In part two of her saga of medieval Norway, Sigrid Undset explores the nexus of private and public life…
Sigrid Undset’s epic saga of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, moves at the pace of medieval life. The slowness of that pace serves two useful and powerful purposes. The first of these is that this measured pace, slow as it might feel to contemporary readers, allows Undset to develop characters of great depth, characters whom the reader is able to get to know intimately. This deliberate pace also allows Undset to offer descriptions of living conditions in 14th century Norway that give Kristin Lavransdatter II the believability of history even as it offers the drama of fiction.
The story picks up just after the events of the first novel (known as The Wreath) end. Kristin, against her father’s preference and, having broken the heart of her betrothed, Simon Andresson, marries her lover Erland Niklausson.
The two main narrative threads that dominate The Wife are the domestic struggles between Kristin and her husband Erland and Erland’s foolhardy political maneuvering that nearly costs him his life. Kristin, pregnant when she marries, eventually gives birth to six sons in the course of the novel, turns her reckless husband’s estate into a successful enterprise, and spends a good bit of time worrying about her soul. In one of those ironies that happen in fiction, her former fiance Simon marries her baby sister Ramborg. This connection proves crucial in the narrative thread, both because it helps to reconnect Kristin to her family estate, Jorungaard, (indeed, it leads to her reconciliation with her father) and it adds an element of romantic complication. Erland is, for all his charm, a bad husband and father, a cause of considerable frustration and anger to Kristin who is both a protective mother and a faithful wife.
All that Erland is not, Simon is. He is a steadfast husband to Ramborg and a strong shoulder to Kristin when Erland is arrested for treason. Indeed, it is Simon who finally brings powerful nobles around to supporting Erland and who helps him escape execution. In doing this – helping Erland escape destruction and reuniting him with Kristin – Simon breaks his own heart: in the course of helping his sister-in-law he realizes that while he loves her sister Ramborg, he is still, and always has been, in love with Kristin.
It would be gratifying to be able to say that Erland Niklausson learns his lesson from his ordeal. But the reader knows that his sort, likable and charming as he is, will not change his headlong, foolhardy ways. Though Erland’s wings are clipped, one realizes that this is a temporary state and that he will cause Kristin pain again.
One other thread that runs through the narrative should be mentioned. Kristin’s spiritual quest is key for understanding her behavior. Erland’s brother, Gunnulf, is a priest, one of a series of religious counselors who serve as sounding boards during her search for both spiritual and self understanding. Kristin’s struggle to feel forgiven for her sin (her illicit pre-marital relationship with Erland) and to feel that she has a “true” relationship with her God. She makes pilgrimages, does penances, confers with her priests. But Kristin never quite finds the peace she seeks. And the reader knows as Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife ends that while she and Erland and their sons might return to her family’s estate at Jorungaard, she will not find the peace she seeks.
The real world never works that way.