Hilary Mantel: Fludd

The critical success of Hilary Mantel’s recent novel, the bizarre psychic comedy Beyond Black, invigorated her publisher to dust down her back catalogue and give them a no-expenses-spent rejacketing.

Fludd was first published in 1989 but is set – and styled – in the 1950s. Indeed, while Mantel cites Beryl Bainbridge as an influence (and the book certainly shares her idiosyncratic air), it reads most of all like the early novels of Muriel Spark. However, where Spark had a tendency to toy mischievously not only with her characters but with her readers, Mantel is a more traditional storyteller.

Which is not to say that Fludd is a run-of-the-mill novel. It’s a witty and offbeat exploration of various aspects of religious experience, all dealt in a coolly detached authorial voice. The style is best represented by the prologue, describing a painting of the raising of Lazarus from the dead:

His grave-clothes are draped like a towel over his head, and people lean towards him, and seem to confer; what he most resembles is a boxer in his corner. The expressions of those around are puzzled, mildly censorious. Here – in the very act of extricating his right leg from a knot of the shroud – one feels his troubles are about to begin again. A woman – Mary, or maybe Martha – is whispering behind her hand. Christ points to the revenant, and holds up his other hand, fingers outstretched: so many rounds down, five to go.

It’s a perfect introduction to a novel which takes a sly, questioning look at the traditions of faith, and asks us to consider the merits of seeking to apply theological (in this case Catholic) doctrine to all aspects of modern life. (“Lenten regulations,” asks one character to the priest, “and Fridays throughout the year. Does dripping count as meat? Or does it count as butter?”)

All of this is within the following context. In the northern town of Fetherhoughton, the priest is being challenged by his bishop to make his church more ‘relevant’ and ‘real’, not only by changing the mass into English (the subject of Brian Moore’s slim, piercing Catholics), but by removing the statues of saints from the church. The priest balks at this, and places his trust in his housekeeper and in Fludd, a mysterious curate who has arrived unannounced. Fludd, who moves in mysterious ways, will be at the heart of the transformation that occurs in the church and its inhabitants, including the personal journey of a disillusioned nun which takes the ecstasies of Black Narcissus a step or two further. The story also builds to an impressive pace at the end without ever losing its poise.

All of this is not only entertaining, but fascinating to a reader like me who has no religious affiliations but an abiding interest in the subject of faith. Graham Greene with jokes would be not unfair but not adequate either. In its weaker moments however, the humour seems needless and cruel, as in Mantel’s caricaturing of the inhabitants of the village as all chip fat and shared lavatories, a place where “to wash would have been thought an affectation.” But at the same time her ability shines through when she pulls off effortlessly descriptive flourishes like “in recent years her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box.” Fludd is awash with such brilliance.

On the poorly reproduced author photograph in the “P.S.” section at the back of this new edition, Hilary Mantel looks startled, as though surprised to be enjoying this revival of interest. She really shouldn’t be.

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