The Mistress Of Husaby

Already on the first page of this second part of the “Kristin Lavransdatter” trilogy, the author demonstrates the range of her descriptive skills incorporating all the senses: “The ground sounded hollow under the horses’ hoofs, for the earth was as hard as iron with the black frost. The air was full of steam from the men and the horses; the bodies of the beasts and the men’s hair and furs were white with rime. Erland seemed as white-haired as the Abbot; his face glowed from his morning draught and the biting wind” evokes the harsh weather which is itself a significant protagonist in the saga. All the seasons are similarly expressed.

This longest, central, section explores the position of the medieval Catholic Church, to which Sigrid Undset had recently converted in her own time; and its interface with still extant ancient mythology. The Church dominated the calendar operating from one saint’s day mass to another, and feast days like Christmas.

Priests were seen as the arbiters of conflict and upholders of morals, especially relating to sex, love, and marriage; these last demonstrated significant struggles with punitive conscience and lax desire over strict mores. Loyalty through periods of trying times is seen as paramount.

Children born out of wedlock or subject to step-parents were of lesser standing than the offspring of legitimate marriage, leading to significant family issues for the major characters.

Childbirth was a difficult process taking its toll on mothers constantly pregnant. Medical care of all kinds was in very early stages, resulting in deaths which could be saved today.

There is much on politics, warfare, and international relations in this episode of the work; we have a failed revolution and its consequences, including torture. Punishments differed according to the social and economic status of miscreants.

We learn how people at all levels lived; their hardships, their dwellings, their clothing, their jewellery, and their weaponry.

Undset’s deep understanding of human nature; her ability to convey conversation and to detail unspoken thoughts, is put to good use in her characterisation, with which she conveys the ebb and flow of relationships between the main personnel.

The fluent, often poetic, prose carries us along with it. “From the gateway a pack of farm-dogs rushed out barking at the newcomer. Inside the courtyard a flock of shaggy goats were picking their way about, dark in the clear dusk – they were tugging at a heap of pine-branches in the midst of the yard. Three little children in thick winter clothes ran about amongst them” conveys everyday action in addition to the more significant exploits.

“Now the sun was below the mountaintop, the golden radiance grew paler and the red more rosy and soft. After the bells had fallen silent, the soughing of the woods seemed to grow again and spread abroad; the noise of the little beck that ran through the leafwoods down in the valley sounded louder on the ear. From the close nearby came the well-known clinking of the bells of the home cattle; a flying beetle hummed half-way round about her, and was gone” incorporates both sight and sound.

26 comments

  1. You selected superb examples to share, Derrick. Makes me glad to visit that time and place in a book rather than living there.????

  2. A very thorough review of what sounds like an interesting book. Your admiration for the author’s descriptive powers comes through.

  3. Thanks for this excellent review, Derrick. Sounds like a relevant story for our times as women/mothers in a growing number of US states once again face the threat of being constantly pregnant and dying in childbirth.

  4. Excellent review of an interesting book! I always enjoy reading your reviews, Derrick.
    I’m so glad I didn’t live back there, back then! Nice to visit in a book, but not in person.

    We (peoples of 2024) should learn from the past, but seems we don’t always. (sad face) We should learn lessons from the past/from history, apply the lessons in the future when need be, and not give up in the middle.
    (((HUGS))) ❤️❤️

    1. Thank you so much, Carolyn. I agree, we never seem to learn from history

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