Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece is actually a trilogy. Part 1 is called “The Bridal Wreath”, and was published in 1923; Part 2, “The Mistress of Husaby”, was published in 1925; and Part 3, “The Cross”, in 1927. The whole of this work is known as “Kristin Lavransdatter”.
The setting is medieval Norway, which the author portrayed with detailed realism and great beauty, and the story concerns Kristin’s life from childhood to old age. Though a devout Catholic, the protagonist sometimes goes astray; especially when she meets Erlend, a man with considerable baggage whom she marries against her parents’ wishes. Her marriage to Erlend is both impassioned and injurious. In Kristin’s own words: “…they who have loved one another with the fieriest desire come in the end to be as two vipers biting each other’s tails.” After her husband’s demise, Kristin joins a convent.
Although the entire work is engrossing, it is Part 3, “The Cross”, which has always stood out for me. The trilogy exceeds a thousand pages, which might be too lengthy for some readers; in which case I recommend Part 3 alone.
“The Cross” includes a vivid, terrifying depiction of the Black Death, a plague which lasted from 1347 to 1352 and killed off about a fourth of Europe’s population. With a mix of willingness, reluctance and fatalism, the nuns of Kristin’s convent provide palliative care to one of the plague victims. Of course, the consequence of their religious duty is exposure to the disease, and they too begin to die.
In the surrounding region, hysteria rampages alongside the plague itself; and desperate measures—including human sacrifice—are conceived by some. Kristin leads a heroic offensive against the latter, in the course of which she herself is stricken. She experiences an intimation of her forthcoming end in a description that has left its mark in my mind since the first time I read it some thirty years ago:
‘[I]t seemed to her that she was standing in a cavern of night, and that ‘twas the forecourt of death. The roll of breaking waves and the hiss of their waters ebbing among the stones of the beach kept time with the blood-waves surging through her, though all the time ‘twas as though her body must shiver in pieces, as a vessel of wood falls apart in staves—her breast ached as if something would burst it in sunder from within; her head felt hollow and empty and as ‘twere rifted, and the unceasing wind wrapped her round and swept clean through her.’
Medieval Norway comes alive in Sigrid Undset’s “Kristin Lavransdatter”, which rivals Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in terms of emotional intensity and religious depth. No serious reader should miss out on this experience.
I should also mention that Tiina Nunnally’s 2005 English translation is probably preferable to the older and more archaic rendition by Charles Archer.