Saturday, April 10, 2021

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter


Opening Passage: 

When the earthly goods of Ivar Gjesling the Younger of Sundbu were divided up in the year 1306, his property at Sil was given to his daughter Ragnfrid and her husband Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn. Before that time they had lived at Skog, Lavrans's manor in the Follo near Oslo, but now they moved to Jørundgaard, high on the open slope at Sil. (p. 5)

Summary: Kristin Lavransdatter is three novels, Kransen, Husfrue, and Korset, so it makes sense to divide the story along those lines.

I. Kransen (The Wreath): Kristin is born to Ragnfrid and Lavrans, and thus into an excellent family in the Norwegian gentry. Her mother, due to several infant deaths and a few other things, is quite melancholy in temperament, so her closest relations are with her father, an upright and decent man who takes seriously his role in upholding and maintaining the local society. It is a very good family life, for all that it has the sort of flaws any family life might, as Kristin will later come to realize. But it is impossible to shield children entirely from tragedy; Kristin's younger sister will be in a serious accident, and Kristin will be the victim of an attempted (but unsuccessful) rape, under conditions potentially harmful to her reputation, with the result that her closest friend dies and she must be sent off to a convent to get her away from the gossip and talk. She is betrothed to a young man from a respectable local family, Simon Darre, but in the convent she starts up an affair with Erlend Nikkulaussøn, a handsome, dashing, man with a wild past. In particular, he has been excommunicated for cohabitation with another man's wife, Eline, with whom he has a couple of children. Kristin breaks off her betrothal with Simon, and in the face of family opposition, stubbornly remaining devoted to Erlend; she eventually gets her way, and marries Erlend. At her wedding, though, she wears the bridal wreath reserved for maidens, despite the fact that she is pregnant, the pinnacle of the deception-entwined affair she has had. In part, but only in part, due to Eline's own malice, Kristin and Erlend are responsible for Eline's death.

There is a story that a reader wrote to Undset once, effusive about Erlend and his charm, to which Undset replied something like, "Dear ma'am, Erlend is a skurk (crook, criminal, villain)! Sincerely, Sigrid Undset." I think readers sometimes have a similar difficulty with Erlend that readers of Eliot's Romola have with Tito Melema; we have difficulty thinking of people who are charming and sincere as wicked. What Erlend does in seducing Kristin and encouraging the affair is quite frankly a kind of evil: he is violating his own prior obligations and hers, and he is violating the laws of God and rules of society. Kristin, to be sure, is not guiltless, but Erlend has grossly flouted his responsibilities. But Erlend also in some sense means no harm; his wrongdoing arises from his character flaw of taking the easy way out, not from any malice. His love for Kristin is without any question sincere; he is truly and honestly devoted to her in his way. He has many admirable qualities, and recognizing them is essential for understanding both the character and the story; he is brave, he is clear-headed in a crisis, he is willing to endure a great deal when he has to do so, he is extraordinarily resilient, he holds no grudges, he wants to do well by people and be responsible and be taken seriously. But he is a skurk because he has a certain kind of weakness of will and what the novel often characterizes as 'forgetfulness' -- i.e., he is not really bothered by his past wrongdoing, and thus does not really learn from it. He has a sort of perpetual youthfulness about him, which symbolizes his perpetually weak grasp on his responsibilities. There is a thoughtlessness to him that means he will do villainous things in an almost childish and boyish way. Even this is not wholly his fault; he has lived a coddled life, and being handsome and dashing and charming and valiant, had always been able to get away with almost anything -- although in the scandal over his affair with Eline, he had learned that 'almost anything' is not 'anything'. I say 'learned' but, as we shall see, 'learned' is a word a little too strong for the 'forgetful' Erlend.

II. Husfrue (The Wife): Actually being married allows Kristin and Erlend fewer illusions. Erlend has an impressive estate, but it has, due to the chaos of his prior life, fallen into disrepair. Kristin, coming from a well-managed and orderly family life, is shocked, but that sort of life depends on exactly the kind of respectabilities and rules that she and Erlend have been flouting. But Kristin takes the management of his estate in hand and slowly brings it into a kind of order and prosperity, having a number of children with Erlend. Being married brings a sort of respectability to Erlend, and he ends up being quite good at filling out the role of sheriff and magistrate -- he is intelligent and levelheaded; being charming, he is good at negotiating with and cajoling people, and being born and raised in noble family he has the habits of authority. But things are not wholly irenic. Their past complicities are a seed that keeps popping up as a kind of resentment between the two. Kristin often has guilt for her past sins. Erlend, used to adventure and adrenaline, is commonly in a grip of a kind of restlessness; unhappiness at home will eventually lead to his having an affair, and in the 1330s, he becomes involved in a plot to replace the (fairly unpopular) King Magnus Eriksen of Norway with his brother, Duke Haakon. The plot will fail catastrophically, and in the most humiliating way, since it will be Erlend's affair that will lead to its being discovered. Erlend loses almost everything, because he has betrayed almost everything, and those who are involved with him, however innocent, including his wife and children, lose almost everything with him. 

III. Korset (The Cross): Erlend's noble estate is forfeited to the Crown, and they now have to get by, much poorer, as a gentry-farming family at Kristin's family farm of Jørundgaard, despite neither Erlend nor most of his children being well-suited to farming life. It does not help that having notoriously betrayed the king is not a reputation that will endear you with neighbors. And Erlend's having ruined his children's inheritance, leading to continual worries about their futures, leads to more fighting in the marriage, and eventually Erlend handles it the way he always ends up handling a difficult responsibility: he evades it. He leaves his wife and children and lives on his aunt's dilapidated farm. Kristin and Erlend, both stubborn and proud, pass up every opportunity to reconcile, despite the difficulties it puts their growing sons through, until Kristin, to fulfill a promise to Simon Darre, is forced to visit him. They conceive another son, and Kristin returns -- Kristin expecting Erlend to bend and return home, and Erlend expecting Kristin to bend and return to him; their mutual stubbornness leads to tragedy, as Kristin birthing their newest son while Erlend is away leads to rumors given Kristin's past that will threaten to harm their family greatly, and that will lead to Erlend's death. Erlend's death is a fitting one for him, I think: in a sense quite honorable and noble, and wholly for Kristin, and wholly unnecessary because it is in great measure the fault of Kristin and himself to begin with. Kristin's son takes over Jørundgaard, and Kristin eventually ends up as a boarder at a convent until she dies of the plague at a ripe old age, having devoted herself to nursing the sick.

Heavily influenced by the family-focused historical saga, this is a book rich with characters:

KristinLavransdatter FictionalCharacters.jpg
Public Domain, Link

One of the continual failings of both Kristin and Erlend -- of Erlend more than Kristin, although Kristin is not at any point an innocent in this -- is a refusal (more than a failure, a refusal) to look seriously at how their actions affect other people. It's a very human flaw, but combined with even an occasional selfishness and pride, it leads to grave harms visited on other people, willful disruptions of life for which other people have to pay. One of Kristin's redeeming qualities is her capacity eventually to recognize this. But repentance is a little harder than merely recognizing the wrong you do and the harm you done. And in the end, the only things that are not things to regret are the good deeds we do.

Favorite Passage:

Now, whenever she took the old path home past the site of the smith--and by now it was almost overgrown, with tufts of yellow bedstraw, bluebells, and sweet peas spilling over the borders of the lush meadow--it seemed almost as if she were looking at a picture of her own life: the weather-beaten, soot-covered old hearth that would never again be lit by a fire. The ground was strewn with bits of coal, but thin, short, gleaming tendrils of grass were springing up all over the abandoned site. And in the cracks of the old hearth blossomed fireweed, which sows its seeds everywhere, with its exquisite, ong red tassels. (p. 1017)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, Nunnally, tr,. Penguin (New York: 2005).