Pretty Terrible: Archive

Published: December 2, 2013

Historical Fiction and Nicola Griffith's Hild

This is going to be, in part, a review of Nicola Griffith's latest novel, Hild. But it's also going to be a discussion of historical fiction and how historical fiction is also speculative fiction and shares much more with science fiction and fantasy than may be immediately apparent.

Hild is, without a doubt, one of the best books I've read this year. It follows the early life of the woman known to us as St. Hilda of Whitby, of whom very little is known--just a couple of paragraphs in The Ecclesiastical History of the English by the Venerable Bede.

Griffith has written extensively about the research she undertook during the writing of this book. The amount of research is absolutely evident in the text but it's never overwhelming to the reader and it's all utterly essential. You need to know what the lives of women were like in 7th century England to understand why Hild was so extraordinary--and you also need to know the kinship obligations between all the people on the page--most of whom are historical.

Which is why this review was so disappointing to read. Calling Hild a "gussied up fantasy novel" is, I think, supposed to be an insult. It also seems that Michael Robbins doesn't think women are the proper subject for a historical novel--that their lives just weren't interesting enough. At least that's what I took Robbin's flip reference to the gore and chivalric romance that Griffith mostly ignores in favor of the relationships between the women.

Well. I found this a lot more interesting than many fantasy novels I've read in part because the descriptions in Hild are so very vivid--as Hild observes, so does the reader. I can say that the descriptions of all the textile-related activities was utterly correct based on my knowledge of the field, and because of that, I have confidence that the rest is accurate as well.

And to move back to my other point about historical fiction being speculative fiction: in the absence of working time machines, we can never truly know everything about the past.

There is, after a certain point, when research is just that: research. And it is, at that point, speculation--fiction--must begin. And that is what Hild is. It is, indeed, a fantasy novel but not a "gussied up" one--it's one that acknowledges the past (is rooted in it) but is about all the things we don't really know about it. As Griffith says, history itself is story. We look at history and try to make it a narrative. I think that's one reason--at least here in the U.S.--that history classes so often revolve around war and conflict. Those things are pretty easy to turn into a narrative that will interest easily distracted students.

Speculative fiction writers learn this sort of thing from the ground up. They learn how to share important pieces of information in ways that aren't always immediately apparent and to leave unimportant ones out--unlike Robbins, I think Fursey's comment about the petrified dragon was absolutely perfect because of course people knew about fossils before they knew they were fossils: they were just called something different and the way of thinking about the world was different. They learn to populate their stories with believable characters. They learn about constraint and how that can force the story into interesting and unexpected shapes.

It's an immersion technique and speculative fiction writers are--have to be--very good at it. They have to understand their settings inside out and backwards. They typically don't let an intriguing detail slip without understanding the ramifications of that detail. If it doesn't serve the story, it shouldn't be in the story. I'm not saying that this isn't a skill that writers in other genres don't have--but other genres usually focus on other aspects of story. Romance, for instance, focuses on the emotional narrative between two characters. There may be constraint that forces emotional intimacy, but that constraint doesn't usually completely confine one or both characters the way Hild is constrained in this novel. She is contrained by her sex and gender, at times by her age, and by her kinship ties and associated politics. She has so little room to maneuver and a single misstep can mean her death. Those are incredibly high stakes and watching the tiny adjustments and huge chances she takes is exhilarating.

One detail in Hild that stuck out for me was all the wool and textiles. As most of you know, I'm a knitter and spinner, so I was beyond thrilled that this industry was omnipresent in the book (no knitting, though, as it hadn't been invented yet). It's women's work, making cloth. It's technology and it's mostly invisible and yet, without it, there's no civilization. The amount of information conveyed by the clothing that the people wore was tremendous and in this book we see the birth of York as a major player in the wool industry. I think it's important to remember that for most of our history, cloth was made by hand, not machine and it took a lot of time and energy.

This is a book full of all kinds of details--Hild and her mother have positioned her as a seer within Edwin's court and in order to keep her place, Hild has to have visions periodically. She does this through close observation and by building a network of informants which, to the king and his gesiths (warriors), looks like magic. Her skills appear to be uncanny, but the reader knows that they're the result of Hild's observational and information gathering skills.

Ultimately, though, Hild is about an extraordinary, singular woman. It's about the women in her life and the constraints they lived under and how they were still able to influence the path of history. They did it subtly, through weaving patterns and taking calculated risks instead of with swords and open violence, but they did it nonetheless.

This is an amazing book. Read it.