Callously ravished by the man she hoped to love, an 11th Century Norwegian woman shapes her life around dreams of vengeance.
Gunnar’s Daughter is an early novel from the Sigrid Undset, author of the Nobel Prize-winning Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, and it is no less of a powerful, shocking work not just for a book set in medieval Norway, but for a book written at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Vigdis is a young maid, fair and virtuous, daughter of a wealthy landowner, and when her father’s estate is visited by a group of virile Icelanders, she is captivated by Ljot and his brash bravado. However, Ljot isn’t quite the chivalrous hero that a girl like Vigdis might dream of. He repays Gunnar’s hospitality by raping Vigdis–and calling it love. After that moment, Vigdis’s pregnancy and subsequent life are marked by violence and dreams of vengeance.
Gunnar’s Daughter is a dark and bloody book, and surprisingly contemporary in its treatment of the fallout of sexual violence. Because Vigdis had already expressed affection and desire for Ljot, what transpires is an 11th Century form of date rape, and could have easily been called a crime of passion, or not even called a crime at all. But Undset understands what it means for a woman to be taken by force when she does not want to be taken, that the scars run deep despite any initial attraction she might have had to her attacker. That’s what makes this book feel so fresh and so current. It deals with a truth that has only been recently acknowledged, that rape is not just an anonymous crime.
Vigdis’s character is shaped by the rape, and Undset tracks her through the course of the rest of her unsettled and mostly unhappy life. Yet Vigdis is far from pitiable, though she is quite sympathetic, because Undset shows how the sinned against can become the sinner. She is singleminded in her hatred of Ljot, whatever the consequences may be. More than anything, I was reminded of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, a classic rape/revenge movie featuring a protagonist just as innocent as Vigdis, and just as fierce.
I didn’t fall in love with Vigdis in the same way that I fell head over heels for Kristin, but Gunnar’s Daughter is a very different kind of book. But Vigdis is a fascinating and complex woman, whose depths enthralled me. And I also related to her–I understood the choices that she made. And you can’t help but be in awe of a woman who skis across Norway with a toddler tied to her back. What a powerful image!