I was expecting this to be about nuns at Whitby Abbey. Instead, it involved the future St Hild having a passionate affair with her maidservant and then making an incestuous marriage to her illegitimate half-brother. So it would be fair to say that it was a lot more exciting than I was anticipating! Apparently it’s intended to be the first of a trilogy, though, so the nuns at Whitby Abbey will presumably materialise in the second and third books.
Novels about the Dark Ages are hugely problematic, because we just don’t know very much about what went on. They often become more fantasy than history, which is understandable, but, from a historian’s viewpoint, very frustrating. They often involve Vikings, presumably because most readers are going to be familiar with the Vikings, even if that entails a totally inaccurate image involving horned helmets et al 😉 . And they usually focus on male warriors.
This book doesn’t do any of those things. There is a sense of fantasy, but I think that’s inevitable when writing about people about whom so little is known. There is an element of the supernatural, with the idea of Hild as the king’s “seer”, but that was part and parcel of the culture – and, when you think about it, it’s no more fantasy than the beliefs of today’s organised religions, just less familiar. And a lot of what people imagine to be the product of Hild’s imaginary powers is actually information that she’s cleverly found out by keeping her ear to the ground and sending people out to find out what’s going on. There are no Vikings – the raid on Lindisfarne wasn’t until 793AD, and this was set in the 610s, 620s and 630s. Don’t get me wrong, I like Vikings, but I was looking for Anglo-Saxons and Celts! And much of the focus is on women – Hild herself, her mother, her sister, various other royal women, and their female friends and servants.
Nicola Griffith is very keen on the concept of the “gemaecce” or “gemaecca” – a formal friendship between two women who are not blood relatives or romantic partners but who live and work together. It sounds fascinating, and it would be great to write a long essay on the role of female friendships in literature, but, although the word is real, she made the concept up. She says that she “repurposed” the term. “Repurposed” sounds like something that an American politician would say, but never mind! Most of what’s in the book is invented, but it has to be, because we just don’t know very much about Hild’s life, and we don’t know nearly as much about the events and lifestyles of the time as we do about, say, the Tudor period. “I made it up,” she says in the afterword. Well, our Yorkshire neighbours are supposed to be blunt!
It’s a period that most people know very little about, and, whilst that gives the author a lot of scope for invention, it also means that there’s no real framework, and very little to work with – so it’s really very brave to tackle something like this by way of a historical novel, rather than fantasy. She’s stuck to the facts where they are known – although she’s got Hild as the niece of Edwin of Northumbria, whereas she was actually his great-niece. It’s such an incredibly crucial period of English history, the overlap of Anglo-Saxon – and Jutish, although the poor old Jutes tend to be forgotten! – and Celtic cultures, and the Conversion. Some of the characters are Anglo-Saxons, some are Celts, and some are of mixed heritage.
The known figures are there – King Edwin of Northumbria (Deira and Bernicia), Hild’s mother Breguswith and sister Hereswith, and Hereswith’s husband, Ethelric of East Anglia. The events that are known about – or known insofar as we can know them, mainly from the writings of Bede – are there, the alleged poisoning of Hild’s father whilst he was in exile in the Celtic kingdom of Elmet. That isn’t in Wales or Scotland or Ireland, but in part of what’s now the West and North Ridings of Yorkshire. Everything’s so … blended, for lack of a better way of putting it! We see the characters switching from Anglo-Saxon English to Brythonic Celtic dialects. We even get a lot of Anglo-Saxon words in both the narrative and the dialect. Because that’s how it went – it wasn’t just a case of one population being moved along as another one came in. It rarely is.
The other crucial overlap, of course, was between Christianity and … ugh, I don’t like the word “paganism”, because it always sounds so condescending and negative. Between Christianity and traditional polytheistic religions, let’s say. I love the way Nicola Griffith tackles this. A lot of … OK, this isn’t a fantasy novel, but there is so much overlap in writing generally between the Dark Ages and fantasy novels and mythical worlds, and C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien in particular have to have Christian undertones to everything. Not that I ever picked up on the religious undertones in the Narnia books when I was a kid: they passed me by completely!
Anyway, to get back to the point, some authors would have made a big spiritual deal of the actual conversion scenes, whereas others would just have been completely cynical about it all. The way Nicola Griffith deals with it is just works really well for me – Edwin has decided that he and other members of the court should be baptised (this is what actually happened, on Easter Day 627), and it’s for political rather than religious reasons, and none of them really know very much about Christianity – it’s just case of going through a ceremony. Hild wonders if she’ll feel, or even be, different afterwards; but she doesn’t, and she isn’t. “I’m still me.” I really liked that. I’m not in any way knocking anyone who has found a religious ceremony to be a very profound process and has felt different afterwards, but we are who we are, whatever we think or do about religion. And history shows that most people do just go with the flow, whether it’s the Conversion or the Reformation. There are always going to be some people who do feel very deeply about it all, but I really liked Hild’s reaction as shown in this.
In between the political events (and I’m including the Conversion in that), there’s just so much in this, about the lives of the people – their work, their food, their socialising, their entertainments, their travelling around, and their relationships. The maidservant with whom Hild becomes romantically and sexually involved is originally a slave – I think most people are well aware that slavery was practised in England in Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, but it’s not written about very much, and maybe it’s a subject that should be covered more. There’s a lot about weaving, which took up so much of women’s time during the period – but not in a boring, technical way. We meet people of all social classes. We also see the importance of literacy, at a time when most people were not literate (and before the Church took control of education) – Hild is able to read and write, and her sister learns to do so in order for them to be able to keep in touch. There’s an awful lot in it.
Much of that will be historically accurate, insofar as the amount of information available allows it to be, but we sadly know very little about Hild’s life. We know about her parents and her sister, and that she was Edwin’s great-niece, and we know that she became Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey in her early 30s and then, famously, Abbess of Whitby Abbey – making it so prestigious that it was chosen as the venue for the first ever Synod within the Kingdom of Northumbria. From what Bede says, she was an intelligent and widely-admired woman, who gave advice to kings and princes and was the patroness of the poet Cadmon. But we have very little idea what went on in her life before she became an abbess. For all we know, she might have had an illegitimate half-brother, and been married off to him! OK, it’s highly unlikely, and I’m not sure why Nicola Griffith came up with that storyline, but we just haven’t got much clue.
And, for all we know, Hild may have had a relationship with her maidservant. Nicola Griffith points out that there’s nothing anywhere to tell us about views on sexuality in the Dark Ages. Her view is that it was Christianity which made sexuality an issue. There are certainly arguments for that: we know that it wasn’t a big deal in Ancient Greece, for example, for people to have relationships with partners of both sexes. Maybe in some ways, it wasn’t until Victorian times that same sex relationships really became seen as a social, and legal, no-no. If you look as late as the Stuart period in England, it was widely known that James I was bisexual, and there were also rumours – although they probably weren’t true – that so were both William III and Anne; and no-one seems to’ve had a problem with that.
It’s not a big deal in the book, because the idea is that being bisexual wasn’t a big deal in the 7th century, but the book has won a bisexual fiction award. There is unfortunately still a big problem in the attitude of most religious towards LGBT issues, so including LGBT themes in a book about a saint could be seen as controversial, but I don’t think that’s what the author intended – as she says, we don’t know much about attitudes towards sexuality in the Dark Ages, and it’s quite possible that it just wasn’t an issue, and people just formed relationships with partners without being too bothered about whether they were men or women. Although, if she did mean to be controversial, who could blame her? I’ve read several comments on social media about the distress caused to friends by the negative attitudes of their respective religions towards LGBT issues. And there’s also the issue of many religions towards women – the point’s made in this book that Hild doesn’t find Christianity particularly positive about females.
But we don’t know. A lot of work has been done on Anglo-Saxon history. Do first year undergraduates at Oxford still have to study it, or has that changed now? But we still know very little about it, compared to most of the other historical periods generally covered in historical novels, and that is very frustrating! But as much as possible of what is known is woven (pun intended – there is a lot of weaving in this book!) into the fabric (again, pun intended) of this novel, alongside what’s a product of the author’s imagination. And it’s a good read, and I’m quite disappointed that the rest of the trilogy hasn’t been written yet. Just don’t be expecting to read about the lives of nuns, because there are no nuns here!