Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath

Sigrid Undset’s trio of novels set in 14th-century Norway tells the story of a young woman named Kristin, daughter of the prosperous farmer, Lavrans (hence the name Lavaransdatter). The first novel, The Wreath, translated by Tina Nunnally, was published in 1920, with new novels published in subsequent years. Undset received a Nobel prize, and the series is considered a classic in Norwegian literature. I saw a movie adaptation years ago and had always wanted to read the books, and I enjoyed the first book quite a bit.

In The Wreath, Kristin’s family has been beset by tragedy in the death of multiple baby boys and the nearly fatal injury of Kristin’s little sister, Ulvhild. But the family maintains a strong Christian faith, albeit one that makes room for the ministrations of a local witch when it’s clear that her herbal remedies have the potential to save a life or ease pain.

Kristin is eventually betrothed to a man named Simon, but a scandal that ensues after Kristin is nearly raped forces her into a convent in Oslo, where she meets Erlend Nikulaussøn, who comes from wealth but was excommunicated when he had an affair with a married woman and had two children with her. He claims the relationship is over, and Kristin, despite her devout faith, can’t keep herself from falling in love with him. And so it goes.

One thing that occurred to me as I was reading was how the family’s concern for respectability kept them from equipping Kristin with the ability to seek the right kind of happiness. She was taught to prize happiness but was given few tools for seeing through scoundrels. In the early chapters of the book, she has more than one opportunity to marry a decent man, but, in one case, he was assumed to be too far below her station. In another, he was too decent to properly woo her, choosing instead to treat their potential marriage as a business arrangement. (Although, for my part, as a grown-up woman, I was impressed at Simon’s reaction to Kristin’s near-rape. Maybe having Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Angel Clare on my mind lowered my standards.)

As the book ends, everything seems to be going downhill. There are portents of misery everywhere. I put the book down feeling worried for Kristin and sad for her parents, who are having to deal with their own realizations. I hope to read the next book, The Wife, soon. (Much to my annoyance, my library has all three volumes cataloged as a single record and none are at my local branch, so it’ll be a bit of a chore to get the next two books. I actually thought I was getting the omnibus edition when I reserved this one. A minor annoyance, but still…)

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10 Responses to Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath

  1. Jeanne says:

    I found those books at the library when I was young, and remember enjoying them, but reading what you say about them, I realize I don’t remember anything that happens.

  2. Elle says:

    My ma absolutely loved these when I was younger, and I’ve always wanted to get around to them. Plus, medieval Norway!

  3. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I’ve read only the first one as well so far. It was darker than I expected but I don’t know where that expectation had come from! I have the next two but for some reason never felt strongly enough to get to them so maybe following your progress through the series will prompt me past that inertia.

  4. I’ve read the trilogy and enjoyed it although the first book is the best. They’re not “happy” books – they make up the realistic portrayal of the whole life of a medieval woman in Norway. As I remember, Undset’s main concerns were getting the history right (she did) and Kristin’s character – what motivates her to make the poor choices she does make? Why does she feel bad later? What does she do (or not do) as a result of her missteps? What, realistically, are the choices for a rather high-spirited girl in Norway at this time? What was the hold of the church?

    Undset was divorced when that was a social stigma and then she became a devout Catholic – NOT appreciated in very Lutheran Norway. This was prior to writing Kristin Lavransdatter.

    • Teresa says:

      I really appreciated how well-crafted Kristin’s character was. I could see that Undset was working through a lot of difficult ideas about personal choice and responsibility and morality. I can imagine it’ll only get more complicated.

  5. Michelle says:

    Many years ago, my book club read all three parts of this book. Finding a hard copy of it was nearly impossible, but I am so glad I did because it is an exquisite book. The other two parts are even darker and frankly depressing, but Undset writes so well that it was all part of the spell. I read this more than a decade ago, but I still remember various descriptions and scenes. It is one of the rare books I read and understood why it won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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