Bi Book Club: Hild
By Siobhan Ball
September 26, 2019
Photo credit: Wikipedia/John Everett Millais
A princess, a saint, a bisexual woman and a witch. An odd combination maybe, but Nicola Griffith's Hild (2013) carries all of these within her and more.
Loosely based on the life of 7th-century royal Saint Hild of Whitby, Griffith's 2013 novel fills in all of the blank spaces typical of historic records of the 7th century. We know the real Hild was born in exile, that her father was poisoned and that she was baptized at thirteen along with the rest of her uncle's court. At 33, she became a nun and founded and reformed multiple nunneries, with kings and bishops coming to her for advice due to her reputation for wisdom. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People also states her mother had a prophetic dream while pregnant that her child was a jewel that would bring light to the world, but this could easily have been invented to add a flourish to her life story.
Griffith takes those sparse facts and fills in the gaps between birth, baptism, and nunnery. Hild's mother, a shrewd political mover, leverages her dream and its reputation to help Hild establish herself as a seer and trusted advisor to her uncle. Through a combination of keen observational skills, analytic abilities, and her firm grasp on human psychology, Hild successfully predicts everything from enemy strategy in war, to the circumstances of her brother-in-law's death. She then uses this — and the reputation it gave her — to guide and manipulate her uncle and other powerful men, with the goal of protecting her loved ones first and then widening that net of protection as far as possible to the people of their kingdom.
Throughout this, we're given an intense experience of Hild's world. Griffin excels in providing sensory information, particularly smells, that make the narrative especially immersive. Her depiction of women's relationships with each other, of all kinds, is also particularly engrossing, largely due to the believable complexity of them. Women who like each other but whose familial interests set them at cross purposes, whose lives together bind them with a mixture of love, hate, loyalty, and all the complexity of sisterhood, form the unique bond of gemaecce.
The last is a position invented by Griffith in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in what we know about women of the period's lives. Derived from a word that refers to marriage — or a pair of things — it describes a lifelong partnership between two women, half work partnership at the all-important weaving and spinning, half alliance just as powerful as marriage or familial ties — though rarely, if ever, romantic. When advising her to take a lover, Hild's mother was sure to specify anyone but a romantic interest, as the gemaecce relationship was too important to risk on one that might turn sour.
Hild is a complicated figure, sometimes unethical and prone to the same abuses of power as other royals of the period. Her relationship with her slave Gwladus is inherently coercive, despite the genuine love the two women feel for each other. Similarly, when she wants to learn Latin, she has her uncle, the king, give her the priest captured in battle who would otherwise be sold as a hostage. Though Hild has true affection for these people and they appear to reciprocate it — and she does eventually free them — she sees nothing wrong with her ownership of them or taking a woman enslaved by her to bed. In part, this seems a deliberate choice by Griffith, to keep from idealizing Hild after how we've identified with her through the novel. For all that, she tries to be ethical and cares about people regardless of rank, but she's still a part of an inherently unethical system and her actions reflect that.
Though the majority of relationships within the book are between women, there is an exception — Cian, Hild's half-brother (though he doesn't know it). Their relationship is a secret to keep him from being murdered by their uncle the same way he killed their father. This creates a fissure between Hild's mother and her gemaccae, who bore Cian after an affair with Hild's father, and that fissure spread between all the members of that family — those who know and those who don't.
Despite this and her knowledge of who they are, Hild and Cian fall in love with each other. Although Hild planned never to act on it, the king (their uncle) himself decrees their marriage — seeing in it a way to defang the threat Cian poses after finally realizing who the boy really is. Hild keeps it a secret from him and marries him anyway. "A lie told to save two more lives", as a sympathetic priest told her, but a betrayal all the same.
Hild is a fascinating and thoroughly absorbing novel and one that depicts bisexuality in a way that felt entirely plausible. For Hild, her attractions to men and women feel different, which I especially appreciated as it is something many bi people do experience, but which is often seen as too taboo to acknowledge. Despite being quite long, I raced through the book incredibly fast, and I especially appreciated the ethical complexity of many of the sympathetic characters as a reflection of the hard and dangerous time they were living in. Hild is eminently readable, and with sequels in the works, you won't be unsatisfied when it leaves you desperate to know what happens next.