Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: "Ida Elisabeth" a Novel by Sigrid Undset

Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset is described on this bookcover as the "Norwegian novelist . . . admired for her honest portrayals of relationships between men and women, especially her descriptions of romantic love and marriage." I believe this sentence is an adroit summary of the books of hers I've thus far read. Whether it is her epic novel "Kristin Lavransdatter" set in Medieval Norway or "Ida Elisabeth" set in 1930 Norway, the author captures realistically and honestly the relationships between men and women.
Sigrid Undset at work at Bjerkeb├Žk
"Ida Elisabeth" is a novel about a young woman who marries vaguely for love but mostly in an attempt to redeem her own shame. Set in 1930 Norway, this book could be set in any culture because it represents absolute truths about human nature and disastrous choices between men and women. Ida Elisabeth spends the rest of her life paying the penitential price for marrying a "shirker." Frithjof holds a mediocre job from his uncle when he convinces Ida to marry him, building up a fancy apartment with furniture on installment plans (lessons on credit even then!), but once he loses his job shortly thereafter, he never again even seeks employment, instead living in a sappy dream world of all the quick rich schemes he can launch if only he could get a break. Of course, babies come and Ida finds herself in the plight of many women, disallowed the luxury of dreaming her life away because motherly instinct forces her by hook or by crook to provide for her family.

Is This a Catholic Novel?

I was about one-third through the novel, noting that all the characters were Protestant. This makes sense for a story set in Norway, which is currently 79.4% Lutheran and only 1.6% Roman Catholic (source). I noted that the theology which infused the characters decisions and life choices was a generic Christian with a specific Protestant flare when it came to life and family issues.

Then I remembered there were two very minor characters in the first scene noted as being Catholic and being somewhat reviled and mocked in town for their backward religious ways. Deep into the book, there is lengthy philosophical discussion among the characters, including those strange Catholic girls, about euthanasia and contraception, in which I noticed the Catholics expressing the Catholic positions perfectly and clearly. That's when it occurred to me to look up the biography of the author to learn that she was, indeed, a Catholic convert from the atheism in which she was raised (source). What a fascinating way to have to write! We write about what we know, and she, as a Norwegian, knows Norway. This book is set in Norway and the characters rightfully should be Protestant. But she gives voice to the Catholic position through these odd little characters who plant the beautiful seeds of truth.

Over the course of this story, we watch the main character going through her own crisis of faith from agnosticism through many painful questions to a belief that something supernatural must be real. As a convert myself (from agnosticism to Protestantism to Catholicism), I recognized an accurate portrayal of such a painful crisis which Undset went through herself before entering the Catholic Church in 1924, then becoming a lay Dominican.

Who Is the Audience for this Novel?

Certainly adult women--I don't believe men would have interest in this story--with any worldly life experience will read this novel with rapt attention, as it is like looking back down a Memory Lane of Foolishness.

As I began reading this novel, I was within pages desperately wishing all young ladies (teenagers) would read it. Then, I began asking: should they read it? See, I live in a bubble of decent and well-raised, mostly homeschooled, Catholic girls. The questions that apply to these girls will be different than to girls in our society at large, where the age at which it is already "too late" is so brutally young: those girls need to be taught these dangers and pitfalls so very young in order to catch them before they're making life-altering mistakes. Because so many of these Catholic girls in my sheltered community have no idea just how bad and painful these life mistakes can be, the question arises: when on earth do we teach them this? If one waits too long, too late, the girls have moved out, gone to college or taken a job, and The World is going to teach them these lessons. Teach girls too early and the parent risks ruining the girls' wide-eyed innocence.

Parents--and I'm talking about the carefully sheltering parents in my bubble--will have to carefully decide when their daughters should read this novel. Mature topics of relations out of wedlock, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and spousal abuse are discussed--although in such moderated, subtle language, the reader is amazed and impressed, wondering why we have to speak just so crudely these days. The language is so moderated that parents might have to read alongside their daughters to explain what the characters are talking about. (I was reminded of Ernest Hemmingway's "Hills like White Elephants," taught to me at a too-young English class.)

I do believe it is too late to be introducing the adult topics in this novel when a girl is just on the cusp of leaving home or has left it already. Our young ladies need to be taught what battles await them and how to fight the Enemy.

Back to the Plot . . . 

Why is it so bad to marry a shirker? Most wives and mothers these days are working women anyway and it's good for them! Why is it okay for the wife-and-mother to be a so-called shirker (a stay-at-home mother), but not the husband (not that Frithjof ever even takes care of his children)? Having nearly four decades on me now, I would advise any young lady that, even if she believes she will want to maintain a career, she should protect desperately her right to raise her young children and that means making very careful, intentional choices in a mate. I have known closely and personally women who have married shirkers or been abandoned by divorce and failure to provide any monetary support (the new form of shirking) and I've watched their painful, daily choices of the substandard child care choices they have to make through no other options. The main character, Ida Elisabeth, who runs a dress shop attached to her home, describes it as clearly in 1930 Norway as it could be described today:

"But with it came her anger and bitterness against all that made it impossible for her to enjoy anything to the full. Like a tethered animal mother she had to stand behind the counter and look interested and listen to strangers who talked and talked and could never make up their minds, while she had to leave her children to look after themselves. She could not give her children properly cooked food at the right time nor change their clothes when they got wet, she could not listen to what they had to say about things they had discovered, she was not on the spot to smack them when they did something that was dangerous or wrong, because before all else she had to provie--well, all that a father ought to have provided for them." (p. 78)

Ida Elisabeth later befriends an attorney who voices presciently back in 1928 (when the book was published) a major reason why it came to be that all women are expected to work outside the home. It is worth quoting in full:
"One can understand to a certain extent why so many girls have got that idea of wanting to be independent and to develop themselves before all. The only thing is that the world grows even worse than it was when those who formerly were willing to devote themselves to goodness will do so no longer. For you mustn't imagine that men are made any better by women becoming egoistic. On the contrary. For, you see, there will never be more than a small percentage of either men or women who can create for themselves a field of work which they could not exchange for another without feeling it a sacrifice. But because a few women have succeeded in making themselves a position which it would be a sacrifice for them to give up if they married, perhaps nine times as many are to be forced to go out and do a full day's work as breadwinners, and to do the work of a mother and housekeeper the rest of the twenty-four hours, or as many of them as they can stand on their feet without dying for want of sleep. Because a few females of the middle class have discovered that it is a disgrace to be kept by a man. In reality, I suppose, there were always devilish few who did nothing in return for their keep. The great majority at any rate had more to say than all the men in the country put together, as to how the generation that was growing up should turn out. But this talk about women not allowing themselves to be kept, you see--the ordinary average man who is no better than the majority of sinful folk takes this to mean that he needn't provide for his wife; she can look after herself, and if she wants to have children she can do her share in providing for them, since as a rule she is keener on having them than a man. And if you come down to the really scallywag type, they reckon on being kept for life if they've been fortunate enough to have a child by a decent and moderately good-hearted girl." (p. 244)

With mothers working outside the home comes immediately the topic of contraception and quickly on that topic's heals must follow abortion and euthanasia. I clearly have ignorance about the visibility of these topics way back in the 1920s because I'd have thought they were hardly discussed at all, but a bit of digging into the matter on my part revealed otherwise.

In "Ida Elisabeth," there is examination of the disappearance of the concepts of providentialism (the author's word) and that children are gifts from God. Children will grow up to realize that their parents had full ability to choose when they had their babies and how many. Therefore, the parents should be responsible for the economics of the children. Children shouldn't have to take on the economic care taking of the elderly parents since the parents had full control of how many children they were to have. And if children owe nothing to their parents, we quickly come to the consideration of forced euthanasia. As one character expresses, since we are abandoning our silly religious belief that souls have infinite value, now we must ask why we should let the decrepit elderly stay alive, or even take positive actions to keep them alive longer.

The author allows her characters to speak easily what now requires papal encyclicals, heated debates, and numerous books to try to convince society which has accepted that contraception is a good and that leads to nothing ill.

Book Two

Then the reader comes to Book Two. This is not a spoiler, as one reads it on the back of the book itself: Ida leaves her husband and starts a new life for herself in a small town. She and a wonderfully hard-working, dedicated gentleman fall in love and she is to be married.

But then the gravely ill shirker of a husband re-enters Ida's life and she must discern what is actually best for her children.

Of Book Two, which takes up more space even than Book One, I can say comparatively little or I really will spoil the story. As a child of divorce and who came to have stepparents on both sides and now as a mother of children, I felt the development of this story line was beautifully nuanced, realistic, and so painful to read. Again, as I read this, I wanted every young lady to read it too in hopes that she might see how critically important are the early decisions of relationships and marriage.

There aren't really any do-overs.

I was so moved by this book. I found myself thinking about it much of the time in the background of my mind. I believe I may well stay in this genre and pick up another Sigrid Undset novel off my shelf.

For more book reviews, see Worthwhile Reading.


  1. Outstanding review! We have Kristin Lavransdatter on the shelf, but nobody's ever tried to read it. Maybe this volume's comparatively easier than a book taking place in the long-ago Middle Ages, as I believe Kristin Lavransdatter's set. Again, thanks for the review (: -Emiliann W.

  2. Emilann: I've read "Kristin Lavransdatter" and remember loving it but can't remember the details. I do recall finishing the mammoth book and feeling it was short, which is the sign of an engaging story. I am debating right now reading it again next or reading Undset's (shorter and more modern) "Jenny."

  3. I just finished the 3rd volume of "Kristin" for the 3rd time. I has been many years, and I understood so much more of it with many more years of Catholicism under my belt! I'll have to go search for "Ida Elisabeth". "The Master of Hestviken" is another great "book" (4 volumes), but I guess she always writes about the same theme--- that those early choices affect your entire life. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

  4. I just put this book in my wish list. Your review and commentary was fascinating, and you discussed topics that I frequently think about, notably the concept of how feminism has turned many men into man-children. Not to mention how our current president appears to have such disdain for women who choose to be stay at home moms.

  5. I bought her biography of St Catherine of Siena for the girls. I havent read it yet.

  6. Just placed a hold on a library copy! Your review was fascinating, Katherine!