Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife by Sigrid Undset (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy, comprised of The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross. Here is book two; book one was reviewed here.


In The Wreath, we met Kristin as a child, watched her grow into a lovely young lady, and saw her lose her virtue out of wedlock to the dashing Erlend, break off an engagement with her father’s favored choice Simon, and finally, after much familial discord, succeed in marrying Erlend – while carrying his child, unknown to anyone. The Wife, naturally, follows her role as Erlend’s bride and mother to his children. All is not smooth sailing for the couple: first, in a literal sense, as Kristin is miserable on her first ocean voyage to her new home, pregnant and horribly seasick.

She has a very difficult delivery of her first son – who turns out to be the first of no less than seven sons. She and Erlend find themselves distancing almost immediately. When they were lovers, they shared a passion that was, if anything, increased by their shared sin. As I said in my review of The Wreath, Catholicism plays a weighty role. After her marriage, Kristin turns to God and religion all the more, seeking redemption for her betrayal of her father (in the sense that her father’s honor was compromised in her premarital affair). Erlend has a brother, Gunnulf, who is a holy man, and Kristin immediately becomes close to him.

Between the production of babies (the first five in under five years) and her ever-increasing piety (which involves fasting and self-deprivation), Kristin is unavailable to Erlend when he had hoped to have her as a companion nearly full-time; he has to travel on political & military business, and wants her at his side, but she is unwilling if not unable, fearing seasickness and not wishing to leave her babies. In addition, there is the added stress of Erlend’s two bastard children from an earlier liaison: the boy, Orm, warms to Kristin, but the elder Margret remains a source of conflict. Further tension is born of Erlend’s irresponsibility with his property. He is wasteful and profligate, politically less than astute – although his charm takes him further than he would otherwise have gone – and almost entirely faithful to Kristin (which, frankly, is better than I expected of him).

In the end, his risky politics get him into trouble with the young king, and he is imprisoned. Meanwhile, Kristin’s former betrothed, Simon, has married her younger sister Ramborg – more at Ramborg’s insistence than out of his own interest. Both Kristin’s parents have died. When Erlend is arrested, Simon is her closest male kinsman, and provides her with the support she needs; she does not realize he still loves her. Thanks to Simon’s interceding, Erlend’s life is spared, but his property is forfeited.

This was a fairly lengthy book at some 400 pages, but still felt easy to read. For all the friction in Erlend and Kristin’s marriage, they still love each other. When it comes down to it, they always turn back to one another, even after (for example) Erlend has an affair with another married woman purely to get back at Kristin when he feels slighted. I am a little surprised, and impressed at the strength of their relationship. I find it a little inexplicable, as I look back at this book, that I have found it as engrossing as I have. The somber, serious weight of Kristin’s piety is not something I especially identify with. But yes, I am heading into book three, The Cross, with enthusiasm. I wonder what good can come of Kristin’s family now that they’ve lost their tenuous grasp on Erlend’s shrinking estate. And I’m not sure that Simon will continue to be content with being Kristin’s brother-in-law. Stay tuned…

Rating: 5 pagesofjulia.

One Response

  1. […] Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy, comprised of The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross. As my single volume runs nearly 1200 pages, I thought you might permit me three book reviews. Here is book three; book one was reviewed here and book two here. […]

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