Every once in a while, Amazon gets it right. A few weeks ago I pulled my Kindle out of its cover and there, on the sleep-mode page, was a recommendation for Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt. Well of course I bought it! Hildegard is one of my favorite historical figures.
At the same time, I’m really not all that surprised when I hear someone say “Hildegard von Who?”. Precious few people are aware of medieval history, and even fewer of those people stop to consider what women in the Middle Ages were doing. In the case of Hildegard, she was doing a lot!
In a nutshell, Hildegard was a German (and I use the term anachronistically) nun whose life spanned three-quarters of the twelfth century. She was a mystic, a writer, an abbess, and one of the greatest minds of the High Middle Ages. The crowned heads of Europe, including the Pope, wrote to her for advice on some of the thorniest issues, both personal and political. Her musical compositions are still performed. Her dramatic works are some of the finest of the pre-Shakespearean era.
Yes, Hildegard has chops. But what interested me was to see how Mary Sharratt would translate that amazing life and all of its unique power to a novel.
I knew from the first page I was in for a ride. The novel is narrated in first-person.
First-person is a tricky form to write in. As one of my earliest writing teachers, Jana King, used to say, when you’re writing first-person, the protagonist from whose point of view you’re writing has to be the most interesting character in the book. I’m tempted to go further than that to say that the reader has to be able to identify with them on some level, but I know as soon as I say that someone is going to cite a book written in first-person from a serial-killer’s point of view. It’s true though that there has to be something irresistible in the first-person character that makes the reader want to stay inside of their head for the duration.
Hildegard of Bingen is an ideal candidate for that kind of writing. Right off the bat, Sharratt painted a picture of Hildegard as an energetic, precocious child who loved nature, freedom, and her brother. And right away our poor heroine, at age eight, is shuffled off to a monastery as an oblate and pseudo-servant to the 12-year old Jutta von Sponheim. Not only that, this freedom-loving child finds herself forced to become an anchorite.
What’s an anchorite? Well, as I learned from this novel, an anchorite is a poor soul who is literally walled into a tiny cell attached to a church, entombed while still alive. Hildegard and Jutta were sealed into a tiny two-room cell with a sliver of a courtyard. For decades! I don’t want to give too many spoilers, because you really need to read this book. As you can imagine, all did not go well at the monastery.
What fascinated me from a writer’s point of view about Sharratt’s choice to tell this story in first-person from Hildegard’s lips was when it worked and when it didn’t. Because as gripping as the book was, it was uneven. Writing true history is a challenge in and of itself, because the lives we live are filled with so much more than can fit into a standard-length novel. As historical writers, we’re all going to be guilty of picking and choosing which historical details to build our story around and which to conveniently ignore for the story’s sake.
Sharratt’s choice to focus on Hildegard’s years as an anchorite and to tell that in Hildegard’s own voice was spot-on brilliant! You’d be amazed how much drama can happen in a tiny sealed cell in the mid-1100s. In these sections I found the choice to write in first-person to be a good one.
Ah, but then there was the second half of the book. It was still good, mind you, but I thought this part of Hildegard’s life would have been better served if it had been told in third-person. So much of the writing focused on Hildegard’s personal struggles with the people who were closest to her. Sounds like it would be perfect for first-person, right? Except that to me it became too much of a nebulous internal dialog about why Hildegard was right, and then why she was very, very wrong.
First-person is a great tool when you are writing about what’s going on and a character’s reaction to it. I think it worked really well in the Hunger Games books, for example. Katniss is experiencing a lot and we, as the reader, get to experience it with her. Cool stuff.
When it comes to more intimate drama where the action is subdued and the plot moves on the emotions of the characters – all of the characters – I’m in the school of thought that says third-person works better. With third-person you have more of a chance to survey everyone’s emotions and to shift your allegiances. When you can see everyone’s side it raises the tension. When you have a single character who you know isn’t looking at things quite rationally, it can be grating to have nothing but their voice telling the story.
At least that’s my opinion, and I’m not a fan of first-person. But I’m interested to hear your take.
I also appreciated the section of notes at the end of the novel in which Sharratt talked about the historical accuracy of her story. Kudos for admitting where she blurred the lines for her story and where she reported Hildegard’s life exactly as it was. Hildegard truly was one of the greatest minds of the High Middle Ages. I hope that more people will come to know her through this novel.