How much of a man’s character is due to heredity and how much to the way he has been brought up? In Mauprat, we see that even a man who has had the roughest of upbringings has the opportunity to change through love, guidance and his own desire to improve.

The novel is narrated by a much older Bernard, who is entertaining some visitors with the story of his life, but apart from the first chapter, the book is structured as a straightforward first person narrative. We are with Bernard through every step of his journey, from his flawed younger self – rough, impulsive, passionate and uneducated – to the more refined, cultured man he becomes after being shaped by Edmée’s influence. Along the way Bernard encounters several other men – from the reclusive philosopher Patience and the mole-catcher Marcasse to the Abbé Aubert and the American soldier, Arthur – all of whom provide help and advice and teach him some important lessons.

We see Edmée only through Bernard’s eyes and this makes it difficult to understand her motives. I had a lot of questions about Edmée as I read. Why was she determined to keep Bernard waiting for so many years? Did she truly love him – and if so, at what point did she begin to love him? And if you love someone, shouldn’t you be prepared to accept them for what they are? Some of these questions are answered, to some extent, by the end of the book but Edmée still intrigued and frustrated me.

Mauprat is also interesting from an historical perspective. Bernard spends some time in America fighting in the Revolution (this is where he meets Arthur, the soldier and natural scientist who becomes his friend and helps to continue his education), while France is also on the brink of revolution and society is already beginning to change:

The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord.

As I’ve mentioned, Mauprat wasn’t quite what I’d expected (the Gothic atmosphere and the amount of melodrama surprised me) and I don’t know whether it’s typical of George Sand’s novels, but I did enjoy it. Sand herself sounds like a fascinating woman too. I would like to read more of her books, so any recommendations are welcome.

Finally, I should point out that I didn’t read the edition pictured above, but it was the only decent cover image I could find. I read the free version available through Project Gutenberg, translated by Stanley Young.