As much as I am angry about all the puritanism in Robin Hobb’s books, I accept the notion of sin in Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I accept the strong religiosity of its characters and all the deliberation about guilt and grace.
Why have I ever come to it although it’s not my cup of tea at all? Is it because Undset got the Nobel Prize? Maybe. When I read Kristin… the first time, I was a little snob who wanted to learn serious literature. When I read it the second time, I saw all its nuances and subtleties. I saw how all the setting is connected to its times, and how the worldview of the characters follows this pattern. I saw also how realistic the novel is, and how the opinions of the heroes and of the very narrator change.
This changing, shifting, so obvious to the life in all its aspects, might have made me embracing Kristin… wholeheartedly. Unlike in The Forsyte Saga, it isn’t the change from questioning the establishment to longing for it. Unlike some more popular books —like Hobb’s series, of course—nothing remains the same. Let’s take Fitz Farseer. Fitz doesn’t change a lot from his teen years, literally inheriting Burrich’s opinions on sex and relationships, and being a wheening hypocrite stern to his foster son and to his lovers.
Meanwhile, Kristin isn’t such a simple character. She begins as a girl feeling guilty for her premarital sex with her beloved Erlend on the one hand and defying her parents openly for the sake of her love on the other one. She grows into a woman who may hold grudge, but who doesn’t conceal important things from her partner *recalls Fitz and laughs*. She ends up as a person who accepts the life as it is, focused not on scorning anybody, but on bringing help even to those who are outcasts. Meanwhile, she makes up with her son Gaute bringing his fiancee to their household before the wedding. She approaches the girl with no slut-shaming and she welcomes her grandson, commenting the sumptuous christening of the illegitimate child with only a bit of irony. And her complex attitude towards love and sex is only a small part of her contradictory and strong personality. I wish Robin Hobb had created such a character instead of pack of archetypes whose traits remain more or less the same. I wish Philippa Gregory created her characters like that, instead of quite inconsequent shifting between a modern approach of GirlsPower&StupidArrangedMar-riages on the one hand and the rule of not perceiving the people from Old Days through our standard on the other one. I wish Maurice Druon had had an approach like that instead of depicting the women with deliberate or involuntary sexism.
Because, really, Kristin Lavransdatter is one of the best historical novels I’ve read, and one of the novels in which the fantastic and subversive elements have been incorporated in a very subtle and unobvious way.
Still, why should I care, you may ask.
If you are an engaged Catholic, you’ll be probably glad to read a novel which is complex on the one hand and compatible with your worldview on the other one.
If you are a Conservative perceiving the private live in the past through the life of your parents or grandparents—who were probably stabily married without illegitimate kids—you’ll be surprised.
If you are a liberal or generally progressive, and doubtful about religion, you may wonder why should you care at all about a book written by a devoted Catholic who seemed ranting against extramarital sex. Then, I would advise you on reading Kristin Lavransdatter with your own eyes. You are wholly entitled to be sceptic. You are entitled to see the things which the author tried to conceal or saw as perfectly neutral. And the paradox is that those things are as visible in this book as in the works which are progressive or feminist retellings. Sometimes, they echo even more soundly.
Medieval World Without Purple-Washing
Kristin Lavransdatter might not be the most progressive novel in the matter of reproductive rights and explicit sexual freedom, but it is also better from conservative historical fiction on two levels. On the first one, it doesn’t conceal the fact that the people will fall in love and part from one another, and have illegitimate kids and illicit affairs no matter their religion or convictions.
On the second one, it’s more sincere in the question of women’s situation.
Nowadays, people like Jordan Peterson claim that there has been no patriarchy. On the other hand, not only the conservatives, but supposedly progressive authors—like Roshani Chokshi or Guy Gavriel Kay in his first novels—purplewash the past and tend to omit the sexism in their books. The conservatives, meanwhile, do purplewashing to present themselves and their opinions as women-friendly and to justify themselves and the institutions they support.
Sigrid Undset didn’t do anything like that. She did it not necessarily because she was an aware feminist, but the result is telling to the modern reader anyway.
The times when a man who’s never bitten his wife was considered a particularly kind guy weren’t women-friendly.
The times when a pregnant woman who experienced abuse stayed with her husband according to “God’s Will” weren’t women-friendly.
The times when a girl was accused of provoking her would-be-rapist—a man who was trained for a priest, additionally—weren’t women-friendly.
The times when a husband stroke her wife and felt entitled to do it merely because he was angry on her or worried about her, weren’t women-friendly.
The times when a woman was considered a witch merely because she’d gained some medical knowledge, weren’t women-friendly.
The times when priests and parents alike admonished women to obey their husbands, weren’t women-friendly.
The times when a well-born woman was an outcast because of living in an informal relationship, weren’t women-friendly.
The times when a master could seduce or rape his servant, and he was only to worry about providing (or not) some incomes to his bastards on her, weren’t women-friendly.
The times when a girl fell in love with her rapist and, many years later, wanted her husband to punish her for it, weren’t women-friendly.
On the basis of Kristin Lavransdatter, you can multiply such examples touching almost every female character in the novel.
Although the book doesn’t defy the patriarchy and the Church’s work on it openly, one could draw hope from some particular fragments featured and opinions expressed by the characters.
Kristin begins as a girl wanting to follow and obey her beloved, Erlend Nikulausson. Over the years, however, she starts seeing that Erlend relies on her and her managing skills a lot but he doesn’t respect her as his equal, excluding her from the things he considers important. In the end, she starts seeing the injustice of it.
It illustrates well how the women—despite of their hard work and their contribution to the society—are underestimated by men, even if they do the work considered male, like supervising incomes of an estate.
Fru Aashild, Erlend’s aunt, meets a similar fate, actually, working for her drinking husband whom she’s chosen on her own request. Additionally, she is clever and keen on herbs, and known for her elegance and beauty. Undset approaches her with sympathy and compassion alike, do not stepping into cliches of a woman who is weird because of her knowledge and dubious past, or a woman who deserves her not-so-happy marriage because she might have killed her first husband.
I just think that such characters and their thoughts may be read as feminist ones. Especially that even the male characters in Kristin Lavransdatter break some gender roles and seek women’s counsel if they are the good ones. Both Lavrans, Kristin’s father, and Simon, her kind-hearted ex-fiance, like children and take care of them after a way, taking interest in the infants’ ailings and toddlers’ games. Because of it, they are even considered too weak and not enough masculine. #patriarchyhurtsmentoo
Erlend, meanwhile, is that type of a man who relies on her wife a lot but then he doesn’t appreciate her work. He is that type of a man who finds sick toddlers and crying babes boring and nasty, and then plays an easy-going daddy towards his adolescent sons. In a nutshell, he’s a guy who doesn’t need to work much to receive his kids’ gratitude while Kristin is that “bad” parent who coupes with her sons on the daily basis and thus is found more stern and more demanding. Her parenthood isn’t all ideal—unlike her daddy, she punishes some of her children with beating— but she worries about her kids much more than Erlend does. And I hope neverthless that the question of corporeal punishment is still more about showing the medieval attitude towards child-rearing than expressing possible author’s views.
The Unobvious One
If one expect a peacuful and harmonious image of family life in the past on the one hand and impassable social barriers and stiff hierarchy on the other one, one may be surprised by Kristin Lavransdatter. If one expect TerribleFeudalism&TerribleHipocrysy, one may be surprised, too. If one expect All a Fine Past, it won’t meet one’s expectations as well.
Some conservatives generalise the past as the time of perfect family life and imperfect political life which excluded the Decent People—like Puritans, merchants, farmers—from influence. Some—still—don’t mind even the feudalism.
Sigrid Undset has avoided falling into any of those traps.
One may think that her books are both too proclerical and too focused on the gentry and nobility. Her trilogy, however, leaves a lot of space for sceptic interpretation (unlike some “beloved” series of mine like Outlander or The Tawny Man trilogy), and her characters are lively enough to speak for themselves—sometimes even against the author’s appeal. Just as characters in any well-written book should.
Yes, religion is important for the characters, and the pious ones are usually described as the good ones. Yes, Kristin considers brother Edvin her spiritual mentor even if a modern reader may disagree strongly with the advice and opinions of him.
On the other hand, the priests and nuns portrayed in the book differ a lot. There’s Erlend’s brother who simply does good things by helping the poors. There’s an educated nun running a school. There’s sira Eirik, a local priest from Kristin’s valley who has three kids (and a grandson-rapist bastard) and lived informally with his housekeeper together for years. There are also Church officials who treat religion as a political tool, and a bishop who grows into a villain threatening Kristin’s safety. As you see, the Church isn’t portrayed all good and innocent in the trilogy, and a reader doesn’t even need to read between lines to find some very dubious characters. One, however, can always notice how contradictory are the thoughts of Kristin in the book third in comparison to the (medieval) Church’s teaching on women, and how Erlend is portrayed as a Careless Bad Boy because of his quite indifferent attitude towards religion.
The class question is complicated in the trilogy as well. One may observe how the noble ones guarded the social barriers, and how doing something caused different consequences depending on the social class .
For example, Simon Darre, Kristin’s ex-fiance, married an ailing rich woman and cheated on her out of solitude and boredom, and got a servant maid with child. The maid would be married off well, and the child take into care of its father. Simon avoided any serious punishment.
Meanwhile, Erlend got excommunicated for living with a noble-born, marrried Eline out of wedlock openly, and their children couldn’t be sure whether they are outcasts or belong to the fine society.
It illustrates one of those things the author may not see but a reader does—that the social order of the setting isn’t about religious values, but about keeping the hierarchy clear and clean. That’s why the aristocrats and gentry could father kids on the peasant and servant girls, but the well-born women are to remain immaculate to ensure a noble house’s line undoubtfullness. And that’s why the virginity is praised among the well-born ones, and it isn’t neccessary in the commonfolk, among which having an illegitimate child with a BigGuy isn’t an obvious shame.
The paradoxes and contradictories of the social order in Kristin Lavransdatter aren’t only about double standards.
Among aristocrats, for example, Lavrans is considere a mere peasant, even if a respected one—because his line, famous in Sweden, isn’t important in Norway. On the other hand, some aristocrats are outcasts—like Fru Aashild or Eline. And Kristin has to work hard even if she is considered a misstress, a lady; her son Gaute adapts this style as a farmer who—because of Erlend’s political failure—inherited only her estate. And the numerous descriptions of household chores and agricultural works—often exhausting and tedious—make the books only closer to the ordinary life.
The commoners aren’t invisible and silent in the trilogy, anyway. They comment on the life of the main characters, they support them or mock them, and they always know something the nobs don’t.
The unobvioussness of the trilogy stretches out beyond the social and religious questions. The characters of it aren’t black-and-white, and neither their morality or their choices are—the reader is given enough of space to judge them and like or dislike them basing on their PoVs, not on the author’s whim. And the situations they encouter are often paradoxical.
Both arranged and love marriages grew unhappy over the course of the plot. Erlend is considered a womanizer because he’s lived in a monogamic but informal relationship. He is the main Love Interest but we are never suggested he’s the True Love and some God of Sex; instead, we are reminded more of his faults and shortcomings but not to an extend which would make him an Evil Husband cliche. Lavrans loves children but does not love conceiving them. Kristin and Simon regret the choices they’ve made freely. Kristin pretends being devoted and obedient, but over years, she defies her husband and she realizes that she has the right to do it. She pretends being pious but she saves her nephew with magic. She founds sex pleasant and sinful as a girl to find it sweet and almost sacred as a woman in her middle years—and this bitter-sweet, sacryfying view is quite rare both in the contemporary and the old fiction. And so her perceiving of religion changes—from terryfying sin to all-embracing compassion.
Even the literary technique responds to the novel’s tone—it’s one of the first works basing almost entirely on PoVs. The most of narration belongs to Kristin, but we get some fragments by Erlend, her parents and Simon Darre, all differing in vocabulary and atmosphere, giving a sense of drama and detachment alike. And all this is written so deftly that I must admit I consider Sigrid Undset the master of PoVs. Not one of the fantasy writers like George R. R. Martin, but her.
I’ve encountered an opinion that Undset got her Nobel Prize for Kristin Lavransdatter because the fascism was growing strong in Europe and the book/trilogy promoted the fascist values. And I must disagree with it strongly—not even because Undset was to defy the Nazis during WWII.
I disagree because there is nothing fascist about this book. It isn’t about strength, purity, exclusion and Aryan beauty. It’s about the women who are far from the “clean” innocent maidens, and who aren’t condemned for it in the end. It’s about women defying the men, fathers and husbands. It’s about a woman who ends helping the weak ones, the “unclean” ones—lepers, prostitutes and bastards. It’s about the people who—like Lavrans or Simon—are praised for their gentle heart. It’s, after a fashion, a novel condemning medieval Norway colonialism—because it is Erlend, the reckless one and the one who isn’t understanding enough but who is full of himself too much, who sees the people of far North as primitive and wicked.
So, where is the fascism? It isn’t a novel like that.
It’s a novel approaching the past from the unexpected, daily side. It’s novel of love, friendship and compassion. And a novel of strong women, even if they don’t act and sound like contemporary feminists.