All around grew such a profusion of the finest pink tufts of flowers called valerian; they were much redder and more beautiful here next to the mountain stream than back home near the river. Then Kristin picked some blossoms and carefully bound them together with blades of grass until she had the loveliest, pinkest, and most tightly woven wreath. The child pressed it down on her hair and ran over to the pool to see how she looked, now that she was adorned like a grown-up maiden about to go off to a dance. – from Kristin Lavransdatter, page 19 –
“Look at yourself now, Kristin,” said Fru Aashild, and Kristin bent over the basin. She saw her own face rise up, white, from the water; it came so close that she could see the golden crown above. So many light and dark shadows played all around her reflection – there was something she was just about to remember – and suddenly she felt as if she would faint away. – from Kristin Lavransdatter, page 275 –
Sigrid Undset’s huge novel Kristin Lavransdatter is separated into three separate “books.” The Wreath makes up the first “book” and opens with Kristin as a young child traveling with her father through the beautiful countryside of medieval Norway. Kristin dotes on her father – and he clearly has a special bond with his eldest daughter after losing three sons in infancy. Early on, Undset establishes a father-daughter relationship which is special and which sets the tone for what is to come.
The Wreath is a coming of age story which follows Kristin’s maturation from a child into a young woman in her late teens. Along the way, she must reconcile her ambivalence for a betrothal to a man she does not choose, and deal with guilt and remorse around a love affair with a man her father cannot accept. Kristin’s infatuation with Erlend Nikulausson (a man nearly 15 years her senior who has had an extended affair with a married woman and been excommunicated from the Catholic Church) provides the drama and conflict in the book. Kristin is easily seduced by the handsome Erlend with dire consequences for her. As her close relationship with her father Lavrans begins to deteriorate, Kristin clings to the hope of happiness with Erlend despite her fears and doubts.
Sigrid Undset’s writing is fluid and beautifully reveals the wild countryside of Norway in the 14th century. The Wreath is filled with period detail of the food, dress, and architecture of this time in history. Romantic, dramatic and resonating with unexpected crises, The Wreath captivated me from the first page and drew me into Kristin’s life effortlessly.
In many ways, this first book in Undset’s novel is a study of women’s rights (or perhaps their lack of rights) in a culture which saw women as the possessions of first their fathers, and then their husbands. Kristin is faced with a decision to either abide by her father’s choice of husband or risk shaming him. Torn between her own desires and the moral laws set by her culture and religion, Kristin wrestles with guilt, shame and anger. Early in The Wreath Kristin is nearly raped along a deserted road, yet she is afraid to seek the help of her family for fear of being seen as a slut. Later, this episode leads to her spending a year in a convent until the rumors in her small town die down.
Many readers have commented on Undset’s tendency toward melodrama, but I found this a realistic look at what life must have been like for women during medieval times. Their lives were very much defined by the men whom they married, and lineage and wealth all played a part in who would become their spouses. The reliance on religion as a guideline for behavior, and the harsh punishment when women veered away from these moral laws, also regulated their everyday lives. The Wreath is full of romance, but also emphasizes the inherent dangers of romantic connections for women who dared to step outside the rigid structure which had been established for them. Although Kristin is not wholly likable by the end of The Wreath, I found myself feeling empathy for her.
I loved this first “book” of Kristin Lavransdatter and am eager to continue the saga in Part II: The Wife.
Highly recommended for those readers who enjoy historical fiction.
**I had originally intended to read along with other bloggers who are tackling this book together…that read-a-long is being hosted here and here… But I have dropped behind schedule a bit. I encourage you to visit Emily’s and Richard’s blog posts about The Wreath, and check out the links to other bloggers who are doing the formal read-a-long.