About him she would never be wiser of stronger. She might strive to seem capable and fearless, pious and strong in her marriage with him – but in truth, she wasn’t. Always, always there was the yearning lament inside her: She wanted to be his Kristin from the woods of Gerdarud. – from Kristin Lavransdatter, The Wife, page 629 –
Book Two of Kristin Lavransdatter begins with Kristin’s new life as wife to Erlend Nikulaussen at his home in Northern Norway. Kristin is ridden with guilt for her sin of becoming pregnant by Erlend before they were wed…and as the birth of her first son approaches she becomes melancholy and seeks redemption by talking to Erlend’s brother Gunnulf who is also a priest. Ultimately she must travel alone with her infant son to Nidaros to seek forgiveness and to be absolved of her sins.
The Wife reveals the struggles, challenges, and pitfalls which Kristin encounters through the years of her marriage to a reckless man. Not only does she repeatedly face the risks of pregnancy, but Erlend becomes entangled in royal politics and a conspiracy to unseat the young King Magnus of Norway. His tendency to seduce women becomes his undoing – and Kristin finds herself facing an uncertain and precarious future. Luckily for Kristin the man she scorned in order to marry Erlend holds no bitterness towards her. Although he has gone on to marry Kristin’s younger sister Ramborg, Simon Andresson stands bravely beside Kristin and fights to free Erlend from prison and certain death.
Sigrid Undset’s continuing saga of Kristin in book two of Kristin Lavransdatter is a bit heavier than book one – the focus is not just on the domestic drama in Kristin and Erlend’s household, but delves more deeply into the politics of the region during medieval times. Many minor characters are introduced, and at times the complex names caused me to thumb back pages to re-orient myself.
The Wife is thematically focused on redemption and womens’ roles as wives during the 14th century. Kristin is alternatively pious and rebellious as she struggles to deal with her sinful past and her internalized anger towards Erlend. Faced with Erlend’s infidelity, followed by his arrest for treason, Kristin suppresses her anger and righteously stands by her man. I had to remind myself that this response was not unusual during medieval times when a woman depended not only on a man’s physical ability to protect her and her children, but faced societal persecution if she left her marriage. In Kristin’s case, her acceptance in society was also impacted by the common knowledge that she had not been pure on the day of her marriage.
I did not enjoy The Wife as much as I did The Wreath. Although Undset’s prose is easy to read, and the setting of Norway is beautifully described and historically correct, I felt The Wife became weighted down with details around the politics and court intrigue. Rather than provide excitement, much of the political underpinnings just left me feeling overwhelmed. Undset introduces so many characters in this second part of her saga, that it leaves the reader struggling to keep track of everyone.
Readers who loved the first part of this trilogy may find themselves disappointed with the second part. Despite this, if you are like me and want to finish the whole book, don’t skip The Wife. It does add depth to the character of Kristin (although at times I found myself wanting to shake her!), and leads the reader seamlessly into book three: The Cross.
Read my review of Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath