Monday, November 09, 2015

New for 2015: The Abbess of Whitby- A Novel of Hild of Northumbria- Jill Dalladay

 
Lion Ficton/Kregel, October 2015 (US) 
352 Pages
The dramatic story of a seventh-century evangelist
Chosen as handmaid to Eostre, the Saxon goddess, Hild would spend a year serving the goddess before she was wed. Her future was mapped out - until her father was murdered, and King Edwin claimed her as kin. Hild’s first love was given a key command in Edwin’s forces, and vanished from her life, wed to her elder sister. That same day, the court was baptised, ending the people’s fertility religion and Hild’s role. 
Life looked bleak – even more so when the husband to whom she was given was killed, along with her child. Hild resented the compulsory baptism, but became intrigued by the Iona priests, and eventually converted.  Aidan, the charismatic figure who taught, and lived, a new kind of love, persuaded Hild to help spread the new faith. In thanks for a significant victory, King Oswy ordered her to found one of his new monasteries at Whitby. 
She would see the men she trained appointed by the Pope as missionary bishops, carrying the faith across Britain.
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When I saw Lion Fiction (Kregel in the US) the Publisher of Edoardo Albert's fantastic Northumbrian Thrones Series, set in seventh century England were bringing out another book about a major figure from this time, I snapped it up. I confess to a long-enduring love for the Anglo-Saxon era, and the seventh century was a golden age for the famous Kingdom of Northumbria.

Whilst many other works set at this time are very masculine with an emphasis on battles, war and politics it was interesting to find a story that looks at the time from a female perspective focused on everyday life, family relationships and the management of estates.
Such a woman was Hild, sometimes known as St Hilda, born to a royal Saxon father and British mother. Little is known of her early life and adulthood, before she assumed the leadership of Whitby Abbey- in its day one of the most famous religious houses of Northern England.

As such, much of the novel is what I would call speculative history (based on likely circumstances of what might have been but we cannot know for certain), recounting Hild's journey through marriage, life the turbulent political circumstances of the time and place, and ultimately to faith.
After her conversion, and entry into a religious house, Hild has been lauded as one of the most powerful and influential women of her time- Kings and clerics came to her for advice, and her Abbey trained men who would one day become Priests, Bishops and Missionaries- even a poet.

Her story and those of her fellows are told with honesty, compassion and is compelling enough to hold the reader's interest. My only complaints were the writing style. Somehow, in the narrative passages it lacked the descriptive, almost poetic beauty of Edoardo Albert's novels which evoke Tolkien and the Epic Literature of the age, instead a rather informal conversational tone is used.
At times, this resulted in language that seemed too modern for the time, and certain turns of phrase which might have been unique to Northern England which might pass over readers from other backgrounds. I did spot a few anachronisms, and in places the writing seemed a little 'rushed', and I found myself reading passages again as within a sentence or two the characters would love to a different room, place or situation. Sometimes it could be hard to keep up.
However, the author's note suggests that much sound research had gone into the story, so maybe what felt like a lack of a 'sense of period' in some parts can be put down to personal opinion.

Aside from the above, this book had many positives. It is a wonderful spiritual biography of one of the most important women in Early Medieval Christian Britain. I would certainly recommend to any interested in women's history or this fascinating, formative era of England's past.

Thanks to Lion Fiction for the copy they gave me for review. I was not required to write a positive one an all opinions expressed are my own.

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