As her seven sons grow to manhood in 13th Century Norway, Kristin finds her marriage tested by long-simmering resentments, and struggles with her passage into senescence.
This might be my favorite of all three Kristin Lavransdatter books, because I think Undset is operating at the peak of her narrative powers. She really brings to life a time in Kristin’s life that isn’t as readily appealing as Kristin’s passage into womanhood, and the novelty of Kristin and Erlend’s life together has worn off. In that way, reading The Cross is like experiencing a mature marriage, from what I can imagine. It’s no longer new, yet surprises and delight still exist if you have the patience to endure.
Not that any of the three Kristin Lavransdatter books need to be endured, mind you. Despite the alienness of 13th Century feudal Norway, Undset’s books feel fresh, immediate, and alive, thanks to her depiction of Kristin, an exceptionally complex character.
To summarize, Kristin was born to Lavrans Bjorgulfsson, a man of high esteem throughout the valley, and she was his oldest child. Betrothed to Simon Darre, she took advantage of a new law allowing women to choose whom they would marry to spurn him after giving her virginity to rakish Erlend Niklausson, with whom she had a tumultuous and secretive affair under the noses of the nuns in the convent where she was being raised. She married Erlend in time for their oldest son to be born legitimate, but even after giving birth to 6 more sons Kristin could never forget the shame she felt while sneaking around with Erlend and carrying Naakve in secret. Throughout her marriage, her shamed turned into bitterness and resentment of Erlend, especially since he had several affairs, including one with Fru Sunniva that destroyed his reputation and caused him to be nearly branded as a traitor for his dealings against the king.
In The Cross, Kristin and Erlend have grown estranged, the love and passion of their youth having hardened into alienation, and they separate. Meanwhile, Kristin’s first betrothed, Simon Darre, is now married to Kristin’s much younger sister Ramborg, but the proximity between the two families inflames Simon’s passion for Kristin anew, and causes damage to both families. Rumors spread, tensions flare and axes fly in the juiciest, most passionate installment in the trilogy.
What I love about Undset’s depiction of Kristin is that she’s not afraid to make Kristin frustrating. She resists the temptation to make her a noble wife, and it’s Kristin’s petty refusal to forgive that makes her so accessible and real. It’s Kristin’s flaws that make her marriage to Erlend come to life. She culminates the story in a spiritual revelation that is completely earned and utterly moving.
Surely she had never asked God for anything except that He should let her have her will. And every time she had been granted what she asked for–for the most part. Now here she sat with a contrite heart–not because she had sinned against God but because she was unhappy that she had been allowed to follow her will to the road’s end.
She had not come to God with her wreath or with her sins and sorrows, not as long as the world still possessed a drop of sweetness to add to her goblet. But now she had come, after she had learned that the world is like an alehouse: The person who has no more to spend is thrown outside the door. (p. 371)
That this comes from a woman who, by all accounts, is pious and good shows that Undset has a remarkable conception of the complexities of individual spiritual experiences. Personally, I really connect with Kristin’s struggles with outward holiness and inner corruption, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. And I’m reminded of a quote from CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce:#
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.’ (Chapter 9)
I adore Kristin with a passion. She’s a true kindred spirit, and now at the top of my list of fictional characters I’d like to meet some day. (I harbor this secret heretical notion that there are some fictional characters among the inhabitants of heaven, but don’t tell my pastor.)