The Big Idea: Nicola Griffith
What do we think of when we think of history? For author Nicola Griffith, it’s a pertinent question, particularly for her latest novel Hild, which features a protagonist of no little historical import — but also no great historical record…
Just before I started work on Hild, I wrote “You’ve been warned,” a blog post in which I vowed that with my next novel I would run my software on your hardware. “I will control what you think and feel, put you right there, right then…give you a life you’ve never had, change the one you live. For a while, when you’re lost in my book, you will be somewhere, somewhen, someone else.”
It was my dagger in the table, a public challenge—to myself. You see, I’d been aiming for Hild for a long time, and I was terrified.
In my early twenties I was living in Hull, the rather grim city in north east England where my novel Slow River is set. One weekend I managed to get away for a few days and head north up the coast, to Whitby.
I’d read Dracula, which is set partly in Whitby, so I was expecting the 199 steps up the cliff. I was expecting the great ruined abbey against the skyline. But I didn’t expect what happened next.
When I stepped over the threshold of that ruin it felt as though history fisted up through the turf, and through me. It turned me inside out like a sock. It was like sticking your head in what looks like a perfectly ordinary wardrobe only to find yourself in Narnia. My world changed.
History, I realized, was real. Built by real people with their own dreams, disappointments, and dailyness. I could see it. I could feel it. (I probably stood there with my mouth hanging open.)
After that epiphany I went back every year, sometimes twice year. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey, sitting on the tumbled stones, reading the tourist brochures, imagining how it might have been. Even after I moved to the US I came back as often as I could. Bit by bit I learnt that the abbey was founded by a woman called Hild in the mid-seventh century. That 1350 years ago, in 664 CE, she hosted and facilitated a meeting, the Synod of Whitby, which was a major turning point in English history. She’s now revered as St. Hilda of Whitby.
But when I went looking I couldn’t find any solid information. No scholarly monograph. No saintly Life Of. Not even a novel. The only reason we know Hild existed is a mention in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He tell us Hild’s mother dreamt of her in the womb–she would be the light of the world. Her father was murdered in exile. She was baptised at age 13 and when she was 33 and visiting her older sister in East Anglia, she was recruited to the church. She went on to found Whitby Abbey and hosted the Synod in which so-called Celtic Christianity was ousted in favour of the Roman kind. Oh, and she trained five bishops, was a counsellor to kings, and was instrumental in the creation of the first piece of English literature, Cædmon’s Hymn.
We don’t know what she looked like, whether she married or had children, or even where she was born. But she must have been extraordinary. Think about it. This was the time that used to be called the Dark Ages. In a heroic, occcasionally brutal and certainly illiterate culture (cue music for Xena: Warrior Princess), Hild begins life as the second daughter of a widow, homeless and hunted, yet ends as a powerful advisor to more than one king, leader of a famous centre of learning, and midwife to English literature.
So how did she do that? We don’t know. I wrote this book to find out. I decided to use the same world-building I’d used in science fiction to figure out how. I’d build the seventh century and grow Hild inside.
So I researched. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the late sixth and early seventh century: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textile production, languages, food, weapons, trade patterns, even the weather. I read scholarly monographs, narrative histories, blog posts, and strange screeds. Late in the process I stumbled over a new factoid: by one estimate, Anglo-Saxon women spent 65% of their time in the production of textiles. Sixty-five percent. That’s a greater proportion of her day than sleeping, child care, and food preparation combined. Textile production was life-or-death technology for the whole community. I kept returning to it; it fascinated me.
But I didn’t want to write that kind of book. I didn’t want to write about the restrictions of gender. Domesticity makes me claustrophobic. Hearth and home are all very well, but I love an epic canvas: gold and glory, politics and plotting, people wacking each other’s heads off with swords. To avoid feeling trapped I was tempted to make Hild so singular that the restrictions didn’t apply to her. At one point I even had her learn and use a sword, although in reality any woman of that era who picked one up would most likely have been killed out of hand and tossed face-down in a ditch.
I couldn’t make it work. Remember that realisation at Whitby Abbey? History is made by real people; the rules always apply. I despaired.
But there was my dagger, quivering in the table.
In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged…
…And discovered what poets have known for millennia, that constraint is freeing. I had nothing to lose, so I committed. And the words came. It felt like magic. It was Hild’s voice…