“All my days I have longed equally to travel the right road and to take my own errant path,” confesses Kristin Lavransdatter, a wealthy Norwegian noblewoman and titular character of Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset’s three-part novel. Set in the fourteenth century, the saga follows the life of Kristin, one of the most complex female characters of 20th century literature, from womb to tomb. She wrestles with the weight of sin, her refusal to reconcile her will with God’s, and the suffering that accompanies her wayward decisions. In Brideshead Revisited, British novelist Evelyn Waugh brings another multi-layered female character to life: Lady Julia Flyte, a wealthy heiress living decadently in 20th century England. Each woman is raised in a devout Catholic home and yet is caught between her own passions and her love for God. Separated not only by geography and several centuries, Kristin and Julia’s lives are very different. Kristin is a mother of many and she lives to become a grandmother. Julia is childless. But Kristin Lavransdatter and Brideshead Revisited share the same themes that all the best stories have in common: sin and grace. The human soul’s struggle to follow its own disordered will instead of aligning it with its loving Creator’s is the universal tale, mirrored a thousand times in good literature. From the journeys of these two characters, Kristin and Julia, a powerful depiction of the tyrannical nature of sin and the victory of God’s patient grace emerges.
The Wayward Daughters
As a teenager, Kristin Lavransdatter rejects the kind and respectable fiancé chosen by her loving father, Lavrans Bjørgulfson, in order to pursue a relationship with Erlend Nikalausson. Erlend is a handsome but disreputable man, formerly excommunicated for an adulterous relationship, who seduces Kristin knowing she is betrothed to someone else. Their ill-advised romance results in the death of Erlend’s former mistress. When they are finally given permission to marry—against Lavrans’s better judgement—Kristin becomes pregnant before their wedding day. Although the pregnancy does not come to light until after the wedding, Erland’s inability to control his passions humiliates the couple and shames Kristin’s family.
When Kristin finally achieves the desire of her heart (becoming Erlend’s wife), his many failings make it a painful and disappointing union resulting in marital discord and a political scandal that publicly reveals Erlend’s unfaithfulness to her. This scandal leads to the loss of his estate and financial assets and almost ends in his execution. After battling so willfully against the wishes of her parents in order to reach her wedding day, Kristin’s years as a married woman are a bitter cup to drink.
Brideshead’s Julia Flyte also falls in love with the “unsuitable” man. Despite pleas from the practicing members of her family, Julia turns her back on her Catholic faith and marries Rex Mottram, a divorced Canadian who wants to rise in the ranks of British politics by marrying into the nobility. Rex is wise in the ways of business and his worldliness seems glamorous to young Julia when they begin their romantic relationship. Because the Church does not sanction remarriage after divorce, they are wed in a small Protestant ceremony without the pomp Rex anticipated. Beginning with this underwhelming wedding, Rex is disappointed with his bride’s failure to bring prestige to their union.
Like Kristin’s marriage, Julia’s life as Rex’s wife is full of suffering. While originally mysterious and alluring, Rex’s true nature soon becomes apparent to her. She describes him as “something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.” Rex is unfaithful and after she experiences the stillbirth of their only child, a daughter, the union crumbles and the couple separates. The life Julia so desperately fought for holds none of the joy she anticipated. When she later finds love with a married painter, Charles Ryder, a former intimate friend of her brother Sebastian, they move in together and plan to divorce their spouses in order to wed.
The Burden of Sin
Both Julia and Kristin describe their relationship with their sin as a warped maternal bond. Their sins must be loved, fed, and nurtured—a twisted parody of a devoted mother’s care for her child. The weight of this obligation exhausts and isolates them. Julia explains to her lover Charles that their adulterous romance is not like other sins she committed and then repented of. Instead she is:
Living in sin, with sin, always the same, like an idiot child carefully nursed, guarded from the world. “Poor Julia,” they say, “She can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her sin. A pity it ever lived,” they say, “but it’s so strong. Children like that always are. Julia’s so good to her little, mad sin.”
While promising freedom, sin reveals itself to be a relentless tyrant. Devotion to the sin Julia loves means sacrificing everything else at its altar.
Kristin also compares her love for her sin to a mother’s love for a child and she connects the “fruit of sin” with the baby she conceives premaritally. During her elaborate wedding, only Kristin knows about her pregnancy. The isolation of this secret is suffocating: “She knelt beneath the heavy bridal crown and felt the crushing, oppressive weight in her womb—the burden of sin she was carrying. She had played and romped with her sin, measuring it out as if in a child’s game.” She is weighed down by the tangible consequence of her sin, and she fears that her unborn child will emerge from the womb deformed as a reflection of her transgressions:
Holy Virgin—soon it would be time for it to lie fully formed before her, looking at her with living eyes, revealing to her the brands of her sin, the hideous deformity of sin, striking hatefully with misshapen hands at his mother’s breast. After she had borne her child, after she had seen the marks of sin on him and loved him the way she had loved her sin, then the game would be played to the end.”
Instead of the beauty of a mother and child’s bond of love, the relationship Kristin and Julia have with their sin is that of a slave chained to her master. It demands their constant devotion and daily sacrifices in order to grow hardy in the soul. While a child is full of life, sin only breeds death and despair. Kristin and Julia both feel the weight of this burden of sin, but they do not carry it alone.
A Parent’s Grief
For each of these wayward daughters, one of the most painful consequences of their sin is how it devastates a loving parent. Kristin grieves over her father Lavrans’s sorrow and shame. She sees in his face and demeanor how his worries have aged him: “Kristin had the feeling that what had changed Lavrans was partly his fear for the future of herself and her children with the husband she had chosen, along with the awareness of his own powerlessness. This knowledge secretly gnawed at her heart.” She notes that his former joyful countenance has shifted as he mourns her sin and fears for her welfare with such a man as she has bound herself to. He is burdened by his grief.
Kristin carries a strong memory of the night their parish church burned down and her father managed to rescue the beautiful crucifix from the blaze. Afterwards in his exhaustion and devastation over the loss of the church, he clung to the salvaged wooden Cross: “Lavrans Bjørgulfson was still standing there, holding the crucifix. His arm lay across the arms of the cross, and he was leaning his head on the shoulder of Christ. It looked as if the Savior were bending his beautiful, sad face toward the man to console him.” Like his beloved parish church, Lavrans’s dream of a happy future for his cherished daughter also goes up in flames. Kristin’s description of her father, after her transgressions and her husband’s failings come to light, mirror the depiction of the suffering Christ on the crucifix that Lavrans once rescued from the fire: “Now his muscular body had withered to bone and sinew, his face was brown and sharp, as if carved out of wood, and his cheeks were flat and gaunt, with a knot of muscle at the corners of his mouth.” Lavrans becomes the crucifix because his faithful, suffering love reflects that of the Heavenly Father for a prodigal child. It is not only Kristin’s father who carries the weight of her sin, it is Christ himself.
Julia has this same revelation of how her sin has hurt those who love her as she considers the pain her devout mother, Lady Marchmain, has suffered over Julia’s decision to choose Rex over her faith. In a rare, vulnerable moment she tells Charles, “Mummy carrying my sin with her to church, bowed under it and the black lace veil, in the chapel . . . mummy dying with my sin eating at her, more cruelly than her own deadly illness. Mummy dying with it; Christ dying with it, nailed hand and foot.” Like Lavrans Bjørgulfson’s love for Kristin, Lady Marchmain’s love for Julia reflects the love of Christ who is nailed to the Cross by Julia’s sin. Like St. Monica, these parents grieve over their children’s sins and their Christ-like love and faithful prayers play a part in their wayward daughters’ eventual redemption.
The Consequences of Sin
The years of misery each woman suffers are not punishment inflicted by a parent or by God—the consequences of sin itself are what tortures them. They are punished by their sin, not for their sin. Their thwarted and unhappy years are a result of their own choices and the pursuit of their own will rather than submission to God’s will. Kristin, considering how the difficulty of her path is due to her own decisions, reflects that,
She had chosen him [Erlend] herself. She had chosen him in an ecstasy of passion, and she had chosen him again each day . . . his impetuous passion in place of her father’s love, which would not allow even the wind to touch her harshly. She had refused the destiny that her father had wished for her when he wanted to put her into the arms of a man who would have safely led her onto the most secure paths, even bending down to remove every little pebble that she might tread upon. She had chosen to follow the other man, whom she knew traveled on dangerous paths . . . she had chosen strife rather than give up her precious sin.
Kristin is given exactly what she asks for. Like Lavrans who desires only her good, God has no desire to destroy Kristin’s happiness. But Kristin chooses her sin over God and she and Erlend destroy each other’s happiness with their selfishness and pride. In the same way, it is not that God punishes Julia for choosing Rex, it is her choice itself that causes her so much suffering.
Kristin’s priest, Sira Eiliv, explains that rather than being punished by God, her suffering is merely the natural consequence of following her desire and pride, “along pathways God has forbidden His children to tread.” He compares her experience to that of one of her sons who has defied her instructions (given to protect him from harm) and suffers pain as a result of his disobedience. He asks,
Will you say that you punished your children if they scalded their hands when they picked up the boiling kettle you had forbidden them to touch? Or the slippery ice broke beneath them when you had warned them not to go out there? Haven’t you noticed when the brittle ice broke beneath you, you were drawn under each time you let go of God’s hand, and you were rescued from the depths each time you called out to Him.
Like a mother ready to comfort and embrace the foolish child who burned his hand, God’s mercy is waiting to be poured out on Kristin and he uses the self-inflicted pain she suffers to draw her back to him. But he is a patient God that honors her free will. Kristin’s brother-in-law, Gunnulf, reminds her,
For if God wanted to, He could take our souls by force; then we would be completely powerless in His grasp. But since He loves us the way the bridegroom loves the bride He will not force her; if she won’t embrace Him willingly, then He must allow her to flee and to shun Him.
Like her father, Lavrans, God has given her the freedom to travel far from the good things He desired for her and choose her own path.
A Twitch Upon the Thread
In Brideshead Revisited, this patient movement of God’s grace in the hearts of the characters is described by Julia’s younger, devout sister Cordelia. Discussing her many lapsed family members, she tells Charles that Julia and the others will all eventually be drawn back to their faith. She reminds him of a passage from G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories that Lady Marchmain read aloud to the family: “I caught him” (the thief) “with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” Julia and Kristin wander far from God and yet his grace is secretly present with them always. They may not be aware of this unseen and invisible grace, but it is nonetheless powerfully working in their hearts.
Sigrid Undset uses another symbol of God’s unseen grace that has silently transformed the human heart. It is not until Kristin’s final hours (after contracting the Black Death—likely because of selflessly nursing people suffering from the plague and burying a woman who had been infected) that she fully comprehends how God in his mercy has been ever faithful to her, despite her unfaithfulness. Never abandoning her, he used every slight opening of her heart towards him as a means of filling her soul with his grace. On her deathbed when she removes her wedding ring to give it away, she realizes that the “M” for the Blessed Virgin Mary that was engraved on the inside of the ring has left a mark on her finger. She has always been Christ’s own and this truth is imprinted on her very flesh. Even while she made herself a stranger to God, he was intimately present, just hidden from her like this secret impression on her skin. Undset describes the scene,
It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her—and in spite of her willingness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy. She had been a servant of God—a stubborn, defiant maid, most often an eye-servant in her prayers and unfaithful in her heart, indolent and neglectful, impatient toward admonishments, inconstant in her deed. And yet He had held her firmly in His service, and under the glittering gold ring a mark had been secretly impressed upon her, showing that she was His servant, owned by the Lord and King who would now come, borne on the consecrated hands of the priest, to give her release and salvation.
When she abandoned God, he did not abandon her. It is not God’s punishment that haunts the steps of the wayward, it is God’s mercy that is patiently waiting to be embraced. Our powerful infatuation with the world that brings ruin upon us pales in comparison to the grace and mercy of God—grace that is gently woven into the fabric of our lives but never forced upon us.
The Earthbound Heart Finally Clings to the Cross
For Julia, it is the death of her father, Lord Marchmain, which opens her heart to desire God’s mercy. Lord Marchmain returns to his Catholic faith in his final hours and receives Last Rites from the priest who he had forcefully sent away just days prior. Praying for him to embrace God’s mercy, Julia leaves his deathbed knowing she is ready to leave the sin she has loved (her relationship with Charles) and return to her faith. In an effort to explain her decision to Charles, she says,
The worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable—like things in the school-room, so bad they were unpunishable, that only mummy could deal with—the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.
The sin she has loved, nurtured, and sacrificed everything for can never fully satisfy or save her. Yet, the salvific mercy of God also comes with a price: her undivided heart.
Kristin’s return to a state of grace differs from Julia’s in that she has lost almost everything—her youth, her husband, and in a way, her sons as they have grown up and flown the nest. She realizes as she journeys to a convent where she intends to live out her final days,
She had not come to God with her wreath or with her sins and sorrow, not as long as the world still possessed a drop of sweetness to add to her goblet. But now she had come, after she had learned that the world is like an alehouse: The person who has no more to spend is thrown outside the door.
It is not until she drinks the last dregs of her earthly cup and feels abandoned by the world, that she follows her father’s example of clinging to the Cross as he did the night the church burned down and in his daily devotion to God. When Kristin was a little girl, a saintly monk, Brother Edvin, had told her that we must hold fast to the Cross “like a kitten hanging on to a plank when it falls into the sea.” It is not until she feels lost in the waves of her grief and loneliness that she begins to cling to Jesus in earnest, and even in her old age, it is not too late for God’s mercy. Sira Eiliv reminds her that God will “hold up each soul as long as that soul clings to Him.” Like a faithful lover, God patiently waits for his beloved to grow weary of the world and reach out for His love. Many years before, Gunnulf tells Kristin, “You cannot settle for anything less than the love that is between God and the soul.” Her life is a long journey of running from this costly love and finally, when the road is at an end, offering her heart to Christ, the Holy Bridegroom.
When describing Julia, Charles notes that there is a sadness to her demeanor that seems to express, “Surely I was made for some other purpose than this?” Like Julia, each of us is made for a greater purpose than our earthbound loves, our tyrannical sins, and our enslavement to our own will. We are made for the merciful love that Julia embraces when she turns again to God. We are each hooked by the invisible line of God’s grace, though we may wander to the ends of the earth. We are marked by the sacrament of baptism as Christ’s own forever as Kristin is secretly marked by the imprint of Our Lady’s symbol. We are made for the love that is between God and the soul. And like the wayward daughters, Kristin Lavransdatter and Julia Flyte, we can settle for nothing less.
Editorial Statement: This post is part of an ongoing “Ressourcement Futures” series that will look at the mid-century (mostly) French movement of recovering the sources of Christian culture, the movements antecedents, its continued influence, and satellite figures. Posts will be collected here as they are published.
 Sigrid Undset. The Cross, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 2000), 379.
 Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited, (New York: Everyman’s, 1993), 170.
 Ibid., 182.
 Ibid., 259.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wreath, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1997), 285.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wife, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1999), 229.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wreath, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1997), 272.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wife, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1999), 228.
 Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited, (New York: Everyman’s, 1993), 259-260.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wife, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1999), 336.
 Sigrid Undset. The Cross, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 2000), 395.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wife, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1999), 155.
 Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited, (New York: Everyman’s, 1993), 200.
 Sigrid Undset. The Cross, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 2000), 422.
 Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited, (New York: Everyman’s, 1993), 308.
 Sigrid Undset. The Cross, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 2000), 371.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wreath, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1997), 36.
 Sigrid Undset. The Cross, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 2000), 394.
 Sigrid Undset. The Wife, trans. Tiina Nunnally (New York: Penguin, 1999),156.
 Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited, (New York: Everyman’s, 1993), 280.