Ida Elisabeth. Sigrid Undset. Ignatius Press (San Francisco: 2011), pp 425. (first printing in Norwegian: 1932)
Written after her conversion to Catholicism in 1924, the novel Ida Elisabeth by Sigrid Undset explores a number of themes from an extremely unusual perspective for a modern author.
The skeleton of the story is straightforward. A young woman, Ida Elisabeth, becomes romantically involved with a fellow who is in no way suited for marriage. She binds herself to him despite this and after several children, much financial anxiety, and infidelity on his part, sues for a divorce. She is able to develop a prosperous business from her talent as a seamstress and makes a comfortable, secure home for her children.
The story takes a turn. Ida Elisabeth meets a wonderful man and is, for the first time, genuinely loved and in love. However, to her great sorrow, antipathy grows between her beloved and her sons and, in the end, she renounces a second marriage and resumes life alone with her children.
Given such a plot, one is surprised that the book doesn’t discuss the question of divorce and remarriage abstractly – Ida Elisabeth has done what was needed for her family, in her situation. Other situations would undoubtedly produce different conclusions. Undset doesn’t take the matter further.
Rather, what is explored in this story is the responsibility of those who are able to navigate through life – who have the tools of perseverance and courage and the practical application of skills – to help those who, for whatever reasons, make a mess of it. In other words, Undset is not concerned only with protecting the “deserving” needy, such as children or the sick, but the undeserving, able-bodied “leeches.” “The kind of people he called scrap metal – well, he only saw the mischief they brought about; he had never looked into them….Ingvild had loved her piece of scrap metal of a husband, passionately and stubbornly – but if one knows how such a person looks on the inside, one does not love him; normal human beings do not fall in love with what is infected and deformed. But one does not leave them to their fate either, when one has seen them on the inside – without once trying if one can help.” (pp 349-350)
And Ida Elisabeth does try, again and again, sucked into a vortex of pity and well-meaning which leaves the reader frustrated and yet, begrudgingly, sympathetic.
Undset’s particular strength as a writer, here and in her other novels, lies in the ability to paint an uncompromising portrait of the soul, capturing both its beauty and its blemishes. There is no question that Ida Elisabeth is a strong, enterprising, loving woman – who fails to be “vexed” when vexation is appropriate and ignores the inner voice of prudence when it comes to her ex-husband and his family.
In a similar manner, Undset presents the reader with an amazingly naked rendering of marital relations that, while never devolving into voyeurism, explore the subject of intimacy with startling subtlety. Then, on the other side of the coin, she points to its splinters: the wince of aversion, the relief in a moment alone, the just-barely demeaning comment. Very few writers are able to squeeze so much psychological depth into such small gestures.
Undset, who was born in Denmark and spent a few years in the United States during World War II, was a Norwegian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, and the tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken – both complex historical fictions.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block also edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper.