Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter and the Anachronistic Feminist

In his introduction to my edition of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, Brad Leithauser brings up an interesting point:
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 deceptions remains a lifelong affliction. Even so, her unshakable guilt in no way paralyzes her and she carries on with her life.
I don't read much historical fiction, to be quite honest. When I do read it, one thing that has always bugged me is what I call the "anachronistic feminist." I'm referring to those historical fiction heroines who come across more as time-warped modern women, who act and believe as their author thinks women of that era should have acted and believed. Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune, for example, tells the story of a woman who finds personal liberation by disguising herself as a man and having a variety of adventures among the Wild West underclass of California during the Gold Rush. Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus centers on an heiress in the Italian Renaissance who sympathizes with persecuted gay men, unapologetically has an extramarital affair, and then gets even more hot sex as a nun. In Dora Levy Mossanen's Harem, set in fourteenth-century Persia, a liberated courtesan tells her daughter that virginity is a social construct created by men to control women.

Don't get me wrong: these are all great books and I do recommend them. But I also think that, despite their authors' talent, they all illustrate the tension inherent to writing historical fiction, particularly aimed at a female audience. You want to create a protagonist the modern reader can identify with, but problem is, the past is often a wholly foreign place with values and customs that we, looking back from our vantage point, find objectionable. According to what I've read about the antebellum South in non-fiction texts (i.e. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Eugene D. Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll), wealthy Southern women were known to be even bigger die-hard supporters of slavery than their men were; yet, at the same time, they were also heavily subordinated. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, despite its focus on twentieth-century African-Americans, touches on some of the very real problems associated with this "plantation pedestal" role. Even in the 1910s-30s, the respectable wife as a submissive, genteel, socially isolated symbol of her husband's status remained the primary model for Southern women. (Hurston's heroine Janie, of course, chafes under these restrictions and eventually rebels.)

So a truly honest novel about a Southern belle in the pre-Civil War era would have to be about a vicious racist who sees her severely restricted role as a sign of her superiority over black women and poor white women. But how can the modern reader be expected to sympathize with and root for a protagonist like that? The author, by writing a such a protagonist, might even be seen as apologizing for her beliefs and behavior. And yet, at the same time, most authors writing historical fiction want their portrayals of the past to be believable.

(I also think there's also a didactic element of the "anachronistic feminist." These women triumph and achieve personal enlightenment despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles that women today usually do not have to deal with. If they can do it, so can you!)

So it was with that in mind that I opened to the first book of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Wreath, originally published in 1920 and eventually winning its author the Nobel Prize in Literature. I found myself agreeing with Leithauser's analysis: for all the overwrought "soap opera" elements of the plot, there is also an underlying component of temptation and its incurring dangers. I interpreted the title as a reference to the wreath worn by the beautiful "elf maiden" who, for nefarious purposes unknown, attempts to lure seven-year-old Kristin away from the encampment and into the woods. In fact, the titles of the three books - The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross - seem to indicate a progression from sin, transgression, and overall earthiness to medieval Christian holiness, and also mirror the transition of Norway out of paganism. The elf maiden marks the beginning of Kristin's encounters with the perils of seduction. Fru Aashild, whose previous actions had led her to be condemned as a witch and rendered an outcast for years, becomes the next questionable influence in Kristin's life with her nonconformist words on pleasure and peril.
And sometimes she spoke of her youth, when she lived in the south of the country and frequented the courts of King Magnus and King Eirik and their queens. . .

"It seems strange to me that you're always so happy, when you've been used to - " she [Kristin] broke off, blushing.

Fru Aashild looked down at the child, smiling.

"You mean now that I'm separated from all those things? . . . I've had my glory days, Kristin, but I'm not foolish enough to complain because I have to be content with sour, watered-down mild now that I've drunk up all my wine and ale. Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution; all sensible people know that. That's why I think sensible people have to be satisfied with the good days - for the grandest of days are costly indeed. They call a man a fool who fritters away his father's inheritance in order to enjoy himself in his youth. . . But I call a true idiot and fool only if he regrets his actions afterwards, and he is twice the fool and the greatest buffoon of all if he expects the see his drinking companions again once the inheritance is gone."
Kristin sees a resemblance between Fru Aashild and the elf woman even though they don't look at all alike. But both characters foreshadow the appearance of Ereland Nikulaussøn, the reckless knight whose dashing, rogueish ways threaten to destroy Kristin's future. Kristin knows her physical relationship with a man not her husband is morally wrong in her world, and is also socially hazardous due to the possibility of unmarried pregnancy. The theme here is what Dante's Inferno called "losing the straight way" and finding oneself adrift in the "dark wood." In the Second Circle of Dante's Hell are the sinners of love, who allowed the winds of lust to blow them astray and are now condemned to be blown around in a torrent for all eternity.
When I understood those injured souls, I bent my
face downward, and I held it down so long that the
poet [Virgil] said: "What are you pondering?"

When I replied, I began: "Alas, how many sweet
thoughts, how much yearning led them to the
grievous past!"

Then I turned back to them and spoke, and I began:
"Francesca, your sufferings make me sad and piteous to

But tell me: in the time of your sweet sighs, by
what and how did Love grant you to know your
dangerous desires?"

And she to me: "There is no greater pain than to
remember the happy time in wretchedness; and this
your teacher knows."
(This is the Robert M. Durling translation. And clearly, Dante and Fru Aashild are at odds here, which is probably why Fru Aashild is such an outsider.) In Canto 5, where this passage comes from, Dante depicts Love/lust as an active agent who ruthlessly acts on passive humans. But, interestingly, his use of the adjective "noble" in the same canto also reflects the ideas, of both his and Kristin's time (they are roughly contemporaneous) of courtly love and the superiority of love for its own sake rather than for status and property (a neo-Platonic notion - see Socrates's and Plato's thoughts on the superiority of homosexual over heterosexual desire, as the latter is believed to exist solely for reproduction). The conflict here, however, is expressed through the souls' punishment of uncontrollable, unceasing motion: true peace is found only with God, and Francesca's sin is that she substituted for God another flawed human being as the ultimate endpoint of her love.

Kristin does the same thing. As a result, she is not at peace: her and Ereland's transgression haunts and harries her even as she continues to do it.

I came to see The Wreath as depicting a world suspended between opposing poles: paganism and Christianity, desire and respectability, guilt and innocence, loyalty and self-assertion. Undset recreates a world of pre-Raphaelite pastoralism where dwarves and elves still lurk in the dark wood and men are both unruly criminals/rapists and chivalrous heroes exhibiting courtly restraint (though not always). There is a very defined moral code (the "straight way") in this time and place, based ostensibly on Christian ideals but also reflective of the old pagan warnings to look out for beautiful danger. We would tell Kristin there's nothing wrong with consensual pre-marital sex, but we live in the twenty-first century. Kristin does not.

I found The Wreath rather dull until Kristin left for the convent and things started to pick up. It starts out as very much a "day in the life" kind of book, where the focus is more on history and setting than plot. But what I ended up liking is that, unlike other historical novels I've read, Kristin is believable as a heroine of her era. She doesn't jump from medieval morality to modern feminist liberation. She exists in her own time.

The writing is also quite good, although I'm not seeing how it's particularly Modernist. Maybe someone can fill me in?

Other posts by Kristin Lavransdatter read-along participants:

Claire at kiss a cloud
Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books
Emily at Evening All Afternoon
Frances at Nonsuch Book
Gavin at Page247
Jill at Rhapsody in Books
Lena at Save Ophelia
Lu at Regular Rumination
Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos
Softdrink at Fizzy Thoughts
Tuulenhaiven at What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate
Tuesday at Tuesday in Silhouette (and Part 2)
Valerie at Life is a Patchwork Quilt


Emily said...

Great review, as always! I strongly agree with you about the anachronistic feminist - she seems to be everywhere in historical fiction, doesn't she? (Huge, irresponsible generalization, but that's how it often seems to me.) Kristin's sexual/spiritual angsting makes her hard for a modern person to like at times, but I agree that she's more believable because of them.

Eileen said...

Thank you! I was worried it was just me.

Valerie said...

I am glad I have discovered your blog via this read-a-long. You provide fascinating food for though regarding women in literature, in addition to Kristin Part I itself.

I now am wondering if, had Sigrid Undset written this trilogy today, whether it would have had a different tone. She wrote it in the 1920s when womens suffrage was just beginning --in America anyway; I don't know what women's equality was like in Norway when Undset wrote her trilogy.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

"day in the life" is perfect! But also, it's more like "random day in the life and then jump to random other day in the life etc. with no rhyme or reason."

Kristin's obsession with her own sinfulness gets even more oppressive in the 2nd vol. And yet, with all that self-flagellation, she doesn't give it up either!

Anonymous said...

It felt as though Kristin was going to be a rebellious gal rather than one fitting her time in the beginning of the book.

Though I completely agree with you that Undset does stay within her historical timeperiod, I have to admit that I'm not in love with Kristin's character at all.

I can't wait to hear your thoughts on The Wife.

Anonymous said...

Awesome review! You bring up some really good points. I too appreciate the fact that Kristin does seem true to her time, even though that makes her difficult to identify with.

JoAnn said...

This is a fascinating review! You've also raised some good points about historical fiction in general. It's been several years since I read the first two books of the are so tempting me to take them out for a quick reread and continue on to the third!

Anonymous said...

I'm with saveophelia...Kristin is true to her time period, which is why I want to bop her on the head!

You bring up a great point about anachronistic females. I almost talked about how I know better than to judge characters by modern day standards, although with Kristin I can't seem to help myself. Maybe all the non-true historical fiction I've read has tainted me.

Great review, as always.

Eileen said...

Valerie: True, women's suffrage was only granted in 1920, but the push for it had begun decades before. Actually, during the 1900s-1910s there was a lot of talk about what was called the "New Woman," who was more assertive and independent than the Victorian ideal.

Rhapsody: More angst? Annoying, but probably more realistic than "iz wimmin hear meh ROAR!!!11!!1!

Tuulenhaiven: You're most welcome!

JoAnn: You're welcome to join our read-along at any time!

Softdrink: Yeah, I think that's why the "anachronistic feminist" exists: because it's so hard sometimes to identify with characters from the past.

Frances said...

Our thoughts are syncing on this one. You just expressed those thoughts much better than I did. :) Love your anachronistic feminist angle, and the problems for some readers with historical fiction as a genre. I cannot seem to get beyond the genre issue. And my own biases. Hoping to be more engaged in The Wife than I was in The Wreath. Great post as always!

Richard said...

I wasn't really engaged with the plot here, and I'd definitely recommend any number of period medieval romances (Chrétien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg) and Margery Kempe's 15th century autobiography over Kristin for entertainment value. Juan Ruiz' fantastic 14th century Libro de Buen Amor is also way more interesting and provocative than Undset's work on exploring the differences between secular love and spiritual love, but I could say that about a whole lot of other works, too, I guess. Anyway, thanks for touching on so many worthwhile topics in your post, E.L. Fay!

claire said...

I so agree about the anachronistic feminist. Probably why I disliked Daughter of Fortune and loved Gone with the Wind. I like the characters to be true to their time. Which was, at least, a point for Undset!

For me the story only picked up in the end, when Kristin notices Erlend's flaws and she hesitates during the wedding. Also when we see a bit into Lavrans's and Ragnfrid's past.

Leslie @ This is the Refrain said...

Let me tell you, your posts are always so well-written, I'm very jealous! You put into words so many things that I struggled with when writing down my thoughts about The Wreath. This is an excellent post!

Anonymous said...

I think Kristin is so believable because her struggle to be a good person even though she gives in to temptation is something anybody can relate to.

And don't assume that everybody nowadays believes premarital sex to be a moral choice.

WiseWolf said...

It's not like feminism was invented in the 1910s--Judith Sargent Murray wrote in the 18th century on her desire for equality between the sexes (though she mostly wanted equal education); French women during the Revolution wanted the vote; Elizabeth I had many feminist ideas. And check out Terry Jones' Medieval Lives for assertive, self-confident women in the Middle Ages.

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