I recently finished The Cross, the third volume of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter.
It took me a year to reread this stunning trilogy, set in fourteenth-century Norway. Unset is a brilliant storyteller, and every sentence shines with pictorial detail and psychological insights. And even now, decades after my first read, I fall into the book and become Kristin, the heroine. There is no separation of myself from the text. As I get older, this is particularly true with the last volume, The Cross.
These gorgeously-written novels, The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, chronicle the life of a medieval woman and her experience of love: filial love, intense friendship, passionate first love, sex, a tumultuous marriage, maternal love, charity, religion, and spiritual love. And as life goes on, Kristin becomes aware that her greatest sin, pre-marital sex with the handsome older slacker, Erlend, has shaped her unhappiness and the fates of her sons. (Yes, pre-marital sex was a sin, particularly because Kristin was already betrothed to someone else, and Erlend had lived with a married woman for 10 years and had two children).
In The Bridal Wreath, the first volume, we first meet the rebellous, willful heroine. She has an idyllic childhood, and is much loved by her father, Lavrans. But at the age of 15 Kristin is unhappily betrothed to Simon, a smart,but chubby and unattractive man chosen for her by her father. She begs Lavrans to send her to a convent for a year, partly because she is not attracted to Simon, and partly because she believes her sins have made her younger sister ill. She has suffered the loss of her childhood friend, Arne, who fought and was killed by a priest’s son who maligned her reputation: no one knows the priest’s son attempted to rape Kristin. And people gossip about Kristin, and Arne’s mother blames her. And so Lavrans allows Kristin to go to the convent, where, ironically, she and another girl are almost raped during a festival in town; they are saved by Erlend, a handsome aristocrat, and one of his friends, Munan. Erlend seduces Kristin and they fall in love. When Kristin begs Simon to break off the betrothal, he reluctantly agrees, though he is still in love with her.
But will Kristin and Erland be allowed to marry? Erlend asks his aunt, Fru Aashild, to invite Kristin to her house. She ran away 20 years ago with a younger man, Herr Bjorn, after her husband’s death, and people have said that she murdered her husband and that she bewitched Bjorn. She reluctantly decides to help Erlend. But she is sorry for Lavrans and his wife.
She grew strangely heavy at heart when she saw that this child seemed to think not at all on the sorrow she would bring to her father and mother. Yet I lived with Baard for more than 20 years in sorrow and torment, she thought. Well, maybe ’tis so with all of us. It seemed Kristin had not even seen how Ulvhild [Kristin’s sister] had fallen away this autumn–’tis little like, thought Aashild, that she will see her little sister any more. But she said naught of this–the longer Kristin could hold to this mood of reckless gladness, the better it would be, no doubt.
Kristin gets her way, but is already pregnant when she and Erlend marry: no one knows that except her mother, not even Erlend.
And then in The Mistress of Husaby, Kristin has to face Erlend’s faults. He is beautiful and noble, but also foolish and careless. And when she and Erlend get off the boat and travel to his estate, Husaby, she sees the manor house is a wreck and the farm a shambles.
Everywhere she had seen ill husbandry, when on the second day she went round with Erlend and looked over the manor and farm. By the time the feasting was over, little would be left in barn and storehouse; the corn-bins were all but swept clean. And she could not understand how Erlend could think to keep all the horses and so many cattle through the winter on the little hay and straw that was in the barns–of leaf-fodder there was not enough even for the sheep and goats.
Kristin takes over the management of the estate. And she is constantly pregnant and sick for the next several years: she has seven sons. She and Erlend quarrel frequently. She can barely hold things together. The church is Kristin’s refuge, and Erlend’s brother, Gunner, a priest, one of her best friends. And then Erlend is accused of treason.
The Cross is my favorite of the three. This is obviously because I am older now, and Kristin is older. Erlend has lost his estate, and they have moved back to Kristin’s childhood home. Kristin is in charge. As usual, he is a wastrel. He hunts and parties while Kristin manages the farms and tries to train her sons to work on the farm. (She manages to train one.) Her youngest sister is unhappily married to Simon, who still loves Kristin. And Kristin, with a strange mix of herbs, medicine, knowhow, and witchcraft, manages to save their son.
Unset writes brilliantly about marriage. No one is happily married in this world. Kristin’s parents were unhappy; she and Erlend are wretched. They separate and he goes to live on a ramshackle property he has inherited, and says he has had enough of the farmer’s life. She truly loves him, and is horrified by how he is living; she visits once, and gets pregnant again, but he won’t come back. And she needs a good life for her sons. But because she is pregnant and Erlend isn’t living with her she faces accusations again.
A long section of The Cross is from Simon’s point of view. He is so decent, so smart, and we all feel he deserved Kristin. But Kristin knows she could never have loved Simon. Her bond with Erlend cannot be broken, though it is a hellish one. It is a paradox.
How horrified I was by that when I was younger! But I was always fascinated by the arc of Catholicism that defines this book. Kristin needs beauty, she needs faith, and what she has is struggle, illness, and pain. Monks and priests bring her books, spiritual help, and good conversation. They are the most educated people of their day. And the rules of Catholicism give a structure to the hard life in the Middle Ages.
Kristin is not so different from you and me, though she lives in different times.
Why should we care about Kristin, you ask. Well, she is us. Different century, same experiences. As a teenager wants to buy expensive handmade purple shoes! Loves to dance! Sneaks out of the convent! Doesn’t want to marry the dependable guy! And later there is marriage, multi-tasking, motherhood, religious pilgrimages, political and theological discussions, disappointments, separation–and do not let us forget the plague!
I love Charles Archer’s 1920s translations, which have a faint medieval tone, but a new modern translation by Tina Nunnally, published by Penguin (around 2000?), has been widely praised. Nunnally’s translation of The Cross won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 2001.