Book Review: The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset

(This review covers the second book of the trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter.)

The Mistress of Husaby takes up the story of newlyweds Erlend and Kristin. Newborn Naakve joins the household, and Kristin’s responsibility as a mother brings her to newfound grief in the extent of her sins prior to marriage. Erlend’s brother Gunnulf is a priest, and his consistent service to Kristin as a confidant and advocate with God serves as a steadying backdrop to her tumultuous life on the manor.

Naakve is joined by many brothers in quick succession. Kristin’s piety and hard work transforms the estate into a goodly inheritance for her boys. Yet, her pride and self-righteousness in the face of Erlend’s continuing blunders blinds her to her own sins. Undset shows again and again how the context of the sins committed within married life often are intertwined so much as to blur the blame from both partners.

Lavrans, Kristin’s father, is particularly shocked at Kristin’s lack of respect for Erlend in daily life, and the impact of this lack upon her sons. While Erlend’s misdoings pose great dangers to his family’s stability, even so do they speak to the greatness of his character, and his overall capacity for great deeds within the larger community.

Given the depth of Kristin’s wrath toward Erlend for his carefree ways, this middle book ends surprisingly. Their passion is reignited during Erlend’s imprisonment for treason. Crises have a way of clarifying our priorities, and also bringing us to full awareness of our own participation in the problems that confront us. Undset’s careful depiction of a marriage crumbling and then rejuvenated under pressure is singular.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Kristin’s talents in the area of household management completely changes life on the manor of Husaby for everyone, from Erlend down to the lowest peasants. Her generosity blunts the criticism to which Erlend has become accustomed. How does hard work translate into improved relationships in your life? Are there situations which no amount of work can change?
  2. The wild antics of Erlend’s closest relatives shock Kristin. She is grateful to retreat into the duties of wife and family to escape the reality that her husband is unable or unwilling to protect her from their influence. Evil blinds us. What evils in everyday life are blinding you or the ones you love from deeper union with God?
  3. In the aftermath of Erlend’s fall from influence, Kristin suddenly discovers within herself a deep well of thanksgiving for the life they had shared upon the manor of Husaby. Are there similar wells of thanksgiving in your life that you may be blind to? For what are you most thankful, and why?

Book Review: The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

51-2xzxtjcl-_sx332_bo1204203200_A “tell all” retrospective on Graham Greene in the New York Times Book Review a decade ago┬átainted my opinion of Greene. Sure, I knew he was no saint. But according to the scribe in Gotham City, his lust was legendary and could even be said to fuel his art. And of course…his books were condemned by the Church during his lifetime.

And yet the sinner wrote some powerful books. His exploration of the effect of religious conversion on two lovers in war-torn 1940’s London, The End of the Affair, is a terrific book.

The book is written from the perspective of the lover jilted by Jesus, Maurice Bendrix. Sarah is his lover, the wife of a bureaucrat. The timeline of the book jumps as the narrator, Bendrix, recounts the story from the vantage points of the present dull bitter ache, interspersed with memories that piece together the background story for the reader.

Bendrix is devastated that she breaks things off after a terrible bomb nearly kills them. He cannot comprehend why. Eventually, he hires a private detective (along with Sarah’s husband, in an ironic twist) who steals her diary and reveals the agonizing truth.

Greene himself later said that the first person point of view made the novel very difficult to write. His point was in the context of his writing craft. However, it is not a stretch to see that the central character Bendrix was similar to Greene in many respects. The book is even dedicated to “Catherine, with love”, a reference to his mistress at the time.

Greene’s question looms large in the background: can anything good come from an adulterous affair?

The ending is one of most satisfying character sketches I have ever read. And yet, I wish I did not know the rest of the story of the author. Be he a saint or sinner, he gave me much to consider in my assessment of my relationship with Jesus, and the passions that fuel my actions in real life and in my secret soul.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene was originally published in 1951. Happily, Penguin Classics re-published a paperback edition in 2004.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Henry truly not know Sarah’s secret adulteries? Conversely, did he know of her goodness, of her gentleness with souls? Which was more real to Henry? Which was more real to Maurice?
  1. Do you think that it is possible to be a “pimp” in the same way that Bendrix accuses Henry Miles of being a “pimp” (being so boring that one was forced to adultery)? Is it a cop-out? Or is it a truth about the ways that unattended love can fizzle and create a vacuum?
  1. Sarah’s forbidden love and then her virtuous self control transformed all of the characters. But her repentance does not convert Henry nor Bendrix to Christianity. Why not? Read the Catholic Catechism, 2380-2381, on adultery, and on the ninth commandment, 2514-2533. How can virtue lead to a transformation in the larger society? Is purity of heart possible in the current cultural climate?