As I read the riveting second volume of Sigrid Undset’s fascinating Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (I reviewed the first volume, The Wreath, here), I kept thinking that The Wife wasn’t the right title for it. It’s also been called Mistress of Husaby, but despite the importance of Kristin’s estate and her role there, that doesn’t seem right, either. When you enter Kristin’s story, you enter a marriage, a contract that expands over time, a relationship between two disastrously stubborn people who ache for each other and yet fail to connect in some essential ways. It’s this that shapes this volume. If it were up to me, I would call Book II not The Wife, but The Marriage.
At the beginning of this book, Kristin has come, newly-wedded and already pregnant, to Husaby. She has huge responsibilities on her husband Erlend’s farm, which is dilapidated because of his poor management, and she is just beginning to understand the repercussions of her own behavior in The Wreath (breaking her betrothal, losing her virginity out of wedlock, marrying a man with such a poor reputation, and hurting her loving parents.) She fears for her own salvation and her child’s health under such circumstances, and her struggle with her conscience fuels her resentment toward her husband. She and Erlend, despite often being at odds, turn out one child after another — seven healthy boys, all told — and the usual worries and work that attend pregnancy, childbirth, and raising children also sap her energy, but open a vibrant world of love and satisfaction to her as well.
From Erlend’s side, there is danger in the air. Norwegian politics have become complicated, and Erlend Nikulausson is not a man anyone truly trusts. King Magnus spends all his time in Sweden; foreigners have too many rights, harming Norwegian merchants; the legitimate princes have no support. When Erlend steps into this swirling intrigue, one misstep may cost him his life — and then Kristin’s resentments are pushed to one side, as she realizes how much she loves and has always loved her dashing, impetuous husband.
One of the things that impressed me again about this volume of the trilogy was the deep sense of connectedness, this time for both Kristin and Erlend. None of their actions are without consequences. You might think one act of adultery, between consenting adults — no big deal, right? But it shakes a kingdom (you’ll have to read to find out how.) Another family’s ancient history reminds Kristin of her own, and sets a pattern of faithfulness she tries to follow. It can be difficult at times to keep track of all the unfamiliar names, and to follow the Norwegian 14th-century history (of which I am totally ignorant), but the effort is worth it. Kristin and her family step living from the pages, imperfect, stubborn, loving, exhausted, praying, scolding, laughing. I only have one volume left of this trilogy, and I know I’m going to be sad when it’s over.