Kristin Lavransdatter

Reading about carefully-researched historical novels like Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and Nicola Griffith’s Hild, I came across more than a few mentions of a grande dame of the genre, Sigrid Undset’s three-volume Kristin Lavransdatter.

I’m at the end of the second volume now and I still can’t quite figure it out. It’s obviously a masterwork, and Undset won the Nobel Prize largely on its strength. But it’s also a decidedly strange piece of work.

The plot of the first volume could be torn from a 19th century novel: Kristin is betrothed to a man selected by her father, but falls in love with another, and through steadfast love and bullheaded persistence, wins her father’s grudging approval of the match. Then there are two more volumes, as she becomes a noble wife and mother, and grapples with her own sins and imperfections and those of her family.

The clash of eras is a challenge. It was written in the 1920s, in Icelandic, and then translated into English that was supposed to sound old-fashioned a hundred years ago. So there’s a lot of “liefer” and “’twas” and “seemly wise” in it. As much as Mantel and Griffith use period language – in  Hild, especially, I was glad for the glossary – the bulk of their writing is accessible to a contemporary reader. Kristin Lavransdatter is not impenetrable, but it’s certainly slower going than other novels I’ve read recently. And it takes concentration. I didn’t get swept up in it in the way I did with others.

Of course, this being a novel about the 14th century written in the first half of the 20th, there’s a lot that goes unmentioned. A key plot point (hint: s-e-x) in the first volume takes place in an ellipsis. Several times I had to re-read a paragraph a few times to figure out what characters were talking about, because they were alluding to unnamed sins. I couldn’t tell where the prudishness of the 14th-century characters ended and the prudishness of 1920s publishers began.

Kristin doesn’t seem to have a lot of agency of her own. She’s been brought up to be “biddable” and “shamefasted” –those are considered good things–and as an adult spends a lot of time in anguish over her various sins, including premarital sex, failure to love her stepdaughter, resenting or disobeying her parents, resenting or disobeying her husband, resenting or disobeying her priest, and failing to beat her children severely enough. Even though she’s the protagonist of the novel, she’s mostly just acted-upon. Most of her verbs are taken up with weeping, praying, sewing, and bickering with her husband. I don’t, I suppose, particularly like her as a character.

Ultimately, though, the novel isn’t about Kristin herself. It’s about grappling with your sins and finding ways to live with them and be penitent about them without being crippled by scrupulosity. In other words, finding ways to accept human imperfection and pray for grace.  But the sins Kristin worries about and strives so hard to be forgiven of are largely things that today’s reader will struggle to find consequential.

The whole thing, really, is a temporal jumble: 21st century readership, early-20th century novel, 14thcentury setting.

Even better, the edition I’m reading is a set of pocket paperbacks from the 1970s. On the last page there is an offer for additional books on the theme of “Teens Wrestle with Life and Love.” It includes the largely-forgotten 1976 YA title Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on my Eyeball!, and The Bell Jar.

Why not?

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