I started my Classics Club reading with a couple of books by male readers, but to ensure equal representation and to ensure there is better exposure for female writers from years gone by, my Classics Club list of fifty works includes twenty-nine books by women writers (so I’ve gone 58% representation). About time I read and reviewed one.
My Classics Club reading and reviewing commenced with the Norwegian novel “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun, and now I pick up the Norwegian female writer Sigrid Undset. Both Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset have won the Nobel Prize for Literature being two of only three writers from Norway to have won the prize (the other being Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson in 1903). Sigrid Undset won the Prize in 1928 “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.”
The first novel in her epic “Kristin Lavransdatter” trilogy (the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition running to 1,144 pages including explanatory notes) is “The Wreath”. The whole trilogy following the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, starting with her childhood in Middle Age Norway;
Kristin was used to playing almost every day up here on the church hill and in the cemetery; but today she was going to travel so far that the child thought the familiar sight of her home and village looked completely new and strange. The clusters of buildings at Jørundgaard, in both the inner and outer courtyards, seemed to have grown smaller and grayer down there on the lowlands. The glittering river wound its way past into the distance, and the valley spread out before her, with wide green pastures and marches at the bottom and farms with fields and meadows up along the hillsides beneath the precipitous gray mountains.
From early on we leave of the child who is becoming world wise, she is learning that she is simply a small speck in the larger scheme of things. A classic rural opening to the novel, with the particulars of the village life being brought into perspective of the grander size of all that “spreads out”, and our heroine moving to adulthood through her experiences that are grander than the local events.
Early on in the novel the Middle Ages myth is very much to the fore, as our protagonist becomes embroiled in tales of folklore, goblins, elves, we have the Elf Maiden who approaches Kristin, beckons her with a wreath of gold…is this “The Wreath” of our title? Counterpoint to the mythology is Kristin’s father Lavrans, who is a god fearing pious man, wisdom and age lead to Christianity and faith?
As our heroine becomes older we learn of her arranged marriage to Simon;
But as time passed and her dowry chests were filled and she listened to the constant talk of her marriage and what she would take to her new home, she began to yearn for the matter to be bound with a formal betrothal and for Simon to come north. After a while she began to think about him a great deal and she looked forward to seeing him again.
As a young teenager, and arranged marriage on the horizon, Kristin is very much a product of her time, the independence and the role of a “modern” woman is literature is yet to come to the fore. Her prettier sister Ulvhild (although Kristin is “exceedingly beautiful…tall and small-waisted, with slender elegant limbs, but she…also buxom and shapely”) has an accident and becomes crippled, she recovers slightly, after the attentions of the local priest and the accused ‘witch’, Fru Aashild, now able to walk with the aid of a crutch:
Yet everyone said that if the accident had not befallen Ulvild, she would have been many times more beautiful than her sister. She had the prettiest and sweetest face, white and pink like roses and lilies, with white-gold, silky-soft hair that flowed and curled around her slender neck and thin shoulders. Her eyes resembled those of the Gjesling family: they were deep-set beneath straight black brows, and they were as clear as water and grayish blue, but her gaze was gentle, not sharp. The child’s voice was also so clear and lovely that it was a joy to listen to her whether she spoke or sang. She had an agile talent for book learning and for playing all types of stringed instruments and board games, but she took little interest in needlework because her back would tire quickly.
Written in the early 1920’s, the novel isn’t simply an historical account of Middle Ages Norway, it blends strong characterisation, historical accuracy with a headstrong main character, legends, religious fervour and romanticism. Of course, early on in the piece, we are yet to experience Kritsin’s independence, with the theme of a woman becoming a man’s “possession” prominent in the early stages.
Unlike the introduction to the Penguin Classic’s Deluxe Edition I won’t actually give away the storyline (note – I would avoid the introduction before reading this later translation as I felt it revealed too much and impacted the novel’s revelations), but needless to say we do have arranged marriages, love, scoundrels, and family honour being brought into question. To explain Kristin’s lost virginity…” the situation is such that Simon is too good to gnaw on the bare branch from with another man has broken off the blossom.”
Within 100 odd pages, our “maiden” moves to independence, falls in love with Edwin and takes control of her own destiny:
Up until the day when she gave Erlend her promise, she had always tried diligently to do everything that was right and good, but she had done everything at the bidding of other people. Now she felt that she had grown up from maiden to woman. This was not just because of the passionate, secret caresses she had received and given. She had not merely left her father’s guardianship and subjected herself to Erlend’s will. Brother Edwin had impressed on her the responsibility of answering for her own life, and for Erlend’s as well, and she was willing to bear this burden with grace and dignity. So she lived among the nuns during the Christmas season; during the beautiful services and amidst the joy and peace, she no doubt felt herself unworthy, but she consoled herself with the belief that the time would soon come when she would be able to redeem herself again.
With clever openings, the novel ensures you follow onto work number two “The Wife”;
A slight fear began to stir inside her – faint and dim, but always present – that perhaps, in some way, it might be difficult for them when they were finally married, because they had been too close to each other in the beginning and then had been separated for far too long.
As I alluded to earlier, the historical references are meticulously researched with the feeling of medieval times, through ballads, fairy tales, chivalry all building to a convincing setting. The role of women as “possessions” of men is not only presented through our main character but we have the accused “witch” living in “sin”, scorned women as their partners move on layered with the behaviour and chivalric actions of male influential members of society. A multi layered presentation of Medieval times. An example of the legends still bearing true even though a nation is moving towards Christianity is the family members witnessing the betrothed going to their wedding bed, unmarried women being the only females to wear their hair loosely, and the fashions of the times intricately detailed;
He was dressed in dark attire: a silk surcoat, pale brown interwoven with a black-and-white pattern, ankle-length and slit and the sides. Around his waist he wore a gold-studded belt and on his left hip a sword with gold on the hilt and scabbard. Over his shoulders hung a heavy, dark-blue velvet cape, and on his black hair he wore a black French silk cap which was shirred like wings at the sides and ended in two long streamers, one of which was draped across his chest from his left shoulder and then thrown back over the other.
The two further novels in the trilogy “The Wife” and “The Cross” are also included in my Classics Club reading so I’ll be getting to them over the coming months/years.
To read more about the Classics Club go here, to see my list of the fifty works I will be reading and reviewing over the next five years go here.