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Christmas in Norway, c.1330

“It was the custom for all priests at Christ Church to give supper to the poor. But Kristin had heard that fewer beggars came to Gunnulf Nikulausson than to any of the other priests, and yet–or perhaps this was the very reason–he seated them on the benches next to him in the main hall and received every wanderer like an honored guest. They were served food from his own platter and ale from the priest’s own barrels. The poor would come whenever they felt in need of a supper of stew, but otherwise they preferred to go to the other priests, where they were given porridge and weak ale in the cookhouse.
As soon as the scribe had finished the prayers after the meal, the poor guests wanted to leave. Gunnulf spoke gently to each of them, asking whether they would like to spend the night or whether they needed anything else; but only the blind boy remained. The priest implored in particular the young woman with the child to stay and not take the little one out into the night, but she murmured an excuse and hurried off. Then Gunnulf asked a servant to make sure that Blind Arnstein was given ale and a good bed in the guest room. He put on a hooded cape.
“You must be tired, Orm and Kristin, and want to go to bed. Audhild will take care of you. You’ll probably be asleep when I return from the church.”
Then Kristin asked to go with him. “That’s why I’ve come here,” she said, fixing her despairing eyes on Gunnulf. Ingrid lent her a dry cloak, and she and Orm joined the small procession departing from the parsonage.
The bells were ringing as if they were right overhead in the black night sky–it wasn’t far to the church. They trudged through the deep, wet, new snow. The weather was calm now, with a few snowflakes still drifting down here and there shimmering faintly in the dark. ~Kristin Lavransdatter, Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tina Nunnally.

Kristin Lavransdatter is one of my very favorite books, so realistic and yet encouraging. Kristin is a real person: warts, and passions, and good intentions, and stupid decisions, all wrapped up in the life of one fourteenth century woman.

The scene I quoted above taes place near Christmas-time when Kristin is visiting her brother-in-law, a priest, because she is having marriage and family conflicts. She goes to the church to think and pray about all her sins and her life. Orm is her step-son.

I would highly recommend Kristin Lavransdatter as a gift for the wife/mother/reader in your family.

1920: Books and Literature

Hercule Poirot appears for the first time in 1920 in the Agatha Christie novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. He is a Belgian retired police detective and genius, living in England as a refugee from the recent war. Captain Hastings describes Poirot in chapter two of The Mysterious Affair at Styles:

“He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible.
The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.”

Also published in 1920:
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s debut novel was a critical success, but it has been somewhat overshadowed by his most famous and successful book, The Great Gatsby.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. Main Street was initially awarded the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, but it was rejected by the Board of Trustees, who overturned the jury’s decision. Semicolon review here.

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Newland Archer is torn between the expectations of society and his own desire for stability and respectability and the passion and adventure he experiences with the exciting and forbidden Countess Olenska. He must choose between May Welland, the woman whom all New York society expects him to marry, and Ellen Olenska, the woman who needs his love and awakens his passion. This novel actually won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature after Main Street was rejected.

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting.

The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset. This novel about a young Norwegian girl in the Middle Ages is the first in a trilogy of books about the life of the fictional Kristin Lavransdatter. It is a lovely set of books, well worth the time and energy that it takes to read them in translation. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928. Semicolon review of Kristin Lavransdatter. More on the novel here.

For more book suggestions check out Reading the Twenties by Dani Torres at A Work in Progress.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

With the ‘domestic epic’, a sweeping drama set against a carefully studied social background, she broke a new ground. Undset turned away from the sentimental style of national romanticism and wanted to re-create the realism of the Icelandic sagas and write so vividly, that “everything that seem(s) romantic from here – murder, violence, etc becomes ordinary – comes to life,” as the author explained. . . . Undset’s emphasis on women’s biological nature, and her view that motherhood is the highest duty (to which) a woman can aspire, has been criticized by feminists as reactionary. —Kirjasto

I’m not surprised that feminist critics might not appreciate Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. What a story! I actually began reading this story of a medieval Norwegian mother and wife a long time ago, but found myself unable to stay with it. This time I read it in three separate paperback books, The Bridal Wreath (Part 1), Mistress of Husaby (Part 2), and The Cross (Part 3). I think the three separate books made it more digestible and less intimidating. Anyway, this time I not only read the entire book, over a thousand pages, but I enjoyed it so much that I plan to add it to my list of the 100 Best Fiction Books Ever Written.

The Bridal Wreath tells the story of Kristin’s childhood, her growth into womanhood, her betrothal, her sin and loss of honor, and her marriage. For better or for worse, the decisions that Kristin makes in this first book determine the remainder of the events of her life and her willfulness in choosing her own husband throws a shadow over even the happiest of times in her later life. Kristin is a likeable protagonist, but very much a fallible one. Book 1 of this trilogy is about rebellion and how easy it is to fall into sin, how justifiable it seems. The story also demonstrates how one sin leads to another and “what a tangled web we weave.”

Nevertheless, Kristin becomes The Mistress of Husaby, the medieval estate of her husband, Erlend. She gives her husband sons, seven sons. They are rich in land, in friends, in family. But their character, or lack thereof, comes back to haunt the two of them and their marriage again and again. Having started off on the wrong foot, so to speak, Kristin and her husband can never manage to live in harmony for long. Erlend is careless and untrustworthy, just as he was when Kristin married him. Kristin is often shrewish and disrespectful in response to her husband’s irresponsibility. Still they build a marriage that, just barely, outlasts the storms of adultery, abandonment, imprisonment, sickness, and disgrace.

In Book 3, The Cross, Kristin is getting old for a woman of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. She’s in her forties as the story progresses. Her sons are growing up, and her husband is growing old. Kristin must learn the lesson of self-denial and letting go of those whom she loves fiercely and somewhat possessively. Perhaps as my children grow up and begin to leave the nest in little ways, I identify with Kristin in this book most of all. She wants so much to shield her sons from harm and from difficulty, but most of all from themselves and the trouble they will bring upon themselves by their own sins and bad decisions. Oh, I do want the same thing.

“When you yourself had borne a child, Kristin, methought you would understand,” her mother had said once. Now, she understood that her mother’s heart had been scored deep with memories of her daughter, memories of thoughts for her child from the time it was unborn and from all the years a child remembers nothing of, memories of fear and hope and dreams that children never know have been dreamed for them, until their own time comes to fear and hope and dream in secret —

But Kristin learns that her sons have their own dreams and their own unwise decisions to make. And she can only pray for them and leave them to the mercy of God. She comes to realize, too, that her own prayers have always been answered by a faithful God, that she has always been in His hand, even when He allowed her to follow the sinful desires of her own heart.

Never, it seemed to her had she prayed to God for aught else than that He might grant her her own will. And she had got always what she wished—most. And now she sat here with a bruised spirit—not because she had sinned against God, but because she was miscontent that it had been granted her to follow the devices of her own heart to the journey’s end.

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Oh, that the Lord would say “no” and put a barrier in my way when I ask Him for what I think I want but what He does not will. And I pray the same for my children. But sometimes He sees that we need to experience the fruits of our willful decisions before we can see clearly that His will is best.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a wonderful book for wives and mothers especially, for those of us who sometimes struggle with those roles and who often delight in the same. If it’s slow going at first, please persist. The language is beautiful, but somewhat archaic and stilted. I think you’ll find the book worth getting through any initial difficulties.

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