The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

Four years ago I read Hild by Nicola Griffith, a beautifully written novel which told the story of Hild (or St Hilda, as she is also known). It was – and still is, I hope – intended to be the first in a trilogy, but as the other books haven’t appeared yet, I was intrigued when I came across The Abbess of Whitby, another novel about Hild. It’s always good to read different interpretations of the same historical figures and events.

Set in 7th century Britain, The Abbess of Whitby begins with the young Hild at the Northumbrian court of King Edwin, her great-uncle. Hild has just been chosen to be a handmaiden of Eostre, the pagan goddess of fertility, but when she, along with Edwin and his other courtiers, is baptised into the Christian faith, this marks the beginning of a transition from the old religion and way of life to the new.

Most of the factual information we have regarding Hild comes from the Venerable Bede’s writings in 731, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He tells us nothing about Hild’s life between the ages of thirteen and thirty-three, so Jill Dalladay has imagined a story for her based on what we do know about the kingdom of Northumbria at that time and how a woman of her status and background may have lived. She creates a marriage for Hild with the fictional Cerdic of Din Edin (Edinburgh) – a marriage arranged for political reasons, as was common in that period.

There is no love between Hild and her husband (at least not at first) and she is unhappy about leaving her home and her friends behind, but she doesn’t have time to feel sorry for herself because this is an eventful time and there is always something happening: a war, a raid, or an outbreak of plague. As the years go by, Hild also grows more curious about the Christian religion, especially when she meets and gets to know the monk Aidan. Eventually, as we know from Bede, she becomes the abbess of Whitby Abbey, where the Synod of Whitby is held in 664 at which the method for calculating the date of Easter is established.

This was an interesting read and a good portrayal of 7th century life with all of its hardships and dangers. However, I didn’t find it a particularly gripping novel and although it’s not badly written, it lacks both the beautiful lyrical prose of Nicola Griffith’s Hild and the epic high fantasy feel of Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones books. Still, there are not a lot of novels about women from such early periods of history and it was good to learn more about Hild and her world (even if not all of it is based on fact) to add to my existing knowledge.

Have you read any other books about St Hilda of Whitby – or can you recommend anything else set in the 7th century?

15 thoughts on “The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

  1. Margaret says:

    I read this a few years ago and agree that it’s not particularly gripping but I did think it portrayed the transition from pagan to Christian beliefs well and the harsh conditions of life at the time. Have you read The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams? I started it after I read The Abbess of Whitby, but left it for a while to read other books – and never got back to it. Apparently Tolkien based the character of Aragorn on Oswald. I’d really like to get back to it – if only I didn’t have so many books I want to read …

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read The King in the North yet, but it is on my TBR. It will be good to get some factual information about this period as everything I’ve read so far has been fictional. I have read about Oswald in Edoardo Albert’s novel Oswald: Return of the King, and there was a definite Tolkien influence!

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I am glad to know of this book. Even now I am still so in awe of what Nicola Griffith did with Hild that I can’t imagine any book being better, but as you say, it is always good to get other views. As far as I know, Nicola is working away on the second volume. She has health challenges from MS but still plans to complete the story.

    • Helen says:

      Hild is a beautiful novel. The writing in this book doesn’t compare, but I still enjoyed meeting the character of Hild again. I’m glad to hear Nicola Griffith is still working on her second volume – I’m sure it will be worth the wait!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s always interesting to read different perspectives on the same subject. I haven’t read any nonfiction about this period yet, but I do want to read the Oswald book.

    • Helen says:

      I preferred Hild, but I found this book an easier, more straightforward read. It also takes us through Hild’s whole life, so we don’t have to wait for a sequel!

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