Hilary Mantel (twice winner of the Booker Prize, scourge of snowflake Thatcherites and one time victim of a Royalist Twitter pile-on) is indisputably a great writer. Mantel has been steadily publishing fiction and memoir since the 1980s, all of which has been well-received. Fludd is one of her earliest books, first published in 1989, and though it is entertaining, thoughtful and lol-out-loud funny, I couldn’t help but find myself feeling something a little off about it, an “offness” that made me question the very nature of literature and my relationship with it, leading to a very real revelation about my own – for want of a better word – garbled, tonally inconsistent output.
Fludd is set in a small Northern town (fictional) in the 1950s and is about the arrival of a new young curate who upsets the district’s Pagan-leaning Catholicism. I won’t give details of the plot away because the mounting supernatural-slash-gothic plot is a deeply satisfying journey, as too is the journey of self-discovery a young nun, sister Philomena, goes on thanks to the inspirations of the titular curate.
Mantel writes about stuffy Catholicism, about weird English superstitions and the blurry distinctions between the just worship of saints and the blasphemous worship of idols. There is a rich humour in here too, mocking affectionately – but sharply – the ripe topics of English repression, English hypocrisy and our terrible, hugely destructive, inability to properly talk about serious problems. The novel is set in the 1950s and Mantel effortlessly and accurately replicates the literary stylings of that time, both in terms of her narrative and the characters. This feels, pleasantly and comfortingly, like the kind of literary that fiction writers like Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene and their ilk were pumping out annually from that point in the 1940s when it was obvious who was going to win the war until people who weren’t posh started getting novels published.
I’m not saying this as a criticism of Mantel’s writing: having read numerous other books and essays by her it is abundantly clear that Fludd is a deliberate construction: the dated feel of the novel matches its setting (both chronological and geographical) and its subject matter. The voice and the novel Mantel creates here is intentionally nostalgic. Fludd isn’t a novel by an old writer who is writing in the only style they know, this is a YOUNG Mantel writing in a bang-on impression of the voices of Catholic novels from several decades earlier. The story she chooses to tell and the way in which she tells it are successful, on their own terms, but as much as I enjoyed reading this short novel – it is never a chore or a struggle – I couldn’t quite grab on to its purpose, its aim, its urgency. Why did Mantel write this? Who did she write it for? What is the wider literary value of a piece that teases the stylings of the previous generation?
Did Mantel cynically write this to appeal to older readers? Is there something about this VERY pre-1960s journey of self-discovery (tinged with the supernatural) that would have excited Mantel’s 1980s peers? I dunno.
Certainly, the complexity and overwhelming detail of Mantel’s later writing is exciting to many many people, and I can understand why. Fludd, though, I cannot see anyone getting excited about. It’s absolutely fine, but doesn’t feel unique or exciting or personal or energised enough to explain its own existence. Not because it’s bad or even mediocre, but because it doesn’t seem to be asking or answering anything with any force.
Why did Mantel write it, and who did she write it for?
Even if the answers are “because she wanted to” and “for herself”, that isn’t an answer evidenced by the text.
My theory: When I was younger I too tried to write like older writers whose work I wanted to mock but improve upon, and maybe this was Mantel doing the same thing. Is it a stage all writers must go through, writing their way out of their influences, and it is the difference of a quarter century (and later career superstardom) that means Mantel’s early work is published internationally in a nice edition, unlike the early work of me and my assorted micro-press peers? Or is this just what we all, somehow, aim towards: literature that is good enough, literature that is a mere distraction, a pleasant few hours away from the murk of a more-real existence. I don’t really have anything else in my life except for reading and thinking about books. This is probably a bad thing, right? Fuck. It very very probably is. Gulp.
But, meh, whatever.
Whoever you are, you’ll probably enjoy Fludd. I did, even if I’m struggling to understand why. It’s a three hour read. Why not give it a go? Why the hell not?
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