THE lives of British saints of the Dark Ages have proved a rich fountain of material for the novelist in recent years. There have been several imaginings of the life of St Hilda. Now, Katharine Tiernan has turned her attention to Hilda’s contemporary, the northern St Cuthbert.
The author’s fascination with the saint leads her to research the historical background of the period, one of great political and religious upheaval, in which he was directly involved, and she uses the material intelligently. The sources for Cuthbert’s own life are few, and the most important, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, naturally focuses on the saint’s spirituality and miracles, although it calls him a “soldier for Christ”. Another, an anonymous history written by a monk shortly after his death, tells us that he came from a well-to-do background and, like all boys of his station in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, was a warrior, and took part in at least one battle.
Tiernan takes this as her starting point, showing the saint entrusted to a beloved foster mother as a baby after the death of his own mother — a relationship that would shape the warm and affectionate relationships he had with women throughout his life. She also makes the highly plausible suggestion that it was the shocking outcome of a campaign in which he was involved which turned his path towards God.
The story develops from three different viewpoints. A third-person narrative shows us how Cuthbert, fleeing from the violence that he has witnessed, finds refuge in a monastery and is drawn into a daily routine where he finds friendship and a vocation as he struggles to learn humility and interpersonal skills. He learns to fast, and “learned the loosening of the physical world that hunger brought”. Later, he will resist an attempted seduction by a Scottish princess, and later still feel called to the solitary life on the island of Farne, where he toils alone to build his hut and grow food, making friends with the birds, until the king recalls him to be Bishop of Hexham.
Queen Enfleda of Northumbria is a witness to the struggle between the Celtic Church and the Roman, headed by the turbulent Wilfred, Cuthbert’s exact contemporary. She is present at the Synod of Whitby and sees the victory of the Roman tradition, to the dismay of Cuthbert and his abbot, Eata.
Enfleda’s daughter, Aelfled, was given to God as a child, and succeeded Hilda as Whitby’s abbess. Bede shows her as having a particular affection for Cuthbert, 20 years her senior, and it was she who wrapped him in his shroud when he was reinterred. In Tiernan’s capable hands, Cuthbert is her mentor from early childhood, asking her a riddle every day and giving her fat hazelnuts or an apple when she answers correctly. We see the saint’s spiritual development through her eyes, and she is sent as the king’s emissary, a position of great importance, to persuade Cuthbert to leave his hermitage and take up his bishopric.
The author Katharine Tiernan, who lives in Northumberland within sight of Lindisfarne, which features in all three of her Cuthbert novels
Tiernan enters into the heads of her characters, with their different voices, and sees what they see. The images that she uses are theirs: “Once started, his confession spilt out of him like milk boiling out of a pan.” The story’s physical settings are also beautifully imagined. She writes with all five senses, and dwells lovingly on tiny details, as in this description of digging: “The edge of the spade cut cleanly into the turf turning up long pale roots of couch grass with spear-like shoots and small bright cups of celandine.
“He tossed it onto the pile at the side, then straightened, lifted back the spade and drove it in again. The regular line of dark earth lengthened behind him. The stems left a milky trail on his hands as he shook the earth off the clod. A robin hopped close to the spade, darting at the fat worms squirming in the clods. Although the wind was bitter, there was a cold vigour about the day. The sap was rising and he felt spring in his blood.”
It is to be wondered, however, quite where her knowledge of what a severed head looks like after some weeks comes from.
Tiernan has a flair for psychological insight, and an imagination that fills in the gaps in the historical record without ever doing violence to what is likely. She is also possessed of a vivid visual imagination, and an illuminator’s eye for detail. For me, one of the narrative’s most attractive features is the love that binds the characters to each other: husband to wife, adult to child, and brother to brother, despite the violent background.
This would appeal to anyone who is interested in the Early Church, or a saint’s spiritual journey. Most important, it will have a particular attraction if you like historical fiction. As a child, I fell in love with Rosemary Sutcliff for her ability to create personalities and anchor them in a finely drawn physical reality. Only as an adult did I appreciate the depth and subtlety of her narratives. Tiernan’s book has both qualities in abundance. If you love Rosemary Sutcliff, you’ll love Katharine Tiernan.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
Cuthbert of Farne: A novel of Northumbria’s warrior saint by Katharine Tiernan is published by Sacristy Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1-78959-009-8.
CUTHBERT OF FARNE — SOME QUESTIONS
- The author writes in the third person for all her characters. What difference do you think this makes? Is it effective?
- The author describes her characters’ physical appearance. Is it important to know what a character looks like?
- What motivates Wilfred? Is he completely villainous, or can his behaviour be justified?
- Cuthbert tells Aelfled she is a link between earthly and spiritual powers. What does he mean?
- What part do women play in the book? Which of the female characters do you prefer, and why?
- What part does friendship play in the book?
- Aelfled hears a voice in her head prophesying her brother’s death. Cuthbert performs miracles. How important is the supernatural in the book?
- How does Cuthbert change, and why?
- “A bishop’s job is not the same as earthly power. Your work is to help bring God’s work into being.” How far do the bishops in the book exemplify this? Has their ministry changed?
- What are the different kinds of love we see in the book? Which is most important?
IN OUR next reading-groups page on 6 August, we will print extra information about our next book, Platform Seven by Louise Doughty. It is published by Faber & Faber at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-571-32196-4.
In Louise Doughty’s thriller, Platform Seven, a ghostly narrator haunting the station witnesses a middle-aged man throw himself in front of a freight train. The narrator herself died in the same place 18 months previously, but is struggling to find out how, and why. Through the narrator’s slow discovery of her story, we discover the ramifications of her manipulative and coercive relationship with her outwardly charming boyfriend. Doughty explores the nuance and complexity of abusive relationships and the distance between public and private personas. Interspersed throughout are the lives and experiences of those who work at the station.
Louise Doughty is a novelist, journalist, and playwright. Born in Melton Mowbray in 1963, she studied at the University of Leeds before completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, under Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. Doughty’s nine novels are multi-faceted and diverse, ranging from a satirical tale of 1990s office life to a historical novel covering the mass murder of Romany people during the Second World War. Her bestselling novel Apple Tree Yard was made into a BBC1 television series. Doughty was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
September: This is Happiness by Niall Williams
October: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell