Kristin Lavransdatter is actually three novels — The Wreath (1920), The Wife (1921), and The Cross (1922) — compiled into one massive book. I bought the Penguin Classics deluxe edition a few years ago, back when I read Gunnar’s Daughter and had traveled to Norway and was still on a Viking high. To my low-key chagrin, the book was not another thrilling, over-the-top epic about Vikings. On my shelves it sat for the next three years until the 45-hour-long audiobook version was released (about the same amount of time it would take, I’d estimated, to finish a king-sized quilt I’d been working on for months). It was perfect timing.
The trilogy follows its title character from girlhood to old age in fourteenth-century Norway. It’s a period in the Middle Ages when the last vestiges of paganism have given way to Catholicism. As the eldest daughter of Lavrans, a privileged and well-respected landowner, Kristin is well-liked by her community. Lavrans, whose sons all died in infancy, dotes on his girls, especially Kristin. When she reaches a marriageable age, she’s promised to Simon Darre but begs her father to let her spend a year in a convent first. Ironically, it’s there that she becomes a scandalous woman; she meets the love of her life, Erlend Nikolausson and promises herself to him no matter the cost.
It’s a choice that will shape the rest of her life. Compounding her dishonorable rejection of Simon Darre is the fact that Erlend already has a separate scandal in his past, and Lavrans is devastated. Ultimately having no choice but to consent to their marriage, Lavrans sees a hard life for his favorite child.
The Wreath and The Cross see his fears come to fruition. Kristin bears Erlend seven sons (her constant state of pregnancy alone putting a strain on her passionate and fun-loving husband). Erland loves life and wants to be loved by all, and the burden falls on Kristin to put his affairs in order and run the household and lands. The two are equally stubborn, and though Erlend takes risks that affect the family in irreversible ways, Kristin also makes some truly awful choices. It’s like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion. By the last third of the trilogy, their marriage is hanging by a thread and their sons have no inheritance left to fall back on. It’s that bad.
But even with all of the drama and questionable life choices, much of the trilogy is focused on the day-to-day life in the Middle Ages. It’s attention to these small details — such having to cover one’s hair with a wimple after marriage, or sleeping arrangements within the household — that bring the book to life. Sometimes, the details are heavy-handed. Undset was a Catholic, and as a recovering Catholic, let me just say: sometimes the book gets hella Catholic in its philosophy, suffering, and general minutiae. That’s understandable, considering the stronghold of Catholicism during this era, but sometimes it can get to be a bit much.
Ultimately, Kristin Lavransdatter is a big book about a big life. Kristin is a protofeminist of sorts; even towards the end, when her age is showing against the new wave of “modern” young women, she lives on her own terms.
The Penguin Classics deluxe edition of Kristin Lavransdatter, translated by Tiina Nunnally, was released in 2005. I listened to the audiobook version released in 2017.