Sigrid Undset
Sigrid Undset; drawing by David Levine

Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset’s celebrated trilogy of novels set in fourteenth-century Norway, runs over one thousand pages in the old three-in-one Knopf hardcover I’d picked up secondhand, and I chose to read it slowly, lugging the hefty, handsome volume everywhere. This was more than twenty years ago. One of its themes is the stubborn power of magic—the bewitching allure of pagan practices in a society that had officially but not wholeheartedly embraced Christianity—and the trilogy did seem to work magical effects: it drew elderly women to me.

While memory tells me that this must have happened seven or eight times, probably it was more like five. The encounters were much of a piece. An older woman sitting beside me on the subway, or waiting behind me in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or having lunch at a nearby table, would cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that she, too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter—a remark accompanied by that glazed glow which comes from a distant but enduring pleasure.


Early in the trilogy a moment arrives that is emblematic of Undset’s ambitions and designs. For the first time in her life the heroine, Kristin Lavransdatter, age seven, leaves the valley that has heretofore circumscribed her existence. A new sort of panorama beckons and beguiles:

There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows…. Kristin had thought that if she came up over the crest of her home mountains, she would be able to look down on another village like their own, with farms and houses, and she had such a strange feeling when she saw what a great distance there was between places where people lived.

The revelation is geographical for Kristin but temporal for the reader, who also is to be granted a breathtaking new vista, as a world many centuries old emerges with crystalline clarity. Indeed, the book’s deepest pleasures may be retrocessive. The trilogy advances with a relentless forward motion, following Kristin methodically—almost ploddingly—from the age of seven until her death, at about fifty, from the Black Death. But the reader’s greatest thrill is the rearward one of feeling tugged back into a half-pagan world where local spirits still inhabit the streams and cairns and shadowy forests. The trilogy sets us in an earlier age that looks back, uneasily, on a still earlier age.

Kristin Lavransdatter was a publishing phenomenon. My own edition was the seventeenth printing—an elaborate clothbound hardcover published in 1973, a half-century after the trilogy first appeared in English. It was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, where its striking success elicited an unprecedented testimonial: “We consider it the best book our judges have ever selected and it has been better received by our subscribers than any other book.” Continuously in print for three quarters of a century, Kristin Lavransdatter is today that rarity of foreign twentieth-century novels: one with competing translations available. Still, it plainly hasn’t captivated later generations as it once did. Though Undset may well be, even now, the best-known modern Scandinavian novelist in this country, she has been little embraced by academia (which has overlooked Scandinavia generally, apart from its playwrights), and the trilogy is perhaps gradually moving, in the language of the blurb, from “beloved masterpiece” to “cult classic.” When, four years ago, Steerforth Press brought out The Unknown Sigrid Undset,1 a collection that presented both Undset’s wonderful early book Jenny—a novel set in modern Rome—and a sampling of her letters, its title raised the question whether there is a “known” Undset in this country.

Kristin Lavransdatter’s dense, decade-spanning plot might be summarized as the story of a Daddy’s girl who refuses Daddy’s choice of a husband and marries for love. Kristin’s father wishes her to marry Simon Andresson, an honorable, thoughtful, devoted, and woefully unglamorous man. Kristin falls instead for Erlend Nikulausson, a proud, impulsive, fearless young knight who seems constitutionally unable to steer clear of scandal. After having pledged her love to him, she finds out that Erlend has already fathered children through an adulterous liaison, and when he and Kristin are married—for the headstrong girl squelches all paternal objections and marries the man of her choice—she is already secretly pregnant. For Kristin, the wedding turns out to be a literally nauseating dissimulation, an unshakable bout of morning sickness as her father gives her away with all the pomp appropriate for a virgin bride. No matter how many children she has under the sanction of holy wedlock—she and Erlend wind up with seven sons—she still feels like a transgressor.


Like the earlier Jenny, whose heroine is a modern Norwegian art student in Rome who disdains a suitor for the suitor’s father, Kristin Lavransdatter is the tale of a scandalous woman. That the trilogy’s readers are meant to regard Kristin sympathetically is but one sign of Undset’s bold and nuanced treatment of sexuality. Although the trilogy’s sex is hardly graphic (almost the only reference to genitalia arises when, in the skirmish that kills him, Erlend receives a spear wound to his groin), Undset repeatedly lets us know that her heroine is a slave to carnal desires, as when, not long before his death, Erlend discomfits his wife with a casual, jesting reference to those days when her nails dug so deeply into his skin as to leave him bleeding.

In the annals of literary “fallen women,” Kristin Lavransdatter, that twentieth-century/fourteenth-century literary figure, occupies a curious and fascinating place. After they fell, a number of Kristin’s nineteenth-century counterparts were whisked offstage, often to meet a premature end. In the latter part of the twentieth century, many of Kristin’s successors were sexual adventuresses whose exploits were pure and liberated triumphs. Writing in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Undset chose a middle path for her heroine. Kristin never doubts that she has covertly sinned, and the pain of her decep-tions remains a lifelong affliction. Even so, her unshakable guilt in no way paralyzes her and she carries on. Throughout the trilogy, Kristin is an indomitable presence in every role she undertakes—mother, mistress of an estate, and even, in her final days, sometime religious pilgrim who chooses to close her life in a nunnery.

Kristin’s painful wedding is both a commencement and a culmination: her life progresses as though her squalid seduction, set in a brothel room obtained by Erlend as a means of protecting their privacy, must forever discolor connubial relations. “The Devil cannot have so much power over a man that I would ever cause you sorrow or harm,” Erlend naively vows after he begins seducing her, yet he has already planted the seeds of distress that eventually will all but destroy his beloved. Actually, their doomed marriage—they eventually part physically, although psychologically they can never sever the tortured bonds between them—is but one of the trilogy’s numerous portraits of domestic discord and blight. At the very close of the first volume, we learn that the marriage of Kristin’s parents is similarly rooted in deception. Undset’s characters are near contemporaries of Chaucer’s pilgrims, and they might likewise “speke of wo that is in mariage.”

Undset’s greatest literary strength reveals itself bit by bit, in the way the passions of Kristin, Erlend, and Simon Andresson play out in all their intricate and lingering aftereffects. Simon’s transformation is particularly affecting. He begins as a promising and enthusiastic suitor of a beautiful young girl, Kristin Lavransdatter; eventually harbors doubts about her devotion; discovers her affair with Erlend and, brandishing a sword, seeks to “rescue” her. In time he enters a kind of collusion with the lovers, who convince him not to disclose the affair to Kristin’s father, and he fi-nally marries a plain but wealthy widow, leaving unspoken much of the hurt and regret he clearly feels. The trilogy achieves an exceptional sense of accumulating dailiness, of momentous actions connected to one another in all sorts of minute and unexpected evolutions.

The burning lust between Kristin and Erlend feels doubly real, not merely plausible but also proximate. But no less real is that variable, volatile mixture of remorse, shame, loyalty, and fondness which their youthful passion retrospectively stirs. It’s one of the reasons the two of them can never fully part—the memories of a passion so urgent that all other considerations, moral and practical, have been subsumed by it. When you enter Kristin Lavransdatter, you enter a marriage, a contract expansively unfolding through time. Unfortunately, fascinatingly, it’s a union of two people who share a proud, combative stubbornness that ultimately undoes them.


As a writer renowned for her medieval epics, Undset came by her calling honestly. Born in Denmark in 1882, she grew up in Norway, in a household permeated by vanished societies. Her Norwegian father and well-educated Danish mother collaborated professionally, he as an archaeologist and she as his secretary and illustrator. Sigrid grew up among archaeological relics and manuscripts. Her naturally derived feeling of being at home in earlier centuries protected her from the great occupational hazard of the historical novelist: the urge to display just how much scholarship has gone into the past’s disinterment. Kristin Lavransdatter reflects deep reading, as well as a close-at-hand tactile familiarity with the everyday objects of fourteenth-century Norway, but Undset’s research is mainly concealed. You never sense the burden of heavy labor in her prose. Yet she seems intimately acquainted with the clothes and the diet, the customs and the politics, the architecture and the thinking of the people she writes about. The farm where Kristin grows up feels like a working farm.
When Sigrid’s beloved father died, in 1893, the family found itself in sharply reduced circumstances. She abandoned her formal education while still in her mid-teens and took a secretarial job in an electrical company. She worked there for ten years. She wrote in her spare hours, embarking unsuccessfully on a pair of novels set in medieval times. An influential editor advised her to abandon such projects: “Don’t attempt any more historical novels. You have no talent for it. But you might try writing something modern. You never know.”


The pursuit of “something modern” led to Fru Marta Oulie, a contemporary tale of infidelity, published in 1907 and not yet translated into English, and a collection of stories, presumably drawn from life—a number are about Norwegian office workers—followed a year later. The books were respectfully received and sold well. Nonetheless, Undset’s passion for an older world was unquenchable, and in 1909 she published a short novel set in the Middle Ages. (Under the title Gunnar’s Daughter, it first appeared in English in the Thirties, and resurfaced as a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic in 1998.)

The first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter was published in Norway in 1920, with the second and third volumes appearing in succeeding years. The trilogy was quickly translated and just as quickly embraced across the globe. A medieval tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken, which also has at its heart a pair of passionate but troubled and guilt-stricken young lovers, followed in the mid-Twenties. In 1928, at the age of forty-six, Undset received the Nobel Prize, chiefly for her medieval epics. She had surmounted every obstacle. In sales, number of translations, significant honors, and reader loyalty, Undset in 1928 was probably the most successful woman writer in the world.


Perhaps it’s unsurprising that things proceeded less smoothly in Undset’s personal life. In 1909, while traveling in Italy, she fell in love with Anders Castus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter thirteen years her senior. He was married, with three children. After an eventual divorce, Svarstad wed Undset, once more fathering three children, one of them severely retarded. In time, their marriage foundered and in 1924, after Undset converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism—a seemingly inevitable move for someone whose imagination was rooted in a pre-Reformation Europe—the marriage was annulled.

During the decade of her marriage, Undset published a book of feminist essays. As Tiina Nunnally wryly points out in a helpful introduction to her translation of the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter: “Her written positions were often in direct contradiction to her own life choices.”2 Svarstad turned out to be a highly demanding partner, and it was only after she separated from him, in 1919, that she did her best work. For all the upheaval in her personal life, she remained steadily industrious and generous. She donated all her Nobel prize money to charity and, a decade later, when the Soviets invaded Finland, she sold her Nobel medallion to support a relief fund for Finnish children. When the Nazis invaded Norway, Undset fled to the United States, settling in Brooklyn for a five-year exile, during which she traveled on many speaking tours on behalf of her homeland. She returned to Norway after the war to find her house severely vandalized. Her health was broken, and she died in 1949, at the age of sixty-seven.

For an English-language reader, much about Undset’s life remains inaccessible, locked away in bibliographies that point toward Norwegian books and articles. This situation was somewhat amended by The Unknown Sigrid Undset, also translated by Nunnally, which includes Jenny, a pair of stories, and—especially welcome—a selection of Undset’s letters that throws welcome light on those apprentice years when the lowly office worker dreamed of a higher life. All of these letters were addressed to Andrea Hedberg, a friend who shared Undset’s literary interests and ambitions. The correspondence, which lasted more than forty years, originated through a Swedish pen-pal club. For any reader who has succumbed to the spell of Kristin Lavransdatter or The Master of Hestviken, there’s a privileged thrill in having these letters available, in hearing an elusive authorial voice, previously filtered through the Middle Ages, speaking immediately of its own concerns, whether in romantic youth (“I’m only happy when I’m alone in the woods”) or in sober adulthood (“On the morning of the 24th I gave birth to a son—a big strong boy—5 kilos”).

It’s a voice, one should add, that offers few surprises—insofar as the earnest, fervent, ambitious, far-seeing young electric company secretary is so recognizably, while yet in embryo, the author of the mature novels: Undset was high-minded from start to finish. She spoke freely and unselfconsciously to Hedberg about her coalescing artistic aims. Here is Undset at age seventeen:

Sometimes I want so much to write a book…. I’ve started a few times, but nothing comes of it, and I burn it at once. But it’s supposed to take place in 1340…and there isn’t a single romantic scene in it. It’s about two young people—of course—Svend Trøst and Maiden Agnete, whose unhappy story… an unhappy marriage that I won’t bother you with right now.

And here she is two years later:

But it’s an artist that I want to be, a woman artist, and not a pen-wielding lady…. Furthermore, marriage makes most women stupid, or they dilute their demands on life, on their husband, and on themselves so much that they can scarcely be counted as human, or they become uncomprehending, vulgar, coarse, or unhappy.

Yes, my dear Dea, I certainly hope you will take great joy and comfort from this edifying epistle. I’m keeping one consolation for my own use: I will!

I will hold my head high, I will not buckle under.

I will not commit suicide—will not waste my talents. If I have any, I will also find them and use them. I will be whatever I can be.


While Kristin Lavransdatter is firmly rooted in a specific place and era—southern and central Norway in the first half of the fourteenth century—I suspect for most American readers the story has always been set in some misted Long Ago and Far Away. The medieval historian may find in it a careful account of political maneuvering and uncertainty, but the shifting intrigues following, say, the death of King Haakon V (who reigned from 1299 to 1319) are likely to feel impossibly remote to the general reader. The trilogy’s earlier translation, by Charles Archer, may also have worked to deracinate the plot from its historical grounding. Archer’s many archaisms (“Yet did he look in his coarse homely clothing more high-born than many a knight,” “he had wrought scathe to the maidenhood of her spirit”) encourage us to transplant the plot into a realm detached from time, some enchanted Arthurian landscape of gallant knights and comely maidens.

Nunnally’s translation redirects our attention. The florid constructions and whimsical quaintnesses have dropped away, and Undset emerges as a writer of spare vigor. Nunnally unquestionably brings us closer to the heart of the book than Archer did. She is perhaps just a touch too hard, implicitly, on her predecessor, when she speaks of her ambition to “reproduce in English the clear style, natural dialogue, and passionate flow of the original Norwegian edition without imposing any unnecessary convolutions or archaisms.” I loved Kristin Lavransdatter in Nunnally’s rendering, but I also loved the book as a piece of tapestry in the hands of Archer, who may have created one of those anomalous translations—like Edward FitzGerald’s wildly successful reimagining of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam —whose charm springs from the willful ways it diverges from the origi-nal. Even so, on the grounds of authenticity, one’s preference must be for Nunnally, who has surely done as much as anyone in recent years to bring Nordic literature to this country. (She has translated, with fluency and grace, Knut Hamsun and Jens Peter Jacobsen, as well as Peter Ho/eg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow.)

If Archer’s translation scanted the trilogy’s treatment of medieval history, it may thereby have encouraged comparisons to figures less remote in time. Readers may have found in the trilogy’s headstrong and often self-destructive heroine a distant cousin to Becky Sharp and Scarlett O’Hara. In Erlend and Kristin’s ill-starred but unstoppable love affair, they may have detected a kinship with Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff and Cathy. But Kristin Lavransdatter has a dimension these other books rarely aspired to: an encompassing religiosity. Only in the third volume does it grow apparent that the trilogy registers a gradual but inevitable repudiation of the flesh. The appetites of the young girl who lost her virginity in a brothel grow distant and Kristin finally winds up in a nunnery, ministering to others with extraordinary courage and selflessness during a sort of hallucinatory apocalypse—the arrival of the Black Death, which wiped out half of the country’s population.

The growing call of religion renders richly ambiguous the culminating events of Kristin’s life. One might view the trilogy as an accelerating accretion of tragedies, as Kristin’s poor abandoned suitor, Simon, whose love for her is hopeless and perpetual, goes to his deathbed with his faithfulness largely unnoticed or misunderstood by Kristin; as her marriage founders and she loses Erlend to a spear; as illness and blindness and plague pluck her children from her, one by one. The story might also be viewed as the record of a long, hard-won, noble victory, as the passionate teenager who brooks no curbs on her desires, recklessly sowing pain and destruction in the process, decades later renounces the decaying kingdom of the flesh for the indestructible domain of the spirit.

Undset owed an incalculable debt to the anonymous Icelandic sagas of the thirteenth century, as she was the first to acknowledge. When she was ten, she fell under the spell of the longest and perhaps greatest of them, Njal’s Saga, whose elaborate chronicling of violent and implacable feuds overwhelmed her young imagination; she later declared this the “most important turning point in my life.” Kristin Lavransdatter reflects many of the distinguishing traits of the sagas: a matter-of-fact abruptness when unexpected catastrophe supervenes; a tendency to view characters externally, with few ventures into the inner workings of their minds; a wry stoicism in the face of life’s merciless cruelty (Undset notes about Kristin’s mother, who lost her three sons in infancy, “People thought she took the deaths of her children unreasonably hard”); a fondness for characters prone to lengthy brooding silences finally punctuated by shattering admissions, as when Kristin’s mother stuns her husband by announcing, “I’m talking about the fact that I wasn’t a maiden when I became your wife,” or when she declares, “I’ve always known, Kristin, that you’ve never been very fond of me.”3

A particular poignancy attends the reading of very long novels, especially those which, for all their undeniable charms, you’re unlikely to read again. Weeks, even months of your internal life are given over to some new cast of characters, who vaporize when the book is closed. A few such novels may escape this tinge of melancholy. I felt little of it while reading for the first time Don Quixote or David Copperfield or Vanity Fair or In Search of Lost Time, since I never doubted I’d one day return to them. Most long books will never be revisited. I don’t suppose I’ll ever reread John Hersey’s The Call, although it’s the only novel I’ve ever read that convincingly situated me in China, or Shimazaki Toson’s Before the Dawn, even if it deposited me deep in rural Japan during the Meiji restoration, or Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, though parting from its imaginary Thoreauvian nation was a little like leaving the land of the lotus-eaters.

Doubtless most of those readers who loved Kristin Lavransdatter in its original translation never got around to rereading it, and the story faded into a distant glimmering. If the trilogy’s plot embodies an ultimate stripping away of worldly concerns, as Kristin moves slowly but steadily from bodily to spiritual obsessions, in readers’ memories a counterpart sort of paring may take place. For most readers, the book’s account of political machinations—King Haakon and all the rest—probably fled the memory in rapid order, as did any strong feelings about Undset as a prose stylist. What lingered was a feeling of having been transported; what lingered was enchantment. Each time a woman approached me to say I once read that book, she was responding to a literary gratitude so durable it insisted on being expressed to a stranger. They wished to declare, I lived, for a time, in another world.

Copyright © 2005 by Brad Leithauser

This Issue

October 6, 2005