“‘[T]is well when we dare not do a thing we think is not good and fair, but not so well when we think a thing not good and fair because we dare not do it.'”
Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, one of only 14 female winners (out of 113 Laureates) to this day. A Nobel Laureate, and yet this bookworm had never heard of her until browsing the complete list of Laureates in dismay at how few women appear. In a token effort to begin to rectify the situation, I approached Undset’s ‘masterpiece’ – “Kristin Lavransdatter”.
“Kristin Lavransdatter” is the story of a woman’s life in 14th century Norway. Kristin, the prized eldest child of Lavrans and Ragnfrid, is headstrong and open-hearted in a brutal, harsh world where survival is difficult, where social mores are binding, and where women are possessions. It is a medieval story about expectations – societal, familial, personal.
From an early age, Kristin knows what her role is destined to be.
“‘And you, Kristin – how would you like to offer up this bonny hair and serve Our Lady like these brides I have figured here?’
‘We have no child at home but me,’ answered Kristin. ‘So ’tis like that I must marry. And I trow mother has chests ad lockers with my bridal gear standing ready even now.’
Kristin is a mere seven years old when she has this conversation with a friendly monk; she is wise for her years and wise to the ways of the world.
As Kristin matures and interacts more with the world, she is even more aware of the concept of ‘reputation’ and of the social consequences and assumptions tied to her actions.
“Kristin thought how far away the time was when every soul in the parish had been her friend. Like enough all men knew now that she was a bad daughter. Perhaps they knew yet more about her. It might well be that all believed now there had been some truth in the old talk about her and Arne and Bentein. It might be that she had fallen into the worst ill-fame. She held her head high and passed on toward the church.”
Undset has clearly set out to create a moving portrait of a woman’s life in this time and place, but in doing so, she employs various men as foils, men whose explication brings greater understanding of Kristin herself. Among the most powerful of these portraits, is that of her father; after all, it can be no coincidence that the book’s title highlights the patriarchy of the time, symbolized clearly in the use of patronymics. Lavrans is a father extremely strong and proud, feared and respected, the picture of masculinity in a world that doesn’t value the feminine – and yet he is smitten with his daughters, a gentle bear lavishing love and tenderness on these girl-cubs.
“Marriage – they had wedded him, almost unasked. Friends – he had many, and he had none. War – it had brought him gladness, but there had been no more war – his armour hung there in the loft-room, little used. He had turned farmer. . . . But he had had his daughters – all his living and striving had grown dear to him, because by it he cherished them and made them safe, those soft, tender little beings he had held in his hands.”
“Kristin Lavransdatter” is stereotypically historical fiction. Its vocabulary, its pacing, and its conflicts are inextricably bound to its time. Its value is doubtless universal, but its audience is likely very specific. This book may be a hard sell and, in truth, it was a hard sell to me; I read it mostly out of a sense of obligation, of bookish duty. Though it is the first in a trilogy, the likelihood that I will seek out the remaining volumes is miniscule. That said, however, I am so glad that I tackled this book, and I am grateful that I came away with a strong sense of medieval life in Scandinavia, of historical fiction as a genre, and of feminist ideas in a work of fiction nearly 100 years old and set centuries ago.