Archive for December 19th, 2013

December 19, 2013

Nicola Griffith, Hild

From this weekend’s column.

One of the many pleasing things about Hild is that large parts of it are set quite near where I am now (or it feels that way–England isn’t very big). It is possible that I highlighted those bits in my ebook with such incisive critical comments as “represent!”



Is it still a biography when an entire book must be extrapolated from mere scraps of detail? That’s about all we know of the woman who would come to be known as Saint Hilda of Whitby; a few, scant details in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. We know that her father was a nephew of Edwin of Northumbria and that he was poisoned, that she was baptized by Paulinus of York, and that twenty years later she became a nun, eventually becoming the abbess of a monastery at Whitby. It’s not much to go on, yet Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a novel of close to 600 pages and it ends decades before the most well-documented part of Saint Hilda’s life.

So if it’s not biography is it historical fiction? Fantasy? Griffith is known mainly as a science fiction writer, and she has claimed elsewhere that in creating this book she drew on techniques learned from that genre. The world of Hild is meticulously built up from what we know of the material and social culture of its time; it is remote enough from our own world to seem completely alien (there have been few popular culture narratives of the early middle ages to familiarise them), yet it makes complete sense.

Griffith’s Hild is the clever daughter of a clever mother, taught from her youngest days to observe (“quiet mouth, bright mind,” her mother Breguswith’s constant advice to her). Breguswith claims to have foretold her daughter’s greatness, and from the beginning of her life Hild is believed to have supernatural powers. Whether her gift for seeing “the pattern” in things is divine in origin is both unclear and irrelevant; she becomes a valued advisor to Edwin. As her friend, an Irish priest, tells her, her mother has carved out for her a space inaccessible to many women in her circumstances; she’s in a position to speak and be listened to, to influence the larger political, social, economic changes taking place around her in ways other than through strategic marriage alliances.

And women and women’s work are at the centre of Hild. In the court both Hild and her mother subtly work to influence events, as does Edwin’s wife Æthelburg. But we also see women weaving cloth, doing manual labour, trading, tending to cattle, brewing mead and creating medicine. History, and historical fiction, often tend to treat as important only the more masculine spheres of activity. Here, battles are fought but we only see them when Hild is present at them. The political life of the court may be dominated by men, but a few powerful women are always present. And the centrality of women to this society, particularly their economic contribution, is never ignored or dismissed. Female friendship is elevated in the form of gemæcce, a sort of formalised partnership between two women. Women are free to have sex, with men or with other women (one of many striking dissimilarities between this seventh century Britain and twenty-first century India), without anyone seeming particularly surprised.

Perhaps Griffith’s greatest achievement here is in not giving Hild a modern mind. She may, as a result of her gift or her mother’s training, know more than most of those around her and she may manipulate events, but if she can discern the “pattern” of her world she’s rarely placed above or outside it. Other than one rather too pat moment when she describes Christ as merely another name for the pattern (religion until this point in the novel has worked in marvellous, complex ways), she thinks as a person raised in her world.

Hild is immersive and feminist, and believable. Whether this is historical fiction or fantasy (and Griffith suggests that perhaps there needn’t be a distinction between the two) it’s complex and intelligent.