Rereading great novels is a precious gift, perhaps more meaningful as we get older. At different times of life, we focus on different elements and patterns in a novel. If we revisit classics after a decade or two, we experience them differently. As a girl I read with total faith, as though everything in a novel had happened to me. Yes, God knows how, but I was Justine in Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (unlikely) and Martha Quest in Doris Lessing’s novels (a little less doubtful). I reread passionate novels like Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, because I identified strongly with the intense heroines and understood the Victorian mores and morality. In middle age, I read differently and more critically: I prefer Charlotte Bronte’s quieter Villette and Hardy’s less showy The Mayor of Casterbridge. Alas, I have become a less kind reviewer of new fiction than I used to be. It is difficult to take seriously the latest book by whoever the latest sensation is when one has just finished rereading a classic.
Yet, oddly, I lose all distance and separation from the text when I reread Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter. I still become Kristin, the heroine of this trilogy, set in the 14th century. These gorgeously-written books by the Nobel Prize winner chronicle the life of one medieval woman and her experiences of different kinds of love: filial love, passionate first love, marriage with all its rewards, disillusion, and hardships, maternal love, and spiritual love. And as life goes on, Kristin becomes more religious, and more aware of how her greatest sin, pre-marital sex with the handsome older slacker, Erlend, who was excommunicated from the church, has shaped her unhappiness. (Yes, pre-marital sex was a sin in the Middle Ages, particularly because Kristin was already betrothed to someone else, and Erlend had lived with a married woman for 10 years and had two children)
But it’s not just about Kristin and Erlend’s love. It also shows in relief the contrast between Kristin’s love and the marriage of her middle-aged parents and the marriage of elderly neighbors, Fru Ashild, and Herr Bjorn. They are not happy couples, though each has had their share of love.
These couples should prove an object lesson to Kristin, but of course they can’t–the young can’t see the future.
In The Wreath, the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, we meet Kristin as an independent, intelligent, beautiful girl, who is almost too beloved by her father. Kristin rebels against her betrothal to Simon, a good man chosen by her father, and begs to go to a convent for a year, partly because she is not attracted to Simon, partly because she believes her sins have made her younger sister ill. A man has already died for Kristin, her childhood friend Arne; he stood up against a priest’s son who maligned her to a group of men, and who, unbeknownst to anyone, had attempted to rape Kristin. Kristin goes to the convent and ironically, on a complicated foray through town with another girl, she meets and falls in love with Erlend, a handsome aristocrat who has been excommunicated from the church for living with a married woman. (He is charming, though, and we like him.) It is not surprising that Kristin falls in love with him, because he also saves her from another rapist.
I am paying equal attention this time to the older characters. Ragnfrid, Kristin’s mother, is a passionate women whose husband, Lavrans, the perfect landowner and manager, loved by all, has never felt attracted to her. We learn of her grief: not only has she miscarried and lost children, but her husband has never returned her sexual feelings.
This is not the kind of love we usually read about in fiction.
Yes, God help her. What kind of woman was she? What kind of mother was she? She would soon be old. And yet she was just the same. She no longer begged the way she had when they were young, when she had threatened and raged against this man who closed himself off, shy and modest, when she grew ardent–who turned cold when she wanted to give him more than his husband’s rights.”
And then there is the aristocratic old woman, Fru Ashild, thought by some to be a witch. She has no regrets–she does not regret her passion for the younger man, Herr Bjorn, with whom she ran away when her husband died. People have said that she murdered her husband and that she bewitched Bjorn. But she tells Kristin it’s better to know love, even illicit love, than not. But she never expected Kristin to fall in love with her ne’er-to-do nephew.
There is so much in Kristin Lavransdatter. And if you’re interested in Liv Ullman’s movie of Kristin Lavrasndatter, here is a montage of scenes I found on YouTube: