HOLY HISTORICAL FICTION, BATMAN!
Do we not serve up the goodies here at Women and Words? Seriously. Nebula, Tiptree, and multiple Lambda winner Nicola Griffith is in the house with us today to chat about her latest truckload of awesome, Hild.
I am actually all a-twitter here, because I remember when Nicola started chatting a bit publicly about the research she was doing to prepare to write this project about St. Hilda of Whitby, and then I followed her through the process. Nicola tends to be informative about things like that and I was hooked.
Hild was released in November of 2013 to accolades (read some of them at the link above), and I was so thrilled that Nicola agreed to blog for us here that I practically did a fangirl squee. It wasn’t pretty, but it was totally warranted.
Picture this, friends. Britain, 7th century, in which small kingdoms strive to merge in a seemingly neverending quest for power, often violently. Edwin occupies the throne of Northumbria, and he, too, seeks dominance and plots to take over all of the Angles. Into this court arrives Edwin’s niece, Hild, whose curiosity and brilliant mind have allowed her to become a keen observer of the world around her, human behavior, and cause and effect. She is thus able to make accurate predictions with an ability that seems almost supernatural. She is indispensable to Edwin, but also expendable should she lead him astray, as are the lives of her loved ones and the increasing numbers of people who seek the leadership and guidance of the strange woman with the strange gift.
Americans have been able to read this saga since November, but guess what? In TWO DAYS, our fellow readers overseas will be able to, as well! July 24th is the release date for the book in the UK and a gajllion other places, according to word from on high, so go forth and experience this sweeping tale all around the globe! Wherever you are, there’s Hild.
And now, Nicola will address some things about Hild and the world in which she lived.
I’ve been asked questions about my characters’ sexuality ever since I began to publish. Sometimes I answer more patiently than others.
My first novel, Ammonite, was set on a world of women (“only” women, many people say, as though without men we are less than human). Obviously, anyone who had sex (including the protagonist, Marghe) did so with another woman. “They’re all lesbians!” one critic said. “Well,” I said. “Strictly speaking — per Monique Wittig — no.”
When my first agent told me that my proposal for my second novel Slow River was “not a selling outline,” I asked her to explain. She said, “Well, I understand why poor old Marghe had to have a girlfriend; she didn’t have any choice. But why does Lore [the protagonist] have a girlfriend?” “Because she’s a dyke,” I said, and fired her.
Then came The Blue Place (and its two companion novels, Stay and Always). One acquiring editor in the UK said, “I love this book! But I can’t buy it. We already have one of those.” By one of those she meant a novel in which a woman has sex with another woman. Apparently there was a quota.
And now Hild, my novel set in seventh-century Britain about the early life of St Hilda of Whitby, is about to be published in the UK. I know that someone won’t be able to resist asking, “So why is Hild a lesbian?”
First, she’s bisexual. Second, why the fuck not?
I am tired of having to give a reason for characters being queer. Some people just are. Some people like red, some people like green. Some like both. Some like purple. It’s not a preference worthy of enquiry. Not today.
Marginally more worthy might be to ask what historical basis I have for her sexuality.
Hild was real. She was born fourteen hundred years ago in Anglo-Saxon England. Everything we know about her comes from the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, the foundational text of English history. Of that work, a scant five pages refer to Hild. You can read those, translated by Professor Roy M. Liuzza here. [Andi note: may not load correctly in Safari; use a different browser if that’s the case.]
If you strip out the hagiographic platitudes we’re left with very little. She was born circa 614 CE, after her mother, Breguswith, has a dream about her unborn child being a jewel that brings light to the land. Hild’s father, Hereric, of the royal house of Deira, was poisoned while in exile at the court of Ceredig, king of Elmet. Her older sister, Hereswith, marries a nephew of Rædwald, king of East Anglia. Hild, along with many of Edwin’s household, is baptised by Paulinus c. 627 in York. She then disappears from the record until 647 when she reappears in East Anglia about to take ship for Gaul to join her sister—at which point she is recruited to the church by bishop Aidan.
That’s it. That’s all we know. Bede gives us no clues about that missing twenty years. He never refers to Hild as a virgin (as he does other saintly abbesses of the period). Neither does he mention her husband. It’s easy to assume he didn’t approve of who or whatever she was doing during that time.
This could mean that she married a pagan king who doesn’t match Bede’s notions of a suitable husband and so doesn’t fit the thrust of his polemic. Or it could mean something more interesting — and that’s the door I walked through. I’m guessing Bede would not have approved.
We have no evidence that in the north of England sex was frowned upon before the Roman church really gained traction (which was long after Hild’s youth). So if Hild was bisexual there would be no cultural or religious reason for her not to behave so. Given her status there were many political reasons to be careful about what lovers to take, and these are duly acknowledged.
For those who are interested in possible attitudes in Britain towards same-sex behavior, here’s a snippet from the tale of Níall Frossach (a king in the mid-eighth century and High King from 763 CE), from the Book of Leinster, folio 273b-274a, lines 35670-35711 (Vol. 5, p. 1202):
There was a fine, firm, righteous, generous princely king ruling over Ireland, Níall Frassach, son of Fergal. Ireland was prosperous during his reign. There was fruit and fatness, corn and milk in his time, and he had everyone settled on his own land. He called a great assembly in Tailtiu once, and had the cream of the men of Ireland around him. Great kings and wide-eyed queens and the chiefs and nobles of the territories were ranged on the stately seats of the assembly. There were boys and jesters and the heroes of the Irish in strong eager bands racing their horses in the assembly.
While they were there, a woman came to the king carrying a boy child, and put him into the king’s arms. “For your kingship and your sovereignty,” said she, “find out for me through your ruler’s truth who the carnal father of the boy is, for I do not know myself. For I swear by your ruler’s truth, and by the King who governs every created thing, that I have not known guilt with a man for many years now.”
The king was silent then. “Have you had playful mating with another woman?” said he, “and do not conceal it if you have.” “I will not conceal it,” said she, “I have.” “It is true,” said the king. “That woman had mated with a man just before, and the semen which he left with her, she put it into your womb in the tumbling, so that it was begotten in your womb. That man is the father of your child, and let it be found out who he is.”
(translated by David Greene in the Swedish journal “Saga och Sed,”1976)
Yes, it’s from a century after Hild’s time, and yes, it’s about Ireland not England, but there’s very little about women’s sexuality from the time; all contemporary records were, of course, written by monks. (I suspect that’s the source of the implication here that the woman in question might be tempted to conceal the sex she’s had.) Even so, this piece makes sex sound very jolly and uncomplicated: just a casual tumble followed by grins all round.
Here, then, is my conclusion: In fiction, it doesn’t matter if characters are queer or straight, neither or both. What counts is whether it’s any good. I’ll let you be the judge.
Nicola Griffith is the award-winning author of five previous novels and a memoir. A native of Yorkshire — now a dual US/UK citizen — she is a onetime self-defence instructor who turned to writing full-time upon being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993. She lives with her wife, the writer Kelley Eskridge, in Seattle.