Constructing an Anglo-Saxon Girlhood
A background post to The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 1, The Ship
This is the first of a series of background posts for my novel The Wistful and the Good which I am serializing in this newsletter. This post is a companion to the first chapter, The Ship.
The main character of The Wistful and the Good, is Elswyth, the 15-year-old daughter of an Anglo-Saxon thegn in the year 793. What does the historical record tell us about how the 15-year-old daughter of an 8th century Anglo-Saxon thegn lived and loved and hoped? As near to nothing as makes no difference.
Every character in historical fiction is a construct. There are parts taken from life and parts created by the author. Even when characters are based on real people who lived and have biographies, the historical record never provides the whole picture of a human being. Or, to look at it another way, the historical record never provides all the elements of a good fictional character. This is in part because of the defects of the historical record, and in part because no fictional character is entirely a human being. They are a character in a story, an altogether neater and simpler thing than can be found in real life.
This is very much the point of a story, to make things neat enough and simple enough to fit into our heads. If we could get our heads around the nature of human life full and clear, we would have no need of stories. But our lives are bigger than our heads. Our heads won’t fit around the world. We need the simplicity and clarity of stories to make sense of our lives.
If they are done well, a literary character can tell us a truth about what it is like to be human, perhaps even two or three truths, but they can accomplish this only by being at once less than human and more than human. A story is a lens; it distorts in order to focus. A character is an element of that lens.
Perhaps we never have the full picture of any human being. In many ways, I think, literature is about the mystery of the other, about the eternal mystery that is everyone else. But the historical novelist has a particular problem with the mystery of the other. They are writing a character not of this time. Much of what one could hint at in a line or two about a contemporary character, whose lifestyle and assumptions are well known to the reader, has to be painstakingly described and made plain, all without allowing the tension of the story to drop. On the other hand, many historical novelists have an advantage. They can take real people from the past as their characters. They can read their histories, visit their homes and the places they lived and loved, read their letters and their diaries. Out of these they can fashion a character that at very least seems real, and has the additional frisson of actually having been real.
But even the best and most extensive historical sources do not provide us with a whole character. The novelist is always constructing something out of what the historical record gives them, the internal thoughts and feelings and secret deeds that do not make their way into the historical record. Thus we have as many different Anne Boleyn’s as we have novelists who write about her (and an extraordinary number of novelists write about her).
But the novelist who, like me, writes about a character not known to history, has no such aids. Like the contemporary novelist creating a character from scratch, they have to create the whole character. But unlike the contemporary novelist, they can't rely on contemporary stereotypes. The character has to belong to their period, or at least feel like they do.
But when the period is an obscure one, one for which the historical record is spotty at best, such as the history of eighth century Northumbria, the problem is further compounded. One cannot look up with any confidence what a character such as my Elswyth may have worn, thought, hoped for, expected, or spent her time on. In short, when it comes to an 8th century daughter of a Northumbrian thegn, the historical record is less than helpful. I have to construct Elswyth, and the nature of her girlhood, from very meagre scraps of information.
I should say here that in writing The Wistful and The Good, it was never my intention to create a perfectly accurate representation of how a 15-year-old thegn's daughter lived and thought in 793. Such an effort would be far beyond what the available evidence gives us, but more importantly, it is not the function of a novel. The novel is set in that time and place because it allows me to isolate and examine certain themes that would be harder to treat in a contemporary novel. The needs of the story, therefore, take precedence over attempts at historical reconstruction.
And yet I do think it is important to try to have a degree of fidelity to the period, not only because historical fiction readers expect it, but because I think there is a danger in creating a world purely for the convenience of a story. It temps one to bend the truth of human feeling and decision making to the whims of plotting. I want to create at least a reasonable account of an Anglo-Saxon girlhood for Elswyth so that she can remain true to the human experience and not become a mere convenience of plot.
In these commentaries, then, I want to give some account of how I have created Elswyth, her background, her experience, her life, her hopes, and her expectations.
Where do I begin? Well, let’s start with what it means to be 15. Today we call a female person of 15 years a girl. If we are scolding her and trying to get her to act responsibly we might (more accurately) call her “young woman.” But we think of a 15-year-old today very much as still a child. We say “15-year-old girl,” not “15-year-old woman.” The earliest age where is seems natural to say woman rather than girl is more like 19. Yet this is a fiction. She is a woman, and the Anglo-Saxons would not have seen her as anything else.
Elswyth, in my novel, is on the cusp of marriage. If there is any indication in the historical record of the age at which the daughter of an 8th century minor thegn would typically have married, I have not been able to find it. I have seen indications that the Anglo-Saxons regarded anyone who had reached puberty to be eligible to marry. But it seems a fairly consistent pattern across time that the children of the upper classes marry somewhat later than those of the lower classes. As the daughter of a minor thegn, Elswyth is of the most minor rank of nobility. Anglo Saxon society seems to have had three basic classes, slaves, freemen, and nobles. But the exact status of people from one place and time to another is very hard to pin down. So I have elected to marry Elswyth off at 15. It seems a not unreasonable choice, and it has the further advantage that it matches her restless heart, her sense of adventure, and the growing independence of her thoughts and actions. At 15, she is old enough to act on her own willfulness and make her own friendships -- and even her own loves.
At the same time, she is not what a modern 15-year-old would be. She is not an adolescent, for no such concept would exist for her. As societies become richer and more complex, children require more time to learn how to operate as full members of society. Indeed, rather than demanding their entry into adulthood as a matter of serious practical importance, as a society operating little above the level of subsistence must do, we now indulge them in a wasteland of adolescence that can stretch well into their twenties. There is little pressure to grow up. There is considerable pressure not to. It cannot have been so for the Anglo-Saxons. They needed every hand to the sword and the plow, to the distaff and the cradle.
While there are developmental steps that are the same no matter the period – such as the development of the pre-frontal cortex that helps us foresee the consequences of our actions and is not complete until age 25 – the period very much affects what people expect, and what is expected of them. Human beings are constantly looking sideways – children in particular. We are always alert to what is expected of others and trying to imitate what we see, if we are physically and mentally capable of it. We feel secure and confident in our place in the world when we know that we are meeting the expectations of our community. Any sane 15-year-old today would be horrified at the idea of marrying. But where it is normal to marry at that age, they would feel no such horror (assuming, of course, a groom of a companionable age).
But there is something more to it than this. As I said above, a novel is a lens, and a lens distorts to focus. Characters are not always of one single age, except as a matter of chronological assertion. Scout Finch’s narration of To Kill a Mockingbird has a sophistication of observation and expression far beyond that of six-year-old, and a vividness of remembrance far beyond any adult remembering or recounting their experience at six, an age from which most of us retain only snips of memory. Whether we regard the narrative as that of a child or of an adult, it simply does not fit with any natural experience or memory of a six-year-old. Scout Finch is a construct, and part of that construct is to put the mind of a sophisticated adult into the body and experience of a small child. And this is not a defect. Rather, it is the hallmark of one of the most well-constructed characters in literature. The lens distorts to focus.
My case is not so complex, since Elswyth is not my narrator. But at the same time, she is not a flesh and blood fifteen-year-old with a full psychology to match. She is a character, a construct created to carry a story. Placing her in Anglo-Saxon times does much to bring the elements of her moral and practical dilemmas closer than they would be in a young woman of today, or of many later periods. But making her fifteen is as much a matter of symbolism, as it is of psychology. For which reason, The Wistful and the Good is not (to my mind) a YA novel. Its themes are those more likely to concern adults, though I think there is nothing here that an intelligent and forward-looking 15-year-old could not appreciate and understand.
Literary characters embody an idea about what human life is like – some aspect of the human experience. To bring the focus to the particular idea, they eliminate much of the ordinariness and otherness of human life while pulling together relevant aspects of human experience and action that might in nature be found in different people or in different times of life. Scout Finch pulls together all the threads of a daughter coming to see her father as a man—a process that in life takes decades—and concentrates it down to a summer. Elswyth sits on the moral boundary between childhood and adulthood that in life is a shadowland decades wide. and concentrates it down to barely more than a week. Elswyth is 15, but she is a 15-year-old character, not a 15-year-old person. She pulls together things that in a person belong to 12 and 15 and 19 and 27 and 35.
A story is a lens. It distorts to focus.