Fludd: Hilary Mantel

★★★½

As I started this book, I had troubling flashbacks to my GCSE studies of Hard Times. The village of Fetherhoughton, where the action of Fludd takes place, has grown up around the cotton mill industry and a grimmer, bleaker, more relentlessly depressing place would be hard to find. Founded in the smoke and soot of the Industrial Revolution, the village has managed to avoid all the benefits of modernity and, in the 1950s, maintains a kind of moorland isolation.

Its people are sunk in their monotonous lives, their daily rhythm scarcely differing from that of their grandparents: the men work at t’ mill while the formidable women gossip on doorsteps. Everything is grim: the school, for example, has privies not lavatories: ‘It will not do to call them lavatories, for there was no provision to wash. To wash would have been thought an affectation.‘ Even the mock-Gothic church, which should be the heartland of this devout Catholic community, simply adds to the depression of its parishioners’ souls:

The architect had begun in a vaguely Gothic way and ended with something Saxon and brutal … The doorway had a round arch of a Norman persuasion, but no recessed arches, no little shafts, no ornament, not so much as a lozenge, a zigzag, a chevron; stern indeed had been the mood the day that doorway was designed, and the door itself was strapped and hinged in a manner that put one in mind of siege warfare and starvation and a populace reduced to eating its rats.

In this miserable place, the priest Father Angwyn wallows in self-loathing while conducting an ongoing war with his modernising bishop, who has threatened to send a curate to help bring in fresh ideas to transform the parish. When a young man calling himself Fludd arrives on the doorstep some days later, Father Angwyn finds that transformation is indeed at hand – but perhaps not as he’d expected. Fludd is convivial, intellectual and well-versed in theology. As he settles into the community, strange things begin to happen. Father Angwyn finds himself spending long evenings in earnest discussion with Fludd, trying to come to terms with the loss of his faith. Attendance at Mass increases, thanks to Fludd’s engaging sermons. And people everywhere suddenly find themselves more aware of the contrast between faith and self-belief. For some, like the young nun Sister Philomena, Fludd’s arrival offers the scope to think outside the box and contemplate worlds that have never seemed possible before.

It’s a smart and playful book, and Mantel’s writing is always exquisite. She has a wonderful talent for irony, which gives her picture of Fetherhoughton and its inhabitants an affectionate edge. This affection is explained by an interview printed in the back of my edition, in which Mantel says that the facts of this story are based on things that happened in the Northern village where she grew up. Her picture of Fetherhoughton is an unusual blend, in which something which is intrinsically plain is given beauty by the delicacy of its description. For example, take this pen-portrait of Father Angwyn’s housekeeper Agnes: ‘In recent years her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box.’

With a few light touches, Mantel manages to suggest that despite the village’s unimaginative bleakness, it’s still the kind of place where miracles might happen. The priest’s house is troubled by presences, and in the church the devotional candles are teased by strange unexplainable draughts: ‘a lightless burning, like marsh-gas, a flickering in an unfelt, breathless wind.’ With Fludd’s arrival, the imaginative scope seems to expand: now there is the possibility of simile and a chance to acknowledge a world beyond the moors and the clouds of coal-smoke. For him, the mill chimneys are ‘like pillars for stylites, or the towers on which heathens place their dead’.

But what to make of Fludd? There might be faint spoilers here, so just be a bit careful if you haven’t read it. Mantel never really gives us a firm answer, but she teases us. As Fludd rambles around Netherhoughton, the neighbouring hamlet, he spots ordinary country items which, for him, have the significance of alchemical symbols: black hens and nine-runged ladders; as if the very surroundings are subtly adapting themselves to the presence of this strange creature in their midst. We are told at one point that, in discussion with Father Angwyn, he cites Voltaire: ‘It is no more surprising to be born twice than to be born once.’ The back cover of my edition suggests Fludd might be a devil, but I don’t agree with that: he is more like an angel, of the gentle observing sort in Wings of Desire. Or perhaps he really is the great alchemist (whom I met so recently in The Pendragon Legend), reincarnated – and engaged on some new and challenging task of alchemy: to transform the souls of Fetherhoughton from mundane dross into spirits tinged with gold. If the latter is true – and I lean that way – then Fludd’s experience parallels Father Angwyn’s. Both of them, in different ways, belong to a deeply religious age and are coming to terms with a new and modern world that has no place for Catholic tradition. As Fludd says at one point:

I have seen changes … There was a time when the air was packed with spirits, like flies on an August day. Now I find that the air is empty. There is only man and his concerns.

This isn’t the kind of crowd-pleasing book that Wolf Hall is, but it’s very rewarding considering it’s so short (just 186 pages). I’m not Catholic and so I probably didn’t have as profound an understanding of the discussions on faith as I could have done, but that didn’t really matter to me. It’s a clever and very fine novel. And it opens with a description of a Sebastiano del Piombo painting and closes with an Ambrogio Bergognone. How can I forbear to recommend it?!

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