Friday, August 20, 2010

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife

After we finished our discussion of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath exactly one month ago today, I promised the parish Catholic fiction group back in New York that I would read and comment on the sequel, The Wife. Preoccupied as I have naturally been, first with moving and saying goodbye, then with settling in and getting oriented to my new surroundings and to my new responsibiities as a pastor, it took me a while to get around to reading the book, but I did finally get to it this week. (Today, I finally got my Tennesse Driver's License and registered to vote. So I guess I am here for real now!)

Undset's trilogy's 1st volume, The Wife, ended with Kristin's wedding to Erlend, that presumptively joyful event clouded over by Kristin's secret knowledge of her pregnancy and by her father's realization that she and Erlend had already consummated their marriage in advance. The second volume, The Wife, picks up in the aftermath of all that and traces the subsequent years of Kristin's married life, during which she gives birth to seven sons, serves (somewhat) as stepmother to Erlend's earlier children, becomes increasingly religious, and successfully manages Erlend's principal estate, Husaby.

Once again, Undset creatively combines her fictional plot with actual 14th-century Norwegian history enacted against the background of a vividly described landscape, and with an intense feel for the dynamic spirtual experiences of medieval churchmen and laypeople.

Much more extensively thant The Wreath, The Wife is dominated by the complexities of 14th-century Norway's political situation, both internally and externally in relation to Norway's neighbors - the Swedes, with whom Norway then shared the same Crown, and the Danes, Finns, and Russians, with whom Norway was sporadically in conflict. All these difficulties were exacerbated by the Achilles Heel of any monarchy - the king's minority. While King Magnus is a minor, Norway must be governed by a regency, with all the infighting and factional conflict that such a situation entails. In Undset's fictional plot, Erlend (of royal blood himself) gets deeply involved in national politics, both for good and for ill. For good, he assumes positions of military and civic responsibility which improve his image and compensate somewhat for his tarnished reputation. For ill, however, Erlend in the last part of the book recklessly gets involved in a plot to undemrine the young king. Caught (thanks largely to his own irresponsbile involvement with a woman, itself brought on by tensions between him and his wife), Erlend is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Thanks primarily to the intervention of Simon Darre, Kristin's former betrothed (and now husband of her much younger sister), Erlend's life is finally spared.

All the political intrigue provides an interesting background for the personal and spiritual struggles of the story's principal characters. Throughout, the book is dominated by Kristin's intense remore for her sinful involvement with Erlend prior to their marriage, for conceiving his child prior to their wedding, and for having deceived her father. Kristin and Erlend maintain regular marital relations and have seven sons, and they maintain relatively positive familial relations with Kristin's parents until Lavrans' death and with Kristin's former betrothed after he becomes their brother-in-law. Yet all these relationships are overshadowed - and diminished - by Kristin's morbidly omnipresent sense of guilt. As soon as possible after the birth of her illegitimately conceived first son, Kristin undertakes a penitential pilgrimage to St. Olva's shrine where she donates her wedding wreath (which she had illicitly worn). Nothing, however, can completely undo the damage done to the principal relationships in her life - with her husband, her father, and her eventual brother-in-law.

The dark cloud that hangs over Kristin's marriage and family life provides a conspicuous constrast with her willful behavior in The Wreath. If the first book seemed at times almost to celebrate Kristin's rebelliousness, this second volume starkly highlights the harmful consequences that follow from violating social norms and moral rules. As the priest Gunnulf explains to his brother Erlend: "you drove her into sinful defiance against everyone God had put in charge of this child ... Surely you must realize that, Erlend. You have sown a thicket of brambles around yourself, with nettles and thorns. How could you draw a young maiden to you without her being cut and flayed bloody?"

On that note, I am looking forward to reading volume 3.

1 comment:

  1. Well! I read the first colume about 40 years ago. Now I must go on and read the trilogy. Thanks for posting this - such brooding and angst-ridden lives these northerners lead! The dark, haunting psyche of the Norse, still a bit mired in the religious milieu of their pagan and vengeful gods, is well conveyed in Undset's writing.