Doctor Griffith


For the last year I’ve been lost in a project that’s not Hild-related. And, Lo! That project was successful! I now hold a PhD from Anglia Ruskin University. I am Doctor Griffith.

It is a PhD by Published Work, based on my six novels—set variously in the future, the present, and the past—whose main characters are all queer women. The thesis (or, in ARU’s terms, the Critical Review) is titled, “Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia.” It explains how my work alters the reader’s standpoint just long enough to persuade them to regard my point-of-view characters as people rather than Other, human beings with grace and agency no matter what the era. ARU had word-length constraints, so it’s shorter than I would like—10,000 words excluding notes and references and block quotes over 50 words—but if you’re interested you can download the archival PDF of Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia directly from my website. If you’d rather wait for the official EThOS version (which will be exactly the same document) I will link to it when it’s available.

One of the greatest challenges in writing Hild was finding a way to write about a girl in early seventh century Britain becoming a powerful woman—without contravening what we know of the era. Here’s a brief extract from the thesis.

To norm the Other in Hild I foreground women and counter the outdated historicity of popular historical novels—novels I have read and loved—by creating sufficient narrative empathy to deconstruct the “widespread popular assumptions about the oppression and rape of women during the ‘Dark Ages’ (Reid 2015: 76). I perform this active intervention into the construction of a created past, I argue, through a dynamic, well-rounded and believable character embodied in both her physical landscape and cultural environment. This embodiment is reflected in the correlation between the behaviour and attitude of people and nature.

All that we know of Hild originates in the Historia ecclesiastica gens Anglorum (HE), a text written fifty years after Hild’s death by Bede, a monk at the monastery of St Paul in Jarrow. HE is the foundational text of English history, the model and exemplar of the genre for a millennium. Bede was steeped in the Pauline misogyny that was inseparable from the Christianity of the era. In HE women barely exist. Yet the work is, as Clare Lees and Gillian Overing point out, the “site for many treasured assumptions about Anglo-Saxon culture” (Lees and Overing 2001: 20).

These assumptions underpin much popular fiction set in or drawing upon the medieval era, novels which “contribute to the historical imaginary, having an almost pedagogical aspect in allowing a culture to ‘understand’ past moments” (de Groot 2016).1 Prominent among those assumptions is that women of elite status, like Hild, lived trapped in a cage of domesticity whose purpose was continuance of the male line.2

[1] In addition to the novels cited, see, for example, George R. R. Martin’s novel Game of Thrones (1996) and the TV series of that name.

[2] “The history of England is the history of the male line, not of the female. For very little is known about women (…) We know nothing of them except their names and the dates of their marriages, and the number of children they bore” (Woolf 1929).

de Groot, J. (2016). Remaking History: The Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lees, C. and Overing G. (2001). Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Reid, R. (2015). Nicola Griffith’s Hild: the authenticity of intersectionality. In: H. Young, ed. The Middle Ages in Popular Culture: Medievalism and Genre. Amherst: Cambria, pp 75-90.

I found a way.

I began this post by saying my PhD was not Hild-related. That’s not entirely true. In fact, without Hild, and without the people I met and interacted with while researching the era, I would never have entered the academic community.

Engaging so closely with scholars of Hild’s era opened my eyes to the value of evidence-based argument. That changed the novel, which made it what is, and which led to even greater involvement with the academic community. That, in turn, led to a new data-led approach to opinion-writing, which resulted in a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago about literary prize data, “Books About Women Don’t Win Awards: Some Data.” That post and the worldwide response to it set me on a path I’m still following. A PhD was a natural next step.

So for all you academic bloggers and tweeters and Facebook mavens who worry about the return on investment of your social media posts, who suspect the impact on the wider culture might not repay the sheer work involved, please know that without you, without your online engagement, none of this would have happened. You demonstrated to me every day the value of scholarly application, of evidence-based enquiry, and the benefit of multi-disciplinary interaction. I can’t thank you enough. Please don’t stop. There are tens of thousands of users like me who are learning because of your work. Thank you.

8 thoughts on “Doctor Griffith

  1. Amazing and oh so true. With exception of but a few while my sister did genealogical research.. the women nearly all but a footnote. This is indeed a well thought out and assemblage of research. I look forward to my now laboriously slow reading of your thesis. Thank you Dr Griffith.

  2. Well done Doctor Griffith ! Any chance of you Wroot in Germany a book about the demise of King Edwin, in between collecting degrees.?
    By the way called at Goodmanham yesterday well worth a visit if you’ve never been,and it has got a ‘Feel’ about it! And it’s own pub with brewery!

  3. @Marko: As a matter of fact I’ve finished writing about Edwin’s demise, and all things connected to Wroot. Well, finished with the spectacular battle and immediate aftermath; there are all sorts of things descending from that moment, of course, and they’ll ripple through the rest of the book. Which I’ll be back to full-time in a couple of weeks…

  4. A fascinating and thought provoking essay. Thank you for sharing part of your life as an academic with us. This informs and enhances our appreciation of Hild all the more.

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