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The Abbess of Whitby: A novel of Hild of Northumbria
Lion Hudson £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
ALL that we know about St Hilda of Whitby comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. She was born in 614, the second daughter of Hereric, nephew of the powerful King Edwin of Northumbria. When she was an infant, her father was murdered, and Hild and her sister grew up in exile at Edwin’s court. Edwin’s wife, Ethelburga, was a Christian, and, in 627, the King and his entire court, including Hild, were baptised by Paulinus in a wood church hastily put up for the occasion. Later, Hild founded a convent at Whitby, and such was her reputation for piety and wisdom that the Northumbrian king Oswy chose it as the location for the first Christian synod in England.
On to this bare framework, which includes a 20-year gap when we don’t know what Hild was doing, two women writers have woven very different narratives. Both look at Anglo-Saxon life from a woman’s point of view, where the men go off to fight and the women are given in marriage to cement alliances. They concern themselves with domestic relationships and the day-to-day production of the food, clothes, and medicines necessary to keep a community going. Hild, unusually, learns to read. To the modern reader, seventh-century British politics is a mass of unfamiliar similar-sounding names and complex kinship networks. The maps and family trees at the beginning of both books were vital.
The narratives move at different speeds. Jill Dalladay’s, of 343 pages, takes in the whole of the saint’s life, and is concerned to show how Hild’s own faith grew. Dalladay follows the recent thinking that a woman of Hild’s social status must have been married, and gives her a husband based in Edinburgh, thus neatly introducing her to St Aidan, who would appoint her Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey.
Her language is sometimes irritatingly archaic. Characters chortle, gurgle, address young girls as “chit”, and preside over boisterous, jocular affairs. At times, too, the narrative moves too fast for the weight of material, and I found myself turning back to work out what had happened. Nevertheless, it is well worth reading for the descriptions of terror and hunger, and the finely imagined spiritual journey of an extraordinary woman.
Nicola Griffith’s 614 pages are, by contrast, much more slow-moving, dealing with Hild’s life up to her marriage to her childhood friend Cian. Here, too, her Hild is raised by a strong mother who dreamed that her child would be a jewel to light the whole of Britain and who teaches her to base her prophecies on careful observation of people, animals, and weather. There is time for characters to develop. Griffith’s Paulinus is a nasty piece of work, persecuting Celtic priests and spurning beggars. I found it a little hard to believe that a teenage girl could learn to use a staff well enough to fight grown men, but this is fiction, after all.
Like Dalladay, the author has done a huge amount of research into the domestic life of the Dark Ages. We see in detail what people ate and how people wove. She enters into Hild’s head and makes us see the world as she saw it. There are some lovely images. Frost crackles like a cat crunching a bird. It is reminiscent of Rosemary Sutcliff at her best, and there can be no higher praise.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.