This is a book about sex before marriage. The Penguin Drop Caps series has chosen Tiina Nunnally’s 1997 translation from the Norwegian, though the original story was written in 1920. I love the rich purple cover, slightly rubbery, with its illustration of a U-shaped wreath of roses on the cover, the darker purple stain on the edges of the pages and the bright Joker-green title on the spine. Tiina Nunnally’s version is masterful; at no point does the word choice or syntax remind you it’s a translation.
Page one, we are introduced to Kristin’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, who are landowners in a small agricultural community in 14th century Norway. Their marriage was arranged and their first three children, all sons, have died in infancy. Kristin is the first child to survive, and she is her father’s pride and joy, while her mother stays in the grips of depression that keeps her isolated and distant both from their community and her own daughter.
The novel is divided into three books. In the first, several major episodes from Kristin’s childhood are described: how she has a frightening encounter with a woodland sprite, how she meets an itinerant monk with a rare talent for painting, and how her mother finally gives birth to another girl, Ulvhild, who is doted on by all for her beauty and spirit. Then, Ulvhild has a near-fatal accident and Ragnfrid is plunged back into the despair she had so lately come out of. When neither their prayers nor their ministrations are helping the child, Ragnfrid goes against convention and calls on Fru Aashild, a woman some believe to be a witch because of her knowledge of herbs. Fru Aashild comes to stay with the family for some time, nursing little Ulvhild back to health, and begins to apprentice Kristin in her medical arts. Their relationship sets in motion the rest of the saga when Fru Aashild says, “But you, Kristin, you ought to marry a man who is both chivalrous and courtly… My nephew, Erlend Niklaussøn of Husaby—how he would have been a suitable husband for you.” Doubt is sown in Kristin’s mind about Arne, the local boy she’s grown up with, and later, Simon Andressøn, the young man to whom her parents betroth her.
So, it’s no surprise when, in the second book, Kristin and Erlend happen to meet while Kristin is away from home for a year at a convent.
I won’t give away their magical meeting, full of chivalry and the flutterings of love. But their relationship progresses at a great pace and next thing you know Erlend leads Kristin to discover “the iniquity that all the songs were about”.
But now Kristin has a big problem. She’s engaged to Simon Andressøn, but she’s made a vow of faithfulness to Erlend. And Erlend’s not just some other guy. No, he has two children by his mistress, a married woman, who is still living on his estate. Oh, and he’s frittered away much of his inheritance, making his noble title not much of a selling feature.
In the third book, back home, Kristin keeps putting off telling her father she doesn’t want to marry Simon. Eventually, there’s no hiding it, and with great reluctance, both families end the betrothal. But now, how to convince Lavrans that Erlend and Kristin should be allowed to marry? Lavrans’s struggle with this question, and the contrast of his character with his daughter’s lover, is the subject of the third part.
Of course, it’s not a tragic novel, so Kristin eventually does wear her wedding wreath, but not before a great number of knotty questions are answered. What to do about Erlend’s former mistress and their children? Why was Ragnfrid so depressed? What about Ulvhild? How does Simon recover from his ruptured betrothal? Does Kristin have fertility issues—I mean, how many times can a young woman sleep with her lover and not show signs of it? Can Erlend ever earn Lavrans’s respect?
What I love about this book is the richness of each character, even the descriptions of the necessary two-dimensional ones. The monk Brother Edvind is unconventional, vegetarian and artistic. Ragnfrid, surprisingly, takes her daughter’s side, because of her own sexual history and desires. Kristin is not some fierce, rebellious daughter—she’s carried along by the force of Erlend’s passion and spends more time stalling than speaking out, more time hiding than haranguing her parents. I disagree with the summary paragraph in the Drop Caps edition that Kristin is some convention-defying 14th century proto-feminist. She’s wonderfully passive, doesn’t defend her actions, wishes she could say no to Erlend, but the biology of her attraction keeps her saying yes. Readers who haven’t grown up going to church may puzzle at Kristin’s inner conflict, but it seems totally authentic to me based on my religious upbringing.
And that is what makes this novel great historical fiction. Sigrid Undset has set a timeless problem (“I’m engaged to the wrong man”) in a specific historical context and doesn’t try to make her 14th century characters speak in 20th century voices, though probably the sexual mores of the 1920s were more similar to those of the 1320s than to those of the 2020s, though maybe not.
This novel also teaches me an important lesson about writing historical fiction: let the history be background, let the characters and their problems be foreground. You don’t have to fill the pages with factoids about what was going on at the time, nor do you have to know every single detail about the settings. In other words, don’t research the time period to death and neglect to write the novel. A few well-placed details are enough to give the readers a sense of time and place. Besides, we don’t really want to read descriptions anyway. We want dialogue, inner thought processes, action. Kristan Lavransdatter: The Wreath provides all three in spades.