I’ve always liked the dark humour of Hilary Mantel, and this early novel from 1989 is seriously good fun.
Fludd is set in 1950, in the dreary Northern mill village of Fetherhoughton where the brutish inhabitants have little to recommend them…
From the doorsteps the women stared at passers-by, and laughed. They knew a joke, when it was pointed out to them, but for the most part their entertainment lay in the discernment of physical peculiarities in those around them. They lived in hope of seeing a passer-by with a hunchback, knock knees or a harelip. They did not think that it was cruel to mock the afflicted, they thought it was perfectly natural; they were sentimental but pitiless, very scathing and unforgiving about any aberration, deviation, eccentricity or piece of originality. There was a spirit abroad in the village that discriminated so thoroughly against pretension that it also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy. (p.14)
The one advantage of this unprepossessing lot, as far as the parish priest Father Angwin is concerned, is that they leave him alone. This suits Father Angwin because he has lost his faith and since he can’t imagine any other kind of future, he is content to go through the motions with desultory masses for the local convent and his dour housekeeper Miss Dempsey. But alas for the priest, there is a new bishop full of enthusiasm, and when he turns up on a parish visit he is not best pleased by the statuary in the church. He takes exception to the tongs held by St Dunstan (who was working in a forge when the devil came to tempt him) and the pliers brandished by St Appollonia, (whose teeth were pulled out by the Romans, making her the patron saint of dentists) and St Agatha, carrying her breasts on a dish. She is the patron saint of bellringers because a little mistake was made with the shape. The bishop decrees that the statues are idols pandering to superstition and that they must go – and so there is a macabre little ceremony where the parishioners help with the burial in the church graveyard…
Before long, a rather handsome curate arrives. Father Angwin assumes that he is a curate sent by the interfering bishop to spy on him, but Fludd turns out to be a congenial fellow, with an unconventional attitude to church lore. Producing a cheroot for Father Angwin, and building up the sitting room fire to an unaccustomed warmth as hot as hell, Fludd settles in to share a whisky, asking in his light, dry voice:
‘In considering the life of Christ, there is something that has often made me wonder; did the man who owned the Gadarene swine get compensation?'(p.45
Meanwhile, at the local convent where Sister Perpetua presides over her nuns with wicked ferocity and a savage cane, there is a rebellious young nun called Philomena who was shunted off to the nunnery by her over-pious mother who wanted her whole family to ‘serve the lord’. Like Miss Dempsey, she feels that something in the atmosphere has shifted, but much as she longs for liberation from her incarceration, she fears the unaccountable heat she feels in Fludd’s presence.
You must choose,’Fludd said, his tone practical. Í cannot tell you what to think. If you think I am bad for you I will not try to talk you out of it.
”Bad for me?’She was aghast at his choice of word. Man or devil, she thought, devil or devil’s pawn, you’ll only damn my immortal soul. That’s all you’ll do.
‘But if I were a devil, ‘Fludd said, Í would have a relish for you. It is strange that though you would think the devil a man of fiery tastes, there is nothing he likes better at his banquet than the milk-toast soul of a tender little nun. If I were the devil, you would not be clever enough to find me out. Not until I had dined on you and dined well.'(p.110)
Mantel brings the threads of this story together with a little sorcery, leaving her readers to ponder whether the enigmatic Fludd – who admits to being in the business of transformation – is an angel, or a devil, or whether the mischief is done by the tobacconist McEvoy instead!
Author: Hilary Mantel
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2005, first published 1989
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: Fludd