Hilary Mantel: A Change of Climate
Matthew Eldred is something of a hangover from the Victorian era. He is a successful businessman, running a printing press in Norwich. He is also a very Christian man, believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. For him, modern sciences such as geology and evolution are, quite simply, wrong, as they go against the literal point of view of the Bible. He is married to Dorcas who, as she will tell her children shortly before she dies, is scared of her husband. They have two children, Ralph, the eldest, and Emma. Ralph does not subscribe to his father’s point of view, so much so that he wishes to study geology at university. His father is very much opposed to this and does everything he can to stop it. Finally, using Dorcas as his messenger, he plays his trump card. He tells Ralph that if he studies geology at university, Emma will not be allowed to follow her dream to become a doctor and study medicine. Ralph capitulates almost at once in what is definitely the weak spot of the novel. Though he is very fond of his sister, he gives up virtually without any opposition, any argument or defence of his and his sister’s position, and more or less follows the path his father wants him to follow.
His father wants him to take over the printing press but accepts that Ralph will not do so. His father, along with other Norfolk worthies, has set up a charitable trust to help the destitute. This charity has both outposts in Africa as well as a hostel for the homeless in London. The hostel is run by Matthew’s brother, James, a clergyman. Ralph agrees to go and work for this charity in Africa, specifically Bechuanaland. In another somewhat unconvincing move, he marries Anna, the daughter of the local grocer, almost on a whim. She will accompany him to Bechuanaland. At the last minute, James asks them to switch to South Africa, as the couple at the mission there had left suddenly. Ralph and Anna go to Elim, near Johannesburg. They arrive in the mid-1950s, when apartheid is in full swing. They are faced not only with grinding poverty but also increasingly repressive measures against the black South Africans, such as rigid application of the pass laws, which meant that blacks found without passes could be and often were put into jail for several days, without their families being told. They had to deal not only with these issues, which often involved Ralph spending much time at the police station, but also health and other issues. They also had to deal with petty theft within their own mission. As a result, they worked very hard, often feeling overwhelmed by the tasks before them. Increasingly, they came into conflict with the local police who, initially, gave them friendly warnings but then took a more aggressive stance, including searches of the mission. Eventually, the inevitable happened and they were arrested and put into prison.
From South Africa, they move – temporarily – to Bechuanaland, where things are very different. However, petty crime is rife but the work is far less demanding. On the way there, Anna tells Ralph that she is pregnant. But things do not work out in Bechuanaland, either, and tragedy strikes. They are soon back in England. Mantel tells their story of life in South Africa and Bechuanaland concurrently with the story of their current life. On their return, Ralph takes over the running of the charity. They live in a house in Norfolk, though Ralph often has to go to London for work related to the hostel. The pair of them, Ralph in particular, spend all their time running around to meetings, to help people and taking in various waifs and strays. They have four children who feel somewhat neglected. Kit, born in Bechuanaland, is the oldest. She has just finished university and in the summer in which the England part of the story is mainly set, she has returned home, unsure of what she wants to do. Julian, the second child, had been studying geography at university but dropped out and returned home. He meets Sandra, who lives alone with her mother, Amy. The two women grow crops and make things for the local market, Amy’s husband having walked out when Sandra was two and never been heard of since. Julian, who is very practical, helps them out. Robin spends most of his time playing cricket, while Rebecca, something of a typical demanding teenager, is still at school. Mantel’s skill is to develop the stories of all six family members, with their own concerns and development, as well as the story of Emma, Ralph’s sister, and her affair.
I generally find little to criticise Mantel for. She is undoubtedly one of, if not the finest writer of novels in Britain today. Ralph’s marriage and conversion are somewhat unconvincing but this does not jar too much from the main story which is, as ever, superbly told, with rich characters and wonderful story-telling. There is one other glitch, however, which I might mention. Ralph, when young, finds a relatively rare fossil almost within seconds of going on to a fossil beach. He keeps this in a drawer. Julian will find and take it and hide it in his own things. However, Mantel seems to have forgotten this as Ralph will again take it from his own drawer later in the book. But these quibbles are minor and cannot detract from the fact that Mantel has managed, with every book she has written, to produce a first-rate novel and this one is certainly no exception.
First published 1994 by Viking