A few weeks ago, I posted on here about not setting myself anything too challenging in the way of a reading challenge this year. Challenges can be a two-edged sword – they can certainly push you to achieve things you might not have done otherwise (or in the case of reading challenges, to read things you might once have overlooked), but they can also make you feel like a terrible failure – reading challenges are of course, uniquely time-consuming, and sometimes life just gets in the way.
Hence, this year I’m doing a reading ‘not-challenge’ – reading a book that has been sitting around on my shelves for a while but without being too hard on myself if I don’t get through very many. Such books, lying unread and perhaps unloved, either deserves some attention or should be passed on. The first book that I selected for 2023, Fludd, the second novel by the late great Hilary Mantel, was first published in 1989 and has definitely been languishing for a while.
It is a slim volume, more a novella, and set in northern England in the 1950s, not the territory we have become used to from this author. Mantel was born in a village in Derbyshire, of course, and the setting of the novel, the fictional town on Fetherhoughton, undoubtedly bears some resemblance to that part of the country at that time, though it is very much a caricature. The other striking thing about this novel is its comedy; this is very clever satire that, far from being about the bleakness of a northern moorland town and its inhabitants, as you might at first assume, is an expose of what Mantel sees as religious hypocrisy.
The novel opens with Father Angwin, the priest at Fetherhoughton, being told by the bishop that he is to be sent a young curate, Father Fludd. It seems the bishop thinks things need shaking up a bit and that some fresh blood will bring renewed energy and dynamism to the parish. He also wants the gloomy statues dotted about St Thomas Aquinas church to be removed, describing them as idolatry, doing nothing to improve the minds of the parishioners. The statues come to represent a kind of resistance – Father Angwin will at first go along with the bishop’s wishes. (He more or less admits to Father Fludd that he has lost his faith, and is simply going along with his role because he hasn’t anything better to do.) The statues are removed, buried in fact, but in an act of defiance, Angwin will later ‘resurrect’ them! This is just one of the events occurring in the second half of the book, which will symbolically challenge the authority of the church in the town. In doing so, Mantel breathes life into the characters, into the town, as if it has somehow broken free of the yoke of the church.
Father Fludd is a mysterious presence. Angwin finds himself warming to him in ways that he did not expect, and on long evenings over whisky and firelight, he opens up to him. Fludd seems to have this effect on people. The local school is run by nuns at the convent, a comical bunch, led by the vicious Mother Perpetua. One of her charges is a young Irish girl, Sister Philomena, practically forced into the Order by her mother. Accounts of the food, the clothing, and the regime at the convent make it feel more like a prison than a place of faith and worship. Fludd will have an effect here too, which will feel dangerous to the church authorities but which will in fact be personally liberating.
Who is Fludd? This question is left hanging at the end of the book, Mantel is not making it that easy for us. There is a note at the beginning of the book telling us that the real Fludd was in fact a sixteenth century physician, scholar and alchemist, and that is perhaps the key to understanding the character she has created here; that he has brought about change in form through the application of mysterious powers. It is about finding magic, where it seemed there was only darkness.
The author’s wit, her creativity and her eye for the comic are on display here in ways that are not as present in her epic historical fiction, for which she is much better known. In a sense, this novel feels playful, it’s a dark comedy and shows her lighter side. It is also confirmation, if we needed any, of the breadth of her talent, alas, gone far too soon.
So, I am delighted with this first pick of mine and am only sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading this book. Highly recommended.
My second ‘off the shelf’ pick was Susanna Bailey’s Raven Winter which I reviewed on here last week as part of my #KeepKidsReading week. So, I’m on to my third pick and it’s still only mid-March. Yay! I’ve discovered I have a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Italian Girl which I think I might have acquired secondhand sometime in the 1990s!