The novel "Kristin Lavransdatter" by Sigrid Undset is a compelling work about family life and legacy. When I read it recently, it profoundly affected me and led me to important realizations about how families work. In particular, it exposes the mistake we make when we think of individual family members as passive beneficiaries of family legacy. Rather, the novel illustrates how every person's life in the family is one grand project through which they can extend, change, or replace the family legacy for themselves and their children.
Why are we talking about a novel?
Stories can provide and communicate insights about the human experience in a way that is different from empirical research. For example, statistics about rates of failure for family business succession can reach us intellectually, but stories about family business failures can reach us emotionally, as well as intellectually, and can help us better understand the causes and consequences of these events.
In a recent editorial, "Literature, Fiction, and the Family Business," written by Mattias Nordqvist and William B. Gardner and published in Family Business Review(Vol. 33(2) 2020), the authors advocate using literature and literary studies as one method of learning about family business.
Nordqvist and Gardner write that literary studies "can help us better capture and account for the role of human, emotional, cultural, and relational experiences that make up the everyday life of family businesses and that constitute the essence of the priorities, interests, and values that guide their people’s decisions and choices."
Nordqvist and Gardner write, in summary, "The intention of using literature and fiction in family business studies is to expand our ability to see more of the details, the complexities, and the richness of families and their businesses, and, through this greater depth and scope of vision, generate insights and understandings that will be valuable to all those who are a part of the family business community (e.g., scholars, families, employees of family businesses, advisors, etc.)."
What is "Kristin Lavransdatter" about?
"Kristin Lavransdatter" was written by Norwegian author Sigrid Undset and originally published as a trilogy of novels in the early 1920s. This work was cited as the basis of the Nobel Prize in literature awarded to Undset in 1928. You can acquire a great English language translation by Tiina Nunnally through Penguin Classics. (It is my understanding that earlier translations omitted sexual content, but such content (which is not graphic) is an essential element of the story.)
The novel is a detailed chronical of the entire life of a woman, Kristin Lavransdatter, living in Norway in the 14th century. It is not an action novel or a romance. There is no fantasy element. Rather, it is about domestic life, birth, marriage, property, agriculture, family relationships, illness, aging, and death. The primary characters are Kristin, Kristin's family members, a property manager, and Kristin's spiritual advisers.
The novel's plot is simple. Kristin's family has wealth, but her parents have suffered several personal tragedies. Kristin defies her father and chooses a husband who is irresponsible and reckless. Kristin and her husband have many children together, but their family suffers from their poor decisions and estrangement. When the children become adults, their prospects are impaired due to the excesses of their parents. Kristin, alone in older age, reflects on how things could have been better for her children.
In the novel, Kristin's father is portrayed as a simple but reliable person. He is kind and devout. He is hardworking and a good steward of the family property. Kristin is more complex. She is impulsive and willful. She is hardworking but relentless. She is generous but unforgiving. She has faith, but she is prone to superstition and bouts of fanaticism. Her devotion to her children causes estrangement in her marriage.
The novel is remarkable not for its plot, but rather for the thorough, insightful, and moving portrayal of Kristin's inner life, her thoughts and emotions, particularly as she struggles with remorse each time her character flaws cause harm to herself or those she loves.
What lessons does "Kristin Lavransdatter" have for 21st century family business?
The novel provides insights on many important life issues, like love, morality, gender roles, and spirituality, but, in particular, it demonstrates a dynamic between family legacy and personal legacy.
In the novel, Kristin's father leaves a family legacy of faith and wealth. Kristin's sister marries a man who is able to honor that faith and enhance that wealth for their children. By the end of the novel, the family legacy in that branch has been extended for two more generations, largely due to the talents and character of Kristin's brother-in-law. In contrast, Kristin lives a life that disfigures the family legacy, as that legacy is unable to withstand the effects of Kristin's decisions and actions that do it harm.
The novel, by presenting Kristin's entire life, is able to show the long term negative effects that Kristin's mistakes have on her children, including mistakes that Kristin made before her children were even born. By the end of the novel, the family legacy in Kristin's branch is no longer an extension of the legacy her father left, but rather it is a new legacy that Kristin and her husband have made, leaving only tattered remnants of the culture and material wealth that Kristin was given to hand down to her children.
The novel suggests that a positive family legacy cannot overcome a divergent personal legacy. This should serve as notice to every member of the family, even the young ones. Each family member must work to enjoy the family legacy and preserve it for his or her children. If they do not take care to do so, they may leave themselves with hardship and remorse.
There is much wisdom in "Kristin Lavransdatter." I wish I had read it when I was young.