Posted by: Peadar Ban | July 31, 2012

Book Review: Ida Elisabeth, by Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian author of great Catholic and Christian novels and 1924 Nobel laureate for Literature is most well known for her brilliant trilogy “Kristin Lavransdatter”, a novel about willfulness, youthful indiscretion and disobedience and the lifelong consequences that result from that. In Ida Elisabeth she has written of the lifelong consequences of what may wryly be called a bad case of mistaken identity; a very bad case. Anyone who has an eye for what passes for relationships these days between men and women, boys and girls, will understand Ida Elisabeth’s problem(s); willfulness, too early experimentation, too early marriage and the consequences of all of these bad choices. Now, one would not so much see the “too early marriage’ part of the equation. And, who knows but that marriage may not be a better thing to endure under such circumstances than some of the solutions modern times suggest, be that as it may. The problem the novel deals with is what does one do with such a life formed after such early bad choices. In the Catholic world, the true Christian understands the worth of contrition and forgiveness which erase the effects of the sins committed in one’s youth.

This then is Ida Elisabeth, the character for whom the novel is named, a girl who marries her teenage sweetheart, Frithjof, in an effort to redeem her reputation. Very early on she comes to know her charming husband is a failure at life. She must become the family’s support. She becomes a dressmaker to feed herself and her children and her fool of a husband. Then he becomes involved with another woman; breaking faith, destroying trust. Ida Elisabeth leaves him and moves with her children to a small town. Still young, Ida attracts the attention of a successful lawyer who is the man her husband could never be. He is someone she can put her faith in, someone she can trust. She is seriously thinking about marrying this man when Frithjof, now a very sick man comes back to her.

Though her most famous novel is set in medieval Norway, Undset chose the modern age for Ida Elisabeth which opens early in the last century; a contemporary setting for Undset. The novel sadly, but truthfully, shows us the terrible results of wrong choices made early in life. It is at its most powerful, however, in showing how suffering properly endured can produce true understanding and purifying love. How the author describes and animates her characters’ relationships in this edifying and deeply satisfying story becomes a revealing commentary on modern day relationships between men and women.

One of the modern age’s best Catholic authors Undset’s is particularly able to capture the mind and soul of her characters, wrapping them in the surroundings of her well loved Norway. She presents real people to her readers, opened to the depths of their being, and in true Christian fashion shows that the themes of love, fidelity and mercy are only what matters most.

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