Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter

The story of a woman in Norway in the 1300s…. That doesn’t sound all that interesting; but it was riveting.

Warning: Spoilers for the book may be scattered throughout this post. I think the novel would be quite readable knowing everything I mention; but if you are the kind of person who gets annoyed at having details revealed early, then you’ve been warned.

I just finished reading this wonderful historical novel (I almost called it a Norse saga, but that might be confusing as it is set in the middle ages and was written in the 2oth century). It’s taken me a while to get through it, can’t remember the last time a book occupied me for such a long stretch. I started it sometime before Christmas, I think, and it was the only reading material I took with me to Texas. (I don’t use plane time for reading anymore, alas, that might explain why I felt so confident in not taking anything more.)

I’m not calling this post a review because I don’t really feel up to writing a review. I’m still busy digesting. I really wish I knew someone else who’d read this book who would sit down and chat about it with me. I feel like I need another mind to bounce off of. But I did want to record some of my first impressions and I rather hope that this entry may attract some readers who have read the book and may generate some fruitful discussion.

I originally picked up Kristin Lavransdatter because I’d seen it mentioned favorably again and again on various Catholic blogs. (Of course, I can’t remember which blogs.) Sometimes it isn’t a particular review that makes me add a book to my list but a growing sense of its importance to a wide range of readers. In This House of Brede was another such book.

One of the reviews I recently read mentioned that there was a new translation available that is supposed to be quite excellent. As I didn’t keep track of that review, I didn’t know which edition I should go for. AS it was I actually picked up two different translations. Volumes I and II were the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Tiina Nunnally, while volume III was the Vintage edition translated by Charles Archer. On the whole I think I liked the Nunnally better. Certainly the Penguin edition had more extensive notes. I’m curious to see whether there is a better edition out there than either the Penguin or the Vintage.

I knew from the outset that Kristin Lavransdatter is considered to be a Catholic classic (though that’s about all I knew) and so perhaps that has colored my first impressions of the novel. But I rather suspect that I’d have read it the same way coming to it completely cold. This is a clear story about sin and the consequences of sin, about repentance and relapse and redemption. Most of all, it’s the story of an everywoman. Kristin is by no means a saint; but neither is she oblivious to the spiritual life. She is a woman whose life is dominated by one sin that colors everything she sets her hand to. She’s a penitent sinner, however, and throughout the novel she struggles to escape the habits of sin. Even while she sees how her sin taints everything she loves and disfigures her family and is visited on her children, she cannot free herself from her attachments. She is a woman in need of grace, painfully aware of her inability to achieve her own release and her need for a redeemer and yet unable to completely surrender to opportunities for grace when they present themselves. At times this is supremely frustrating, all the more so because it is a painfully familiar reflection of my own spiritual struggles.

Kristin is not always a lovable heroine—sometimes she’s maddening; but she’s wonderfully human. A reviewer on Amazon compared her to Emma Bovary, not a bad comparison. However, I found Kristin much more sympathetic. Emma is fatally blind to her failings. Kristin is much more self-aware. She frequently knows exactly how wrong she is and what she should do. She is just unable or, more precisely, unwilling to do what needs to be done. Her struggle reminds me of the wonderful scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce of the man with the lizard on his back. The angel keeps asking if he can kill it and the man, while wanting the lizard silenced, can’t face the idea of letting it be destroyed. Except that in Kristen Lavransdatter Undset presents a much more detailed, more complex and complete portrait of what Lewis merely sketches in passing.

I can’t think of another novel that so clearly explores the spirituality of married life, and so seriously considers the challenges and rewards of the marital vocation. I know there’s more to say here; but I can’t quite put it into words yet.

Finally, I just had to mention that reading the cover blurbs on both the Penguin and the Vintage editions I was taken aback by how obvious it was that the writer of the blurbs either hadn’t read or hadn’t understood the novel. The Penguin edition of The Wreath proclaims: “Defying her parents and stubbornly pursuing her own happiness, Kristin emerges as a woman who not only loves with power and passion but intrepidly confronts her sexuality.” Excuse me? that blurb almost made me put down the book unread. Kristin Lavransdatter is not a proto-modern feminist screed about a character who anachronistically challenges the narrow strictures of society. No, it is a novel about sin and redemption and that should be obvious to any reader who doesn’t come to the book with ideological blinders firmly in place.

And Penguin’s blurb about The Wife is just as wrong-headed: “[Erlend’s] single-minded determination to become an influential political figure forces Kristin to take over management of his estate, Husaby, while raising their seven sons.” I thought it was quite clear that Erlend’s political ambitions were beside the point when it came to Kristin’s taking over the management of the estate. It had much more to do with their individual temperaments and how they were each raised. She was raised to know how to manage an estate, he was not. She cares about such domestic details, he’s oblivious.

But the Vintage blurb took the cake: “The Cross shows Kristin still indomitable, reconstructing her world after the devastation of the Black Death and the loss of almost everything that she has loved.” Um, this one just plain confounds me. Did the writer miss the fact that the Black Death occurs at the very end of the novel after Kristin has renounced her ties to the world and entered monastic life, and in fact Kristin does not survive the plague to reconstruct anything?



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  • That is too funny! I was already planning to write a post on the exact same lines today.

    We had to remove the kitchen bin a couple of months ago, because at that point Cherub had decided that any piece of paper left on the floor belonged there. Big sister’s homework? Bin! Money? Bin! Random, vital document that shouldn’t have been on the floor in the first place? Bin! Now we have a plastic bag hanging from the door handle that she can’t reach. Shouldn’t be too long before we can put the bin back, I hope!

  • alicia,

    Every so often I see another blogger singing the praises of how flylady changed her life and I get inspired and buzz over there only to find myself completely overwhelmed. I know it works really well for some people; but I don’t think her approach is well suited to my personality. Or maybe just not at this stage of the game.

    Perhaps I’ve benefited indirectly from some of her ideas, filtered through other people writing about their flylady-inspired routines; but as for the flylady herself, she’s more than I can handle. Maybe I’m just stubborn (who me?) but I think I need to build up my organizational tactics organically for myself and not try to import anyone else’s system.

    I will, however, probably continue to check back in with her site every so often in hope of finding a bit of inspiration or to see if I’ve reached a stage where she can help me. But I’ve found myself much more inspired by those who’ve been inspired by flylady than by the source, if that makes any sense at all.

  • Melanie,

    It took a couple of years after checking out flylady before her system was able to start helping me. That was in 2005. It’s been a slow process since then, but there has been improvement with a lot of getting rid of stuff so things are more manageable. I understand being overwhelmed. Perhaps Bella will be your flylady grin Mother’s Rule of Life has helped some people but is not my cup of tea. Have you had a chance to check that out?

  • I love reading about your days with Bella. Now that my “baby” is 5 and 1/2, those days seem so long ago (though I remember important things going in the trash.) grin

    I agree about Mother’s Rule … there are some wonderful things in it, but it’s too regimented for me, and the natural chaos of infancy and early childhood don’t seem to me to fit into it.

  • Chris,

    I do have Mother’s Rule and I’ve read some of it. I plan to return to it again, at some point.

    Right now the housekeeping seems pretty under control so I don’t have a strong motivation to invest in flylady or any other system. The problem for me is really systems in general not any one in particular.

    I really liked a recent comment at Et Tu? in which the commenter talked about creating rituals as a model, turning away from a model that is more business-like. That does speak to me.

    For example, now I’ve got our mornings into a sort of ritual. Bella wakes me up, I get us breakfast and do the dishes (maybe clean up in the kitchen a bit) and then I dress myself, make my bed, say morning prayers, dress her and then am ready to do any tasks I’ve set myself for the day. I don’t think of it as a schedule because it doesn’t depend on the clock. It’s more of a pattern, a dance.

    Of course, I’m also perhaps a bit reluctant to get too set in my ways right now because one thing that being a mother has taught me is that children’s needs and patterns change over time. I’m hoping that when Sophia is born I’ll have established some patterns that will hold together for our family but will also be flexible enough to take into account our new addition. I know that post-partem will involve a period of transition and tweaking. Things just can’t run as smoothly with a newborn as they do with a toddler. Imagine calling life with a toddler smooth!!! But it is in a way, at this age, as I’ve said, she’s attracted to organization and routine. I think she is my flylady because she helps to ground me. I need to be consistent because she enforces a sort of consistency.

    I’m hoping that Bella will actually act as an anchor during our transition time and help me be more consistent with Sophia than I was when Bella was a baby.

    One thing about A Mother’s Rule that put me off a little was that seemed to be written from the perspective of a mother of older children, one who had left behind some of the chaos that seems to be inherent in the baby and toddler years. I like the book but it doesn’t immediately speak to where I am and what I need. I need baby steps not a grandiose plan for everything, if you know what I mean.

  • So many things on which to comment!

    Flylady is great.  But it does get overwhelming and her system is not very adaptable.  I did it for a year, and when our email address changed I didn’t renew it.  I do better with a “system” of picking one room and getting it really, really clean one day, and moving on to another room the next day.  We have a pretty big house (think fixer-upper, not high-maintenance mansion), so I can’t clean everything when I want to, but I get around to it eventually.

    I too have a “routine-lover.”  Kasandra knows routines, both the ones imposed by me (we must dress and pull hair out of faces before breakfast) and those she devises (chapter books read in a certain order).  I often am concerned when she flips out over a small change (I cleaned the van and changed the seat for her car seat, for instance), but I’ve noticed that as she gets older, she accepts change a bit more readily.

    And we had to throw a sippy cup away once because I let her have it too early.  She and I were leaving for a long trip, and I had taken out the trash.  I came back in, put in a new bag, and couldn’t find her cup.  I figured my brother, who was living with us then, would find it after I left, so I just made up a new one.  He found it, alright.  Under the new trash bag.  The milk had nearly solidified.  Thank goodness those spillproof sippy cups hold in the odor!