Two weeks ago, when my husband and I were in England I asked a friend whose judgement I value highly whether I should give a try to Hilary Mantel: I have had Bring up the bodies among Amazon’s suggestions for ages, but it’s very difficult to choose among all the British authors of historical fiction. My friend said she was good, and offered to lend me one of her novels. Not a historical novel, though: he lent me Fludd. Short enough to be sure I can give it back to him when we meet again in September. He said it was brilliant, and very difficult to put a label on; I quite agree.
It is an uncanny story, set in an imaginary village in the Midlands, Fetherhoughton, in 1956; in the first two chapters it seems grotesque but firmly within the boudaries of reality as we know it.
There is an embittered Catholic priest, Father Angwin, who has lost faith in God but believes in the Devil (he actually believes him to live nearby, embodied in Fetherhoughton’s tobacconist. The priest’s housekeeper, Agnes, is equally embittered and frustrated. A whole convent of nuns, mostly grotesque and pathetic at the same time, is ruled by the cruel Mother Perpetua.
Fetherhoughton’s inhabitants are mostly Catholic, and are described as hopelessly ignorant and superstitious. The other village in the parish is said to be devoted to all sorts of devilish things.
The novel opens with a visit by the bishop, who announces great changes in the Catholic Church, and puts Angwin, Agnes and Mother Perpetua in a state of frenzy in which they do not know whether they can hope to stall change, or they must accept it. As announced by the bishop, a young curate appears: Father Fludd. His name is that of an alchemist in Elizabethan England. Like Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, no one can describe what he looks like, but unlike Hyde, Fludd is fascinating and attractive: his culture and his manners stir thoughts and aspirations in everyone he meets. The best word I can find to describe him is uncanny. As the novel moved towards the end, I thought of the Norse god of mischief, Loki: the bringer of chaos, of unbalance.
I said Fludd is uncanny, and it is in the sense Cvetan Todorov used the word in his essay on the fantastic, to define those works of fiction in which the supernatural is hinted but everything that happens might be perfectly explainable. There are some moments that verge on the Gothic like the burial of statues from Fetherhoughton church, and their recovery, later on. Most of the time the novel keeps a perfect balance between realism , the grotesque and a hint at the supernatural: it is suggested that Fludd may be a supernatural being, maybe the devil, maybe an angel. The characters’ minds are explored so that we can learn everyone’s obsessions and desires. For someone like me, with a deep dislike for Catholicism and nuns, the fact that in the end someone manages to escape this world of meaningless sacrifice makes the ending even more satisfying.