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Hilary Mantel: Fludd

Mantel’s fourth novel takes as its premise a theme found elsewhere – see, for example, Simone de Beauvoir‘s L’invitée (She Came to Stay) and Pasolini‘s film Theorem – which involves an outsider arriving in a family or community and completely changing some or all of the people in that family or community. In case we are in doubt, Mantel tells us in the epigraph that the Fludd of the title and the disrupting character is Dr Robert Fludd, the alchemist, a man who lived in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century.

The novel is set in Fetherhoughton and its neighbour, Netherhoughton, during the 1950s. Fetherhoughton is a cotton town in Lancashire. The town was settled by Irish workers to work in the cotton mills and is therefore mainly Catholic. It is an unruly town. The previous year there had been Council House riots, in which several people were killed. The people are uneducated and rough and ready. The local priest is Father Angwin, a somewhat cynical priest who, as we later learn, has lost his faith. He has an elderly woman, Miss Agnes Dempsey, to look after him. She is a member of the Sisters of Mary. There is a nearby convent, headed by Mother Perpetua, known to all as Ma Purpit. She is also the headmistress of the associated school. She and Father Angwin do not get along.

At the start of the novel, the Bishop arrives to lecture Father Angwin. Father Angwin takes great pleasure in mocking the Bishop but the Bishop is determined to make the church more modern. He orders Father Angwin to get rid of the statues in the church and modernise his church and sermons. He also announces that a new curate will be sent to help him in this task. Father Angwin finally arranges for the statues to be buried and many people from the town come to help in the burial ceremony. One day the new curate, Fludd, arrives late at night.

Fludd is a strange man, scholarly, not seeming to sleep or, indeed, eat or drink much. He seems to get on well with most people but, above all, influences many of them. In particular, he gets on well with Sister Philomena. Sister Philomena – real name Roison O’Halloran – had been sent from her convent in Ireland, where she had claimed to have stigmata (it was actually eczema) and is now under Mother Perpetua’s control. Gradually, under Fludd’s influence, she changes and when he finally kisses her and persuades her to give up the veil and join the real world, she readily acquiesces. Though sex is involved, we need to remember that Fludd is a dead alchemist. He influences Angwin, by listening to him and making him realise that losing his faith is not the end of the world. He influences Agnes Dempsey by making her more open in her views. And, by digging up the statues and putting them back, he influences the whole town. He even influences Judd McEvoy, the local tobacconist, who may well be the devil (Father Angwin thinks he is and Mantel gives us a few clues that he is). Once he has freed Sister Philomena/Roisin O’Halloran, he leaves.

As well as the clever idea of introducing a dead alchemist to change the village, with its own devil and cynical priest, Mantel gives us a witty portrait of the state of the Catholic Church in England at that time. The chirpy modernising bishop is mocked, as are all the arcane questions on Catholic dogma (Is dripping meat? Is it right to have a collection on Sundays in Lent?). Mantel is witty but she has serious intent and shows us that the church needs to modernise and that it will be done by the ordinary people and not by the bishops, even if they need the help of a long dead alchemist and a bit of spontaneous combustion.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Viking