Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2018

The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #2), by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Following on from my previous post about The Wreath (Kransen, Book 1 of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy), I turn now to Book 2, The Wife (Husfrue).  It was starting Book 3 The Cross (Korset) that made me decide to reread both Books 1 and 2 because there is such a plethora of characters that I had lost track of who some of them were, and the author didn’t always signal their previous roles and relationships.  This may have been because the books were bestsellers in their time, and were released so soon after each other between 1922 and 1924, that Undset could assume that her readers didn’t need reminding.  Whatever about that, my journal is full of ever-expanding family trees and cross-references.  Not all readers may need this, of course, but I think it would be helpful if someone added a tree or two to the Wikipedia entry for this book, as some thoughtful person has done for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle.

Anyway…

Book 2, The Wife, is all about the chickens coming home to roost for wilful Kristin Lavransdatter who married her lover against the counsel of all the wiser heads around her.  Motherhood and the management of a neglected estate is a challenging coming-of-age for her, and though we see some growth in maturity for her impulsive husband, fatherhood is not accompanied by much of a coming-of-age for him, because he remains a perpetual adolescent in many ways.  Other characters have to come to terms with events as well: Lavrans learns that he was wrong to judge as harshly as he did; Erlend’s brother has to acknowledge his own dubious motives; a king has to recognise the limits of his power. They all learn that the truth will out and that secrets can’t be kept for long.

The book begins with everyone gradually realising that Kristin was some months pregnant when she finally marries Erlend.  At the time of the marriage at the end of Book 1, she knew, but had concealed it from everyone else, even her mother.  But Kristin knew full well that the pomp and ceremony of the splendid wedding would become a source of mockery when the truth was revealed, and everyone would then know that she had had no business wearing the golden wreath that symbolised virginity for a well-born maiden.

In her new home at Husaby, there are poignant scenes where this teenage bride hides herself away to sew the layette but the servants know before long, and Erlend learns the truth as she thickens round the middle.  From the first, it’s not a marriage built on trust or confronting shared problems together, and his first words to her about it are not kind. He berates her for keeping her pregnancy secret, but she says ‘You of all people should know that I have followed forbidden paths and acted falsely towards those who have trusted me most’.  She might also have added that she always hurts those she loved the most too.

Though he slaps her during one of their arguments, Kristin isn’t afraid of Erlend: she is becoming aware of his weaknesses and because she loves him she seeks to protect him from the humiliation as much as possible.  In this medieval world, he has treated her like a peasant girl and while he feels no shame she knows how it will be viewed by their community.  His care of her is so lax that one of his friends has to prod him into calling in the local women to help with the birth.

There is nothing much Kristin can do to salvage things except to try the best she can to earn their respect by being a good wife.  And her first task is get the neglected estate in order.  It is filthy.  The servants are slack.  farm husbandry has been neglected and the bad harvest has made things worse.  Erland has an extravagant lifestyle that is reliant not on his own hard work but rather on rents from tenants, but he mocks her knowledge of the tenant laws when she tries to remonstrate with him.  There is a ghastly scene where his drunken relations poke fun at their hypocrisy of the ‘virgin’ marriage and Kristin is appalled at the vulgarity of the people at her table.

It is not until the child moves within her that they are reconciled.

BEWARE SPOILERS 

Kristin’s parents Lavrans and Ragnfrid don’t learn that they are grandparents until some weeks after the baby is born (after an excruciatingly long and painful labour).  Erlend at least has the courage to go and tell them, and is shamed into admitting that he didn’t know about the pregnancy at the time of the wedding either.  Lavrans takes the news with dignity, and accompanies Erlend back to Husaby where he discovers that Erlend, at least, is a skilled traveller over a hostile landscape.  Whatever anger Lavrans feels about the treatment of his cherished daughter, he suppresses it and does his best to forge a relationship with his son-in-law.  And then he is angry with himself for liking Erlend…

Kristin sheds many tears of self-recrimination when she sees her father.  Indeed Book 2 suffers IMO from a surfeit of guilt, self-recrimination and religious torment as Kristin tries to regain her self-esteem.  (One stretch of heavy-duty guilt about the fruits of her sin lasts for six whole pages, with another lasting eleven pages). Her spiritual adviser panders to her pious desire for repentance, and sends her off on a 20km barefoot pilgrimage to seek absolution from the archbishop.  (But Erlend, of course, does not have to do a similar pilgrimage. He’s confessed, paid for a mass or two, and that’s enough for his absolution). On her way, there is the added humiliation of meeting up with Simon, the Very Nice Man that she dumped for The Grand Love Affair with the more dashing Erlend.  He has married and lost a wife to childbirth, and his sadness makes Kristin feel guiltier than ever.

Though the gossip gradually dies down, the consequences of their youthful follies keep coming.  Erlend’s brother Gunnalf, who as the less-favoured son became a priest so that Erlend could inherit everything, harangues Erlend about driving Kristin into sin.  Gunnalf is shocked when he learns more about their scandalous behaviour, and he savages Erlend for the way he left it to others to face up to Lavran’s wrath about his daughter.  And typically, Erlend takes no responsibility for this or any other of the problems he causes, someone else is always to blame, not him.  Kristin gradually realises that although Erlend’s military bravery brings him some respect but not among grown-up or sensible men

People liked him, humoured hm, and boasted of him—but he was never considered a fully entitled man.  And she saw how willingly he accepted the role that his peers wanted him to play.  (p.475)

This awareness of Erlend as an unreliable man turns out to be disastrous when he gets mixed up in treasonous activities and no one will vouch for him for fear of being dragged into the same peril.

Simon and Kristin are their own worst enemies, and although the narrative is more sympathetic to Kristin, she is still shown to be a bitter woman, unforgiving of herself and others, and spectacularly good at holding a grudge for a very long time.  Her obsession about her own guilt is tedious, not just to the other characters, but also for the reader.  Undset devotes many pages to Kristin brooding over her sins with her spiritual advisers, and I am wary of Book 3 because she apparently becomes ever more religious.

Author: Sigrid Undset
Title: The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy #2)
Translated from the original Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser
Publisher: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, UK, 2005, 406 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. Oh I do so love Kristen Lavrensdatter and although the 1st novel is probably the best, it actually only sets the stage for the next two books in the trilogy.

    Okay, okay, so I’m definitely of Norwegian descent and they were very religious people as well. So I suppose there is a special connection for me here.

    “Self-recrimination” is definitely a theme – I just wanted to shake Kristen, but … who am I with my fairly liberal 21st century sensibilities to judge a woman of the 13th century?

    Thanks for the memories –

    Like

    • HI Becky, you are just the person to ask. One of the other themes that we notice especially in the 21st century is the discriminatory and rather contradictory laws about illegitimate children. Both of Kristin’s fellas, Simon and Erlend, have illegitimate children, Erlend’s being much more scandalous (a-hem) because he runs off with a married woman and has children with her whereas Simon only does it with a s servant whose social position is not so critical in the inegalitarian medieval world. Some of the other gentlemen have illegitimate children too. One of the reasons given for Erlend being so bad-tempered is because of the unfair treatment of Orm, his boy by Eline, who has no lineage, can’t inherit Erlend’s property and cannot even become a priest without dispensation. Do you know if Norway still had discriminatory laws at the time that Undset was writing, and that was why she exposed their unfairness in the novel?

      Like

  2. You’re putting a lot of effort into a fictional reality, I think I’d rather put the time into an endless SF saga – Dune maybe. And one question, judging by the distribution of guilt, Kristin got pregnant without any assistance?

    Like

    • Well, no, of course she didn’t! That’s what Undset is on about (I think). This is an early C20th depiction of double standards, in all kinds of ways, and I think Undset’s readers back in the 1920s would have been saying, oh yeah, not much has changed since the Middle Ages as far as the rights and expectations of women are concerned.

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      • I don’t remember many details about the story at this point, but I do remember feeling as though this kind of situation felt very current and contemporary for all that it’s clearly a historical novel. Her guilt does become all-consuming and the religious aspects of the story do swell in importance as time unfolds, but I felt it gave me an idea of what a powerful force that was in women’s lives (and also the aspects about the community ties/relationships were interesting). You’re well on the way to being done!

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        • Yes, I think that’s all true. There are historical novels that are just that, a framework for a story set in the past, (often with more interesting clothes). But this is clearly meant to shine a light on feminist issues in Norway. (They’d only just got votes for women, for instance).

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  3. You know what I’m going to say – if you think it would be useful, you could add that tree to Wikipedia!!

    As for Bill’s comment, that made me laugh. I don’t think I’ll put my effort into either! Give me a good short story any day!! Haha!

    Like

    • Ah no, I’ve done my dash with WP. Besides, I don’t know how to make a digital family tree…

      Liked by 1 person


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