I was halfway through high school when I first heard about Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. No list of Catholic “chick lit” that did not mention her would be complete. Undset wrote the Kristin trilogy in the years leading up to her 1924 conversion to Catholicism. And she won the Nobel Prize for it in 1928. I still remember the thrill when the paperback book (Archer’s translation, the only one then available) slipped into my hands from the bookstore shelf and I looked at and read the cover, front and back. It was the same excitement you feel when you know that you’ve found a friend.
It was the perfect time for me to find this book. I still had many of my childhood reading habits and after I read the trilogy through once, I read it again and again. On a free afternoon, I’d find myself picking up one of the volumes, either looking for a specific passage or opening it at random, and then reading from wherever I’d opened the book all the way to the end again. It was that kind of love. It may have been the last book that I re-read so frequently, so absorbedly.
Men can certainly love this book as women can love the classics written by men. But this a women’s book written by a woman. I believe I’ve seen it called a saga; it is written with a completely different mindset from a Medieval saga. It is a novel, bristling with the particular genius of a novelist. Relationships, conversations, domestic details, descriptions, drama, the ambiguous touch of magic: the story of a woman’s life in Medieval Norway from her early childhood to her death as an old woman. (One particularly powerful scene brings to life a spring night when the ice breaks and the waters flow. Kristin and her father have been in a deadlock about an important decision concerning her future. On this night, neither of them can sleep and her father at last gives in, releasing her into adulthood.) It is a book about “sinful love” (Undset’s declared specialty) that takes both sin and penance seriously. It is a book, maybe most of all, about marriage. And though the trilogy could (like the Odyssey more than the Iliad) be called epic, Kristin and Erlend fail tragically in their marriage. It is mysterious that nonetheless the book ends in such uplift, bittersweet but definite uplift. That “strange upward draft of the novel”!
This is the book that finally ruined me for most historical fiction. Though she writes with the best technique of a “modern” novelist, Undset gives us characters with the inner life of Medievals, very like us in their deep complex humanity, very different from us in the forms of their lives and thoughts. These are people a mere generation from the pagan past, slowly, painfully, imperfectly assimilating Catholicism. Some of the priests have children, still lacking the dispositions for the grace of celibacy. Others are lonely, having a light they long to share with people who have varying degrees of readiness to accept it. Undset studied Medieval Norway consumingly and the research and understanding behind this book give it a “thick beauty.” It goes down layer after layer.
Undset also wrote two earlier shorter novels that I’ve read: Jenny (begins with art students in Rome) and Gunnar’s Daughter (pre-Christian Norway this time). I could not get through her Master of Hestviken series; it was too unremittingly grim. (Kristin Lavransdatter interleaves sorrow and trials with joy and glows with beauty — from the glory of a cathedral at the end of a penitential pilgrimage to the delight of feeding berries to a toddler.) Her biography of St. Catherine of Siena is also truly excellent!