Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2018

The Wreath (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #1), by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Two thirds of the way through this mighty trilogy, I’ve decided to review each of the books separately because I’m reading it concurrently with other books and I might lose the thread if I don’t.  The Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Norwegian Nobel Laureate Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) consists of three books: The Wreath (Kransen); The Wife (Husfrue); and The Cross (Korset), and the whole book in this Penguin Classics edition runs to 1124 pages.

Originally published between 1922 and 1924, before Undset became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1928 ‘principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages’, this trilogy of historical novels tells the story of a scandalous woman in the Middle Ages.  The central character, Kristin Lavransdatter is described in the introduction by Brad Leithauser as a daddy’s girl who refuses daddy’s choice of a husband and marries for love, with often harrowing long-range consequences.  She is headstrong and wilful and she defies the conventions of her age.

Not knowing anything much about Norwegian or indeed Scandinavian literature, (and no, there isn’t an Oxford Very Short Introduction to it either) I’m not able to place this trilogy in context.  In Britain and in France, late 19th and early 20th century authors such as John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola were writing novels that showed sympathetically the consequences of women breaking the conventions of their age (and the way men were judged by different standards).  Sigrid’s literary debut was (according to Wikipedia) a novella set in her own era and about adultery: Fru Marta Oulie (1907) scandalised its readers because it begins with ‘I have been unfaithful to my husband’.  So at 25, Undset clearly wasn’t constrained by any compulsion to have a respectable central character!

BEWARE SPOILERS (though nothing you wouldn’t discern from the Introduction anyway)

Part I of Book I begins on Kristin’s father’s estate, Jørundgaard.  It sets up the social context of a respectable but not highborn family in 14th century Norway.  The parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, are devout Christians but not affectionate with each other.  Lavrans, however, is very fond of young Kristin and in the absence of any sons, he takes her on outings when attending to management tasks on the farm.  Lavrans, who has built up the wealth of his properties, hopes to marry Kristin well, and he succeeds in betrothing her to Simon Darre, who is socially above them.

Ragnfrid is aloof and emotionally distant, blaming herself for the death of three sons in infancy before Kristin’s birth.  A second daughter, Uhvild becomes disabled after an accident when she was three, so she has no marriage prospects.  A third daughter called Ramborg plays little part in these early chapters.  Kristin is established as a strong personality and somewhat wilful, but secure in her place as a cherished daughter with good prospects.

Perhaps because of Lavrans’ egalitarian instincts, or perhaps because there are few other children as playmates, Kristin becomes attached to Arne, a farm boy.  He comes to love her but the betrothal to Simon reinforces that Lavrans would not consider him as a suitor.  Kristin, without her parents’ knowledge, agrees to meet Arne for a final farewell but Arne always treats her with respect.  However on the way home, she is assaulted and almost raped by Bentein, a drunken priest.  Despite her innocence there is some damage to Kristin’s reputation, and Arne dies in a pub fight defending her honour.  Bentein’s mother Gunhild, a servant on the Lavrans farm, reveals in her grief about the impending execution of Bentein what she had previously concealed: that Kristin came to her in a dishevelled state.  In damage control, because Kristin is now thought to have been defiled either by Arne or by Bentein, Lavrans agrees that Kristin should go into a cloister until the time comes for her marriage to Simon.

And, not so’s you’d notice it on a first reading, Kristin feels guilty about Arne’s death.  Although it is not until late in Book I that Kristin comes to realise that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people, this theme of guilt becomes pervasive in the story to come.  At this stage of the story Kristin is a ‘fallen woman’ through no fault of her own except for the imprudence of meeting Arne alone, but at the time this incident happens she is too young to apprehend the risks, and some say afterwards that it was Lavrans’ fault for allowing Kristin to mix too freely with those beneath her…

Part II, The Wreath, is about the loss of Kristin’s innocence.  She meets Erlend Nikulaussøn when he rescues her from a couple of drunks after she and her convent friend Ingebjørg are separated from their chaperone at a village fair.  They are attracted at first sight, and all it takes is for one of the novices, a girl called Helga, to pass on a note from Erlend to Kristin for their acquaintance to be renewed.  Kristin’s initiation into the world of scandal begins when Erlend tells her the salacious story of his aunt Fra Aashild’s liaisons, about which Kristin knew nothing (even though Fra Aashild had only with reluctance been given admittance to the Lavrans household when they were desperate for a healer for the injured Uhvhild). The moral standards of the era come into play as Kristin realises that adultery is one of the worst of sins.  The penalty was severe: excommunication and banishment.  Aashild had only escaped this penalty when she ran off with Herr Bjørn after her husband died, because there was no proof that she and Bjørn had been lovers while the husband was alive.  But still, they had to give up all their possessions and status in society…

Erlend, who seduces Kristin when she is betrothed to Simon, has form.  He has already been excommunicated and banished once, because he ran off to Sweden with another man’s wife, who then bore him two children (who have no legal rights because they are illegitimate).  It is only because of Erlend’s highborn connections and because he was able to use his wealth to pay extensive fines [and of course because he’s a man] that he has been admitted back into society again.  But this woman, Eline Ormsdatter, is ensconced at his manor at Husaby, and she’s hopeful that her (old) husband Sigurd will die soon, and then Simon will keep his promise to marry her.  (As if!)

And it’s not just that Erlend plays fast and loose with women.  The tenants on his farm wouldn’t pay rents because he’d been excommunicated, and when he retaliated he was charged with robbery.  Erlend is established in this chapter as impulsive, imprudent, irresponsible, negligent with his own money and estate, reckless with the reputation of the women he fancies, and blasé about social and religious law.  But obviously a very attractive man!

Part III, titled Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn, is about the loss of everyone’s innocence.  Erlend’s excuse that he was young and foolish at 18 cuts no ice with Lavrans who says that he himself had married at 18, when a man could answer for himself and be responsible for his own welfare and that of others.  He fears for Kristin’s welfare with an irresponsible man, because he knows his daughter is headstrong.   But he still has to abandon his principles and agree to a marriage of which he disapproves.  Ragnfrid has to come clean about her own past in order to make Lavrans understand how passion can overwhelm convention.  These parents have to accept into their family not only someone not worthy, but also his sleazy relations (who have had to lie in order to make Erlend seem acceptable).  Fra Aashild has to agree to facilitate a would-be elopement but then gets caught up in its complications and her husband has to lie to help conceal it.

The consequences of breaking with convention are all spelled out in this part of the book.  The consequences of Kristin’s actions are personal, social, legal and religious but she persists even though she knows there is something unwise and ignoble about Erlend.   She knows that she has no right to wear the golden wedding wreath that symbolises virginity but she does so out of fear that others will know that she is no maiden.  Yes, the guilt trip is starting, even as Kristin sets off on her wedding procession!

A quick tip for anyone undertaking reading this book: keep an eye on the dates of the Holy Days that are helpfully listed at the back of the book…

PS Tony at Messenger’s Booker has also reviewed this novel.

Author: Sigrid Undset
Title: The Wreath (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #1)
Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, UK, 2005, 291 pages, (running on to 1124 pages in this Penguin complete trilogy edition)
ISBN: 9780143039167
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $44.07 AUD.

Available from Fishpond: Kristin Lavransdatter (Penguin Classics)

 


Responses

  1. Sounds like an interesting book, though as you say it would be helpful to know more about the historical context. I’m a little disappointed you only mentioned male authors writing about women breaching conventions, something (sone) women authors have been doing since the dawn of the novel, not least CH Spence.

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    • Yes, well, I was thinking of Austin & Co, and more specifically about examples of ‘fallen women’ breaching sexual conventions.

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  2. I loved this book! I read the trilogy many years ago and can’t really remember the details, although some of it came back to me reading your account of it. For me, reading it was a bit like reading War and Peace: an all-engulfing reading experience that meant that you didn’t want to read anything else fictional for a while afterwards. One Xmas in our bookgroup we had the idea of a Kris Kringle where you had to buy a second-hand book that you thought the person whose name you were given would like. I found a second hand Kristen Lavransdatter and I really thought that ‘my’ reader would love it as much as I did, but she gave it back to me unread because it was too long!

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    • Oh, that’s a bit mean. Couldn’t she have lied?
      It says in the intro that it was so very popular during the C20th that he met people with the same fond memories as you have… but also that its popularity is fading now. I shouldn’t say so yet because I haven’t finished Bk3, but I think I understand why. I liked Bk 1, but I got a bit fed up with Bk 2 because of all the breast-beating over her ‘sin’ . I’m re-reading it now so that I can write the review, and then it’s on to Bk 3, when everything apparently falls apart. Poor Kristin!

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      • I think she knew I’d want to enthuse about it with her, because so few people have read it!

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        • Yes, it seems to be a bit of a rarity. How did you come across it?

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          • I used to belong to that bookgrouplist chat group- did you belong to it too? It’s where I met Sue Terry. I think that they might have done it there. If not there, then one of the other Yahoo bookgroups I belonged to. I wonder if they’re still going?

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            • I’m not sure: I belonged to a number of Yahoo book groups… yours (which was called AustLit?) and a Booker Prize one, and a C20th and C21st one. And I started one myself which was the ANZ LitLovers one, but I ended up leaving them all because I didn’t want to have to read so many books that I hadn’t chosen myself.
              I’m not sure how I came across KL. It’s been on my shelves for over a year and I didn’t note where the recommendation came from. I think one of the readers I follow on Twitter might have mentioned it and piqued my interest.

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  3. […] on from my previous post about The Wreath (Kransen, Book 1 of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter tr…), I turn now to Book 2, The Wife (Husfrue).  It was starting Book 3 The Cross (Korset) that made […]

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  4. I didn’t have any context for this either, but i think maybe I enjoyed it all the more for that, as it allowed me to simply fall i and let the story unfold. Also, I felt like it was going to take forever, so it actually surprised me by engaging me straightaway – her concerns were so ordinary, so relatable in many ways – so that I ended up finishing the trilogy more quickly than expected. I’m looking forward to following your progress!

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    • I find it interesting that an author like this is so unknown. Growing up, I knew about all the great British and Irish writers, and I gradually discovered the great Russian, French and German ones. But it wasn’t until I decided to try and read all the Nobel winners that I discovered Undset and even then it was just by chance that I discovered this trilogy.

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