Where It Began

This is the novel that I’ve been aiming for my whole life. I didn’t really understand that until early last year when I wrote my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life (a multi-media memoir-in-a-box about my life in the UK before I came to the US when I was 29). Here’s an excerpt from that:

Apart from the family I was born into, the most important factor in my early life was where I was born. Yorkshire’s history is stamped on its landscape, literally and figuratively; it moulded its language, which I absorbed with my mother’s milk (and grandmother’s whiskey).

Leeds is a large city in the West Riding of Yorkshire. If you look at a map of the Great Britain, you’ll see that Leeds is on all the big north-south roads, on a navigable river, and almost exactly at the centre of the island. Not at the centre of England, though. In English terms, Leeds was the wild and woolly north.

My father, raised in London (he moved to the inimical hinterland as a teenager when his parents fled the civilised capital to escape his father’s disgrace), clung to the notion of Britain, of inheriting empire, because in this way he wouldn’t feel exiled to the fringe. My mother’s primary allegiance, on the other hand, was to Yorkshire (rather like a Texan’s to Texas, and only secondarily to the United States; Yorkshire is by far the biggest county in England and has its own identity). In their own way they wanted to feel secure and at the centre of what mattered.

In island terms, Yorkshire has often been the place where the important things happened. A quick survey of Yorkshire place names (from natural features, to street names, to towns, to pubs) is like cutting a language core: in the sturdy bedrock of Anglo-Saxon there is the occasional gleam of Brythonic Celt heaved up from an earlier age, the pale glint of Norse, even strangely evolved fossils of Latin and Norman French.This hybrid and textured language is largely responsible for who I am. To explain, let me give you a few broad strokes of West Yorkshire history.*

In the Iron Age, the place that was to be Leeds was an agriculturally various land enjoyed by the Brigantes, Brythonic Celts. In the first century the Romans arrived, and started building forts which became cities. Then they built nature-defying roads across hill and dale between those cities, followed by armed camps to guard those roads. The Romans left the region after about three hundred years and left the native Britons in charge again. They formed the polity of Elmet, whose people probably called themselves Loides. Around this time, Angles, Saxons and other Germanic peoples started visiting Britain and staying, forming kingdoms and acquiring territory. One of these kingdoms, Deira, absorbed Elmet. A couple of hundred years later the Norse–Danes, mainly–arrived and the region lived under the Danelaw, with its own language and coinage and culture. Gradually, after battles and negotiations and marriages and so forth, the Danelaw melded with England. And then the Normans came.

By the time I showed up, 894 years after the Battle of Hastings, layer after layer of language was stamped on the place names of Yorkshire. The first street I remember living on was hilly street called Balbec Avenue. Bal is from a celtic word for hill. The city, Leeds, was the market town of the Loides. Our family would drive for day trips to Otley Chevin, a big rocky outcropping overlooking an ancient market town (Otley bears the distinction of having the most pubs per capita in the British Isles). “Chevin,” it turns out, descends from a word very similar to the Welsh (also a Brythonic language) cefn which means “hill.” On the way to the coast for a holiday, we’d drive through Wetherby, a name that comes from wedrebi, a combination of wether, that is, neutered sheep, and -by, a Norse word for settlement. The hills were called the fells, from fjell, a Norse word for hill. York (oh, I could write two pages of the evolution of that name) was built on the river Ouse, a name that comes from a Celtic root word, –udso, meaning water (water, in Irish–a Goedelic Celtic language–is uisc, which is the root of “whiskey”). The name of the River Esk, which bisects Whitby (a town on the North Yorkshire coast), also comes from that Celtic root word for water. The River Aire, which flows through Leeds, empties into the Ouse at Airmyn, “myn” being an Anglo-Saxon word for rivermouth. Esk, Ouse, Airmyn…I had a childish vision of waves of invaders, marching along with their Roman short swords or Anglo-Saxon leaf-bladed spears or their beautiful long Norse swords, coming to a river and saying arrogantly to a local fishing along the bank, “You there, what do you people call this?” and the local scratching her head and saying, “This, your honour? We call this ‘water’.”

I imagined the officer nodding self-importantly and reporting to his commander, later, “…and so we forded the river, which locals hereabouts call the River Water…” And, just like that, history to me was no longer what you found in history books, but was thronged with real people. Words assumed hidden power; I began to understand them as keys to the puzzle of the universe.

Words are like icebergs; nine tenths below the waterline. We don’t see the entire meaning immediately but it has mass and momentum; it matters. To me there is all the difference in the world between “muscle” and “flesh,” or “red” and “scarlet.” Rhythm and grammar matter, too. Yorkshire syntax, more than many regions of England, shows its Celtic roots, its periphrastic, roundabout manner of speaking: “Dyuh fancy going down t’pub, then?”

I’m the product of two thousand years of history. So is what I write.

[* I don’t pretend this is terribly accurate. I wrote this as story, not scholarship. Still, if I’ve made any egregious errors, do please let me know.]

I read what I’d written and thought, Oh, of course, it’s time. I’m ready.

I’ve been preparing for this book, researching it physically, since I was a child, when the family would holiday in Filey and Hunmanby and Scarborough. In my teens I’d take day trips to Robin Hood’s Bay.


In my early twenties, I was living in Hull, a depressed (and depressing) industrialised city on the river Humber (the southern boundry line of Deira, which became part of Northumbrian). For a holiday, my partner and I went north up the coast, to Whitby.

The first thing I saw at Whitby was the ruined abbey on the north cliff. I didn’t wait to unpack. It’s difficult to describe how I felt when I first stepped across the threshold of the ruined abbey. It was a though the history of the place punched up through the turf and flooded me. It was like swallowing the world. I knew my life had changed, I just didn’t know how.

After that, every year, sometimes twice a year, I visited Whitby. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey. I started picking up brochures and leaflets and imagining how it might have been long, long ago. Even after I moved to the US, I would come back once a year.

The photo on my first novel was taken at Whitby, when I was thirty:


On one visit to England, I picked up a battered Pelican paperback edition (1959) of Trevelyan’s A Shortened History of England. I started reading it on the plane on the way back to Atlanta (where I lived until 1995). I read about the Synod of Whitby and, frankly, don’t remember the rest of the flight. This, I thought, this Synod, was the pivotal point of English history.

Two or three years later, I stumbled across Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England. And I was off. For the last ten years I’ve been groping my way through ever more modern scholarship. I’ve been reading bilingual versions of Old English and Old Welsh poetry, absorbing the latest translations of Isidore’s Etymologies, thumbing through translations of Bede, thinking, thinking, thinking. Dreaming in the slow, rich rolling rhythms of another time and place. This is the most exciting project I’ve ever embarked upon. It’s changing my world. I want it to change yours, too.

  • And Now We Are Going to Have a Party, Nicola Griffith (Payseur & Schmidt, 2007)
  • Anglo-Saxon England, Frank Stenton (OUP, 1989)
  • A Shortened History of England, G.M. Trevelyan (Pelican, 1959)
  • The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. Barney, Lewis, Beach & Berghof (CUP, 2006)

10 thoughts on “Where It Began

  1. A quick shout-out here for < HREF="http://womenshistory.about.com/library/bio/blbio_cartimandua.htm" REL="nofollow">Cartimandua<> who was Queen of the Brigantes when Claudius invaded. We’ll never know now how the politics really went, but there is plenty of scope for historical novels.

  2. Thinking about your ties to Leeds and Elmet… how about having Hild married to the ealdorman charged with holding Elmet and incorporating it into Deira. It would have also been a dangerous border territory vs. Penda. If she were the English Lady of Elmet, the death of her father there would have been very tangible history. Whether she had a grudge about it, just felt sad, or even felt gratitude to the British for hiding him from Aethelfrith depends on your take on the cause of his death. Elmet is the one part of Northumbria that Edwin took and never got loose again so he would have probably put a high status marriage there.

  3. Cheryl, why don’t you play the <> history meme game<> and write about Cartimandua?Michelle, this is definitely worth thinking about. Thank you. But assuming the Ealdorman was an Angle, and assuming Hild was the kind of woman I’m imagining her to be, she would have converted her husband. If so, why didn’t he rate a mention from Bede? Unless, of course, the Ealdorman was a Briton, and hooked into the native British clergy (who we know Bede disapproved of). Hmmn. Much pondering ahead.

  4. Nicola – if i did memes, which I don’t, I would do Eleanor of Aquitaine, about whom we know rather a lot. I’m not sure that we know more than 3 or 4 things about Cartimandua, and much of what we do know comes from Tacitus, who is not always reliable.We know that she was Queen of the Brigantes in her own right. We know that she choose to negotiate peace with the Romans rather than risk bloody conquest. We know that she divorced her husband, Venutius, and that her friendship with Rome seems to have been in issue between them. We know that Venutius began a civil war and took the throne for himself, only to be crushed by the Romans. And that’s it. A war, a marital quarrel, and nothing much else to restrain the authorial imagination.Ah, and I see that Barbara Erskine has produced just such a book.

  5. Bede doesn’t mention that either Hild or Aebbe of Coldingham were widows because by his time, virginity was prized so highly that their previous marriages were something to be hushed up. We only know that Aebbe of Coldingham was a widow because of the Anon. Life of Cuthbert. Bede cuts out that she is a widow in his Life of Cuthbert. In Hild and Aebbe’s generation, most abbesses were widows, but from the next generation the percentage of widows as abbesses drops off heavily. By Bede’s time I suspect the only way that a widow got to be an abbess is if the monastery was founded for her by her family or on her hereditary land. The same goes for covering up Hild and Aebbe’s children, if they had any. Of course its possible that they didn’t. Infertility is not new and would have probably been even worse then since overall infection rates were worse then. If they had children, a churchman wouldn’t mention them unless they also entered the church and/or did something noteworthy. Daughters were never mentioned unless they were nuns, somehow effected their husbands career, or were the mother of someone special.

  6. What a great post. I always enjoy learning about the origins of projects, and how people’s passions have taken hold from the first planting through to the deepening roots.How far are you into writing the novel so far? I see that it’s been steeping in your mind for some time, but what form is it in right now?I’m eager to see where you go with it!

  7. I have about a hundred manuscript (okay, typescript) pages, which equates to about 60 printed pages of a hardcover novel (depending on book design). Hild is ten going on eleven. She has a tutor, she’s about to take a trip to East Anglia and Kent. Pretty soon exciting stuff will happen: Paulinus, James the Deacon, baptism etc.With luck (with great good luck), I’ll have a first draft of the entire novel by the end of 2008. Then there will be much rewriting. Then I’ll get trusted readers to take a look (yes, I’ll ask for volunteers), then I’ll rewrite again, then I’ll take it to a publisher.Usually I sell a novel before I even start it but this project is so unusual that I want it whole and fixed before taking input from editors.

  8. I am reading this seven years later, as I begin rereading Hild for the first time — a deeply beloved novel that went right inside my bones and has stayed there, shaping my inner landscape. It is lovely that these posts are still here, so that I can follow the creation with the finished book in hand. Thank you.

    1. Welcome! I post from time to time on my latest research and wresting with what little we know. Enjoy. And thank you for the kind words. Hearing from readers is one of the perqs of the job 🙂

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