Now married to her beloved Erlend Niklausson, Kristin takes up her new life as the mistress of Husaby, fearful that the child that grows inside her will expose her secret shame and cause her father to reject her.
I didn’t think it was going to be possible for Undset to outdo her achievement The Wreath, book I of her Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy set in Norway in the 14th century. I feared that marriage wouldn’t suit Kristin, that her vitality and inner fire would be quenched by the mundane tasks of childrearing and household economy. But Undset is a wickedly enticing storyteller, and the Kristin that she gives us in The Wife rages with life, and her struggles are even more accessible today than those that young Kristin endured.
Undset was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which she earned for Kristin Lavransdatter in 1928. It’s nothing short of alchemy that a book written nearly a hundred years ago set in a world so far removed from our own can feel so fresh today–and it’s all because of how keen Undset’s psychological insights are. Kristin and Erlend’s daily life may look nothing like the one I share with my husband out here in the wilds of feudal Queens, New York–but their fights sure sound awfully familiar.
In The Wreath, Kristin was a young maid seduced, wracked with guilt but unable to resist Erlend. In The Wife, her guilt hardens into a cold piety in a remarkable demonstration of the way genuine repentance and sorrow over sin can transmute into pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness. Kristin is insufferable at times, seemingly bent on destroying her marriage and her husband out of her own misunderstanding of contrition and penance. The gospel she hews to doesn’t bring her life because she’s unwilling to allow God’s forgiveness to bring about restoration. In her own mind, no number of years of lawful marriage, not to mention six out of seven children conceived on the right side of the sheets can make up for a few months of illicit caresses. She and Erlend are too wicked to be redeemed.
The outside world plays a much larger part in The Wife than it did in The Wreath. Erlend is kinsman to the mother of the too-young king, and becomes embroiled in a plot to oust the rumored pervert of a boy ruler in favor of one of his cousins. The intrigue is as tangled as anything seen on “The Sopranos,” an apt comparison because 14th century Norway seems as small and close-knit as the Jersey mafia. Simon Darre, whom Kristin jilted for Erlend, makes a reappearance in The Wife when Kristin’s much-younger sister takes a shine to him (the fact that she’s 12 when this happens is a little disturbing for modern readers). This second marriage brings him back into Kristin’s world, and it becomes clear that neither of them have forgotten the tie that initially bound them when they were briefly betrothed all those years ago. Not only that, but this connection has meaning and importance within society as well, and Simon’s involvement in Erlend’s troubles makes him an object of scorn and even suspicion because he was once so intimately linked to Kristin. No one forgets anything, and it’s all everybody’s business.
The third book in the series is called The Cross, and I cannot wait to see where Undset takes my dear Kristin.