A dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors
Novellas in November began this week, hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope you will join in reading – see their blogs for details.
The definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. The prompt for this week is contemporary fiction, defined as post 1980 and hosted by Cathy,
My choice this week is Fludd by Hilary Mantel, first published in 1989 by Viking. My copy, published in 2010 by Fourth Estate, has 181 pages followed by additional features at the end, including an About the Author section, and an interview with Hilary Mantel.
Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.
Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?
Full of dry wit, compassionate characterisations and cutting insight, Fludd is a brilliant gem of a book, and one of Hilary Mantel’s most original works.
It is 1956, set in the north of England in the fictional village of Fetherhoughton, which is loosely based on the village where Mantel grew up. She was brought up as a Catholic and the idea for the story came from a conversation with her mother about her childhood. When she was around four the Bishop decreed that all the statues in the church were to be removed which annoyed the parishioners and she heard the adults talking about what to do with the statues. One suggestion was to bury them. Her mother also told her about a young priest, who everyone liked, and who disappeared. It was assumed that there was a girl involved. The two events combined in her mind and came out as this novel.
Mantel clarifies in a Note before the story begins that the church in Fludd bears some resemblance, but not much to the Roman Catholic Church in the real world. Fludd was a real person (1574 – 1637), a physician, scholar and alchemist and she adds that
In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical.
This sets the scene for what follows – there is a mystery that lies beyond the visible world, miraculous things appear to happen and very ordinary things appear miraculous. There is a hint of the supernatural.
The story centres on Fludd, a young priest who comes to the Church of St Thomas Aquinas to help Father Angwin, a cynical priest who has lost his faith. The Bishop, a modern man, is concerned about Father Angwin and wants to bring him and the Catholic community up to date – so the statues in the church have to go. This has a most disturbing effect on all concerned – not just the church and Father Angwin, but also the the nuns in the convent, and the school, both under the stern eye of Mother Perpetua.
Fludd, himself is something of a mystery. When he eats the food disappears, but he is not seen eating. When he pours out whisky for Father Anwin the bottle always remains full. Strange things happen, a wart disappears from one character’s face and finds its way to another’s, one character apparently spontaneously combusts, another disappears and there’s a tobacconist who may or may not be the devil. The real question is just who is Fludd?
I enjoyed it all immensely – partly about religion and superstition, but also a fantasy, a fairy tale, told with wit and humour with brilliant characterisation.