Fludd by Hilary Mantel.
Fourth Estate, 2010 (1989).
‘Patterns can alter,’ Fludd said. ‘A soul is a thing in a state of flux. Your fate is mutable. Your will is free.’Chapter Ten
This short novel by the late Hilary Mantel is all about the state of flux that the title character alludes to. The anticipated call in the waiting room. That moment when you realise that all it takes to emerge from that rut is that first step; the point at which you finally decide to stand up to the bully, to change the trajectory of your life for the better.
Fetherhoughton in the mid-fifties, with its adjacent village Netherhoughton, is a community in limbo. Like the Derbyshire villages of Hadfield and Padfield near Glossop where the author grew up it is a liminal place on the borders of what is now Greater Manchester; a place of mists and rain, of freezing cold, of decaying industries, and of a profound conservatism.
Can Father Angwin, Sister Philomena, and housekeeper Agnes Dempsey respond to the door swinging open and transform their lives forever? And what are they to make of the new curate, Father Fludd, who seems to be the catalyst?
In the presbytery of St Thomas Aquinas, where Father Angwin muses on his lost faith, he’s being bullied by his new-broom bishop who wants the plaster saints removed from the church. In between eavesdropping on conversations with the priest’s visitors Miss Dempsey anticipates his dietary needs or practises the art of making finger rings from sweet paper. And in the convent Sister Philomena is mercilessly prodded and poked and humiliated by Mother Perpetua, who has also taken against Father Angwin.
Into this parochial maelström steps Father Fludd, who arrives – naturally – on a proverbial dark and stormy night. Let’s assume, like everybody else, that he is the new curate sent by the bishop to keep an eye on Angwin and ensure his parish is dragged into the modern age. So far, so Gothic. But not all is as it seems: why is Fludd here? Is he like his homophone a “flood” to sweep away superstitious customs? Or is his mission other than this? ‘I have come,’ he says, ‘to transform you. Transformation is my business.’ We are agog.
Fludd begins as comedy, but in a dark satirical vein. The parish priest, his housekeeper, the bishop, the nuns, the villagers, all are mocked through the minutiae of their lives and their tics. Even the landscape is observed with a critical eye: “The surrounding hills, from the village streets, looked like the hunched and bristling back of a sleeping dog. […] The Fetherhoughtonians did not look at the landscape at all. They were not Emily Brontë, nor were they paid to be. […] The moors were the vast cemetery of their imaginations.” And so it goes on: bedroom slippers, the Gothick church “with a grand contempt of the pitfalls of anachronisms,” plaster saints, the school regarded by its impecunious youth as a House of Detention – nothing escapes the author’s critique. The narrative is bookended by references to two Renaissance Italian paintings, as if to emphasise it partakes of the nature of art; but Mantel’s commentaries on them exist to anticipate and then to underline her mischief.
But with the appearance of the enigmatic Fludd the narrative is itself transformed from social satire to something akin to a modern morality play tinged with magical realism. And certain characters indeed undergo transformation through – in what emerges as a telling phrase – ‘a kind of alchemy’, and we cheer for them, their redemption, the lifting of their heartache.
I suspect that the writing of Fludd was in the nature of an exorcism for Mantel. The triggers for her story came partly from her own Irish Catholic upbringing in the North, the convent school she went to, and the anecdotes she heard from her mother about local church scandals; but they also arose from her creative approach: as she said in an interview with Sarah O’Reilly included in this edition, “I think all of my books are really about a kind of alchemy, on a personal level.” As with the alchemists of old she here produced “no ordinary coin, or common gold”.