My Story, Mystery: A Letter to Hild of Whitby




DEAR HILD,

You were magnificent, I think, but hidden: a black hole at the heart of history. We can trace you only by your gravitational pull. We know, for example, that the very first piece of English literature — Cædmon’s Hymn, certainly the earliest extant example of Old English vernacular and very possibly the first created — was forged in the fire of your influence; that in the so-called Dark Ages you built and ran Whitby Abbey, the foundation at the center of what became Northumbria’s Golden Age. There you hosted and facilitated the meeting of kings, princes, and bishops that changed Britain. But we have no account of you beyond a five-page sketch in a 1300-year-old history, most of which recites the standard hagiographic miracles and visions of the time. We have no gossipy Life, no scholarly monograph, no racy romance cycle. There isn’t even a grave.

¤

Whitby Abbey, which you would have called it Streonæshalch, is now a ruin overlooking a harbor on the northeast coast of Yorkshire less than two hours’ drive from where I was born. (The current ruins are that of a Benedictine monastery begun in the late 11th century on the ruins of your foundation — which was destroyed by the Vikings in the ninth century. “Whitby” is a Viking name.) It’s visible for miles, from land and sea. On a summer day, the cliff-top ruins are lovely, but northern summers are brief, and without sunshine it’s impossible to ignore the winds that howl in off the North Sea. What prompted you to choose such an exposed spot? Vanity, asceticism, a craving for God’s presence? I doubt it. I think the sea itself was the point.

Anglo-Saxon poetry, written long after your death (because the tradition did not exist until you created it), is full of voyages. Anglo-Saxons were born sailors. For you, the sea was not a wilderness or a barrier but a road — one less treacherous than the broken and boggy remains of those built by Romans. Their roads were a marvel: cutting through mountains, slicing across valleys, soaring over rivers. They are monumental, implacable. But not indestructible. When Roman military power withdrew, its administrative structures failed. Without taxes, regular maintenance ceased. Trees grew, bridges fell, and ditches clogged. Marsh reclaimed great stretches; locals took beautifully trimmed mile markers, bridge footings, and foundation pavers to shore up walls. As the once-unified province broke into warring tribes, parts of any traveler’s route ran through enemy territory.

It was quicker and easier, then, to sail from Whitby to Bamburgh, the seat of Northumbrian royal power, than to ride. York, like every other major Northumbrian center, was on a navigable river.

So the sea was the point; the sea and the harbor, one of the only havens on that stretch of coast: a place where a ship could pull in at night for travelers to rest without fear, where they could consult you. Your ease of access to those in power — and theirs to you — mattered. Why? What made you so important? We don’t know. We don’t even know your full name.

¤

Anglo-Saxon names are generally dithematic, built of two elements, a prefix and suffix. According to the only document that attests to your existence, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (HE) [1], your mother was Breguswith, your father Hereric, and your sister — neatly — Hereswith. But you were just Hild, which means battle.

Bede was writing 50 years after you died; I doubt you met him, or would have liked him if you had. He was a monk, one of the first generations of English oblates, with a very particular idea of women. Royal virgins were acceptable; wives and mothers of especially pious kings might rate a mention. Most of the time, though, Bede’s monarchs seemed to mate with the air. HE was the foundational text of English history, the model and exemplar of the genre for the next millennium and a half, and, in it, women barely exist.

You are the exception.

Even so, Bede’s scant mentions of you consist mainly of lists of the (male) bishops and (mostly male) saints you trained, and the (male) monarchs you advised. Bede writes that your father was murdered in exile, and while you were in the womb your mother dreamt you would be the light of the world and lead the way for Britain. He gives no clue how you might have managed this. I suspect, in fact, that Breguswith’s prophecy, which imbued you with a corona of singularity, was part of what made your achievements, your whole life, possible; it was the best protection a mother could give.

As the second daughter of an assassinated should-have-been king, you needed all the help you could get. You were probably homeless and hunted, almost certainly illiterate — everyone was — a child surviving among petty warlords. Bede says none of this, of course. In his text, you are born (we don’t know where, exactly) and glide invisibly through the world until you appear at age 13 alongside the real subject of his narrative, your uncle the king (who may be the one who murdered your father; Bede is conspicuously silent on this point), with whom you were baptized in the first wave of Anglo-Saxon conversions. Then you vanish again for 20 years.

Twenty years. That’s a big chunk of anyone’s life. Who did you love, kill, nurture, bear, heal, persuade, or fight in that time? We’ll never know. But those 20 years must have been a crucible because the person who emerged was extraordinary.

You reappear at 33, recruited to the church by the founding Bishop of Lindisfarne, Aidan, an Irishman by way of Iona. Aidan went to some lengths to persuade you; he must have needed you. Bede, though, doesn’t see fit to tell us why — nor why you said yes. You joined the nascent Northumbrian church and founded Whitby Abbey, a double house — with women and men religious — which shortly became the jewel of the north. Archaeological finds indicate that Whitby was a hive of cultural production: goldsmithing, weaving, and, of course, books. Bede tells us you ran the place “with great energy,” that kings and princes “used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and took it,” and that you were so revered all called you Mother. [2]

Some time after Aidan’s death, you brought together the overking of Britain, his son, and the cream of the northern ecclesiastical elite for the famous Synod where the fate of the English church was decided. [3] The overking spurned the so-called Celtic church (centered at Lindisfarne) in favor of aligning with Rome. Reading between the lines (not your lines, of course, and not in your language — there was no written Old English at that point), it was you who brought together the factions, forging an amalgam of the best of both, mitigating Pauline misogyny with Irish egalitarianism.

That gift, the ability to bring together competing cultures, is what made the early creation of Old English literature possible. Religion and literacy, both previously the province of the elite, met and mated with the vernacular artistic tradition — because you made it happen. You told Cædmon, a cowherd, to use his song-making gift to help you spread the word of God. He did. His song, his poem, The Dream of the Rood, was written down in the vernacular, probably at your abbey, very likely at your instigation. You brought together different traditions, different ways of understanding the world, and made something new. In terms of English literature, at least, your mother’s prophecy came true: you lit the way.

You yourself remain in shadow.

¤

We tend to think of history as fact, but history is just moments that have come down to us, embroidered over the ages. Stories. And women’s stories are missing. In a recent issue of The Paris Review, Hilary Mantel said, of revising a draft of A Place of Greater Safety a dozen years after she had written it, “When I read my draft, I saw that the women were wallpaper. There had been no material. Today you would think, Well, I must invent some, then. At the time I hadn’t seen the need — I hadn’t thought the women were interesting.”

Of course we don’t seem interesting, because our interesting bits are missing. As Virginia Woolf said, in “Women and Fiction”:

The history of England is the history of the male line, not of the female. Of our fathers we know always some fact, some distinction. They were soldiers or they were sailors; they filled that office or they made that law. But of our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, what remains? Nothing but a tradition. One was beautiful; one was red-haired; one was kissed by a Queen. We know nothing of them except their names and the dates of their marriages and the number of children they bore.

You are remembered as a woman so revered everyone called you Mother, but we don’t know if you had children of your own, the color of your hair, or the names of anyone you kissed. We have two legends: that the ammonites [4] that are found in such plenty at Whitby are the snakes you turned to stone, and seagulls dip their wings over the cliffs in your memory. The rest is a mystery.

¤

his story

history

my story

mystery

            (adele adridge, 1972)

Stories help us empathize. Without them, we lose sight of who we can be. Elena Ferrante says, in her Paris Review interview: “I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature — they made me an adult.”

Without stories of women with power and agency, women like you, we don’t see our shape and heft in the world or our own possibilities. We are poorer for it. We have no pictures of you, and no grave, but Whitby is built in your image and is your monument: elemental, unmistakable, arresting. It and you changed my life.

Yorkshire has been settled for thousands of years. Everywhere one turns there are the marks of human habitation: standing stones, Iron Age hillforts, Roman roads. The past is part of my landscape. I’ve danced katas in castles on mist-drenched mornings, daydreamed of Neolithic raiding parties on the moors, and hummed songs a Roman auxiliary’s child might have learnt by Hadrian’s Wall. But Whitby Abbey is unique. There the skin of the earth seems thin, the boundary between past and present nonexistent. Fossil plesiosaurs, like flying dragons that have crashed into the cliff in some alternate reality running alongside our own, are freed from the rock every day by the tides; light shimmers over the sea like the first breath of the world; even the turf seems to tremble with immanence. Otherness, elsewhereness, is tangible. It was at Whitby that I understood the people from the past were real; at Whitby that I first wanted to know what it would be like to live in another time and place in another’s skin. It was at Whitby Abbey, with a hand on those fallen stones, that I knew I would become a writer.

You made Whitby. On some level, you made me.

Of all the women remembered by history — even sketchily — you’re the only one I know of who lived on her own terms. Your renown was not as anyone’s parent or wife, or for suffering unspeakable torment or a martyr’s death. All you achieved was as a person in your own right. You lived a long and successful life, and died admired and powerful. You won.

You won. That single fact, that women can win, helped counterbalance all the rubbish I’d absorbed from history. Partly because I stood in those ruins and saw what you had made, I knew we could each triumph on our own terms and in our own service.

In a very real sense, then, I owe you everything. But I didn’t want to write your story.

¤

History — his story — tells us that in the past, particularly so long ago, women lived narrow, caged lives: pawns of the marriage game; baby-making machines; handmaids of dynasty. I “knew” your constraints and those of your peers were terrible. But Bede tells us kings and princes traveled to you for advice — and took it. I could not see how you’d got there.

The only way to find out how, what made you who you were, was to write your story myself.

A paradox. To write a novel set in the Long Ago realistic enough, immersive enough, to persuade readers that this is how it was, this is who you were — yet might appeal to those like me who have been taught to imagine women’s roles in the past as claustrophobic. It seemed impossible. Then I saw one faint and glimmering path.

If I could recreate the seventh century — a working world; its people, places, and web of political, religious, and personal relationships — I could then replay known events and watch what happened, see what shape a person with your achievements might take. To feel confident that the you I imagined could have existed — for the experiment to be valid — I could not contravene what material evidence exists, even in the smallest detail.

To even attempt such a thing was ridiculous. Intellectually, I knew this. But what keeps a writer going, what makes her able to think she will succeed where millions fail, is an almost psychotic self-belief. I’m guessing you had that too. However, to paraphrase Trollope, while the difficult can be done at once, the impossible takes a little longer.

It took me 30 years. For half that time, I didn’t even know I was working my way in to telling your story. My first novel, Ammonite (no, really, I didn’t know), was set in the far future, my second in the near future, my next three, about a woman named for Aud the Deep-Minded, a ninth-century Norwegian, then Irish queen, who founded Iceland (I still didn’t know) in the here and now. Some time after finishing the first Aud novel I started reading everything about the late sixth and early seventh century I could lay my hands on. Ethnography, archaeology, numismatics, jewelry, textiles, languages, food production, flora and fauna, weapons and warfare, medical approaches, religious belief — even the weather. I read a lot of poetry. Old English was foundational for me. I read several different translations of the extant poetry, then I read the originals (they come in a variety of recensions) — though I admit my understanding of the language is pitiful.

When I began to dream in the rhythms of heroic poetry, when I heard the shiver of new leaves in the wind and saw that shimmer of light over the sea, I was ready. And there you were, at the foot of an elm: three years old, wary, with a will of adamant. I fell for you, and I ached, because to get this right I could not flinch — there’s no story, no growth and change, without struggle. And your name, after all, means battle.

¤

When a novel is published these days, it’s part of the author’s job to write publicity pieces to accompany the launch: lists, personal essays, travel-related features, anything which could plausibly relate to the work and might appeal to an editor or producer hungry for content. As Hild will be reprinted as a UK paperback in October, I recently pondered what I could write to support it. The first thing I set about was a list, a Five Best essay for a national daily in which one talks about five novels that have influenced the work at hand.

It seemed easy. Five titles dropped into my head immediately: powerful, immersive novels set in a time, like yours, when wind and animal muscle powered the world and life could be brutal. Each was an old friend, read and reread for decades. Three by women and two by men; [5] this proportion pleased me.

Then I realized that all, without exception, were about men. This disturbed me. These were the stories I loved, the historical fiction that had a powerful influence on my approach to writing; stories of war and leadership, personal and political change, and great deeds. Stories of lives history tells us matters. Men’s stories. I was appalled to see how that attitude had influenced my own writing life.

I expanded the list of historical novels to 10, with the same result. It wasn’t until I increased that number to 20 — this time including books set in much more recent times — that women began to pop up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every single one of these historical novels about women were created by women who identify as lesbian. [6]

¤

Did you love women, or men, or both (or neither)? We’ll never know, and I doubt it mattered. But we all like to see ourselves mirrored in the world, so I chose to make you bisexual, not a word you would have understood. [7] The experience has brought — is still bringing — me vast joy. But, ah, I would give my big toe — perhaps even a foot — to have had your story, in your words (or the words of a female contemporary) to light the way.

Adrienne Rich said, in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics: “We must use what we have to invent what we desire.” What I desire is a world in which the you I have imagined could have existed, a world in which you lived your life with grace and agency.

History is our interpretation of what happened, our shared understanding of past events in the light of what we know today. I’m tired of his story. I’m tired of our story being a mystery. Tired of women never making the hero’s journey, of women never leading their people just because they can, of never changing the world because they want to. I’m so very tired of reading about women who get where they do by marrying into power or giving birth to those who will inherit it, of women who are more object than subject.

By writing your story I am looking at where we come from — the past — and believing we could have survived there as ourselves. By imagining you as possible, I am recasting what today we think might have been possible. By reclaiming the past, retelling it to include women as people, I’m remaking the present, and, I hope, changing the future.

In my version of the world, you are no longer missing.

¤

Notes

[1] There are a variety of translations. These days it’s fashionable to interpret the title as The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I first read it as A History of the English Church and People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham. All translations are from that 1968 edition, unless otherwise specified.

[2] This makes you sound nurturing and kind. But you don’t get to be renowned enough to be remembered all over the world 14 hundred years later by being sweetness and light. Mother Teresa might have helped millions, but from what I can gather she was not a gentle soul.

[3] Synod of Whitby, 664 CE.

[4] The genus of ammonite found at Whitby is Hildoceras bifrons. In fact, the whole family of ammonites is known as the Hildoceratidae.

[5] The five books of the Long Ago are: The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart (about Merlin), Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff (Arthur), Fire From Heaven, Mary Renault (Alexander), Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian (Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin), and The Great Captains, Henry Treece (Arthur). What is it about Arthur? We know even less of him than about Hild — I doubt he even existed. But we “know” the name of his sword, his dog, and his boon companions. His story has become history.

[6] For example, Stella Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, Ellis Avery, Manda Scott … There are many more.

[7] Before the Christian conversion in the seventh century, there is no evidence that sexuality was a moral issue: no material culture, no text, nothing. For a detailed examination of the available information, see my research blog, Gemæcce. For more personal thoughts on Hild’s sexuality, see my personal blog.

¤

Nicola Griffith is a novelist living in Seattle.


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