Evelyn Axon shares her suburban English home with her mentally disturbed daughter, Muriel, and a number of ghosts, including that of her late husband. She coexists happily with none of them. Further vexing her are the social workers who appear regularly to check on Muriel's well-being, ultimately insisting that she come to a day-care facility for some socialisation. Evelyn doesn't appreciate these strangers prying into her private business any more than she appreciates her next-door neighbour, Florence, dropping by with a gift at the holidays. Florence lives alone after putting her own mother into a home. Florence's brother, Colin, takes night courses on a variety of topics, not so much to learn as to get away from his wife and children. Colin faces a desperate moment of self-assessment when the teacher of his creative writing class asks the students to introduce themselves.
How we see ourselves, Colin thought in querulous alarm, how we see ourselves? I am a history teacher, a teacher of the benighted past to the benighted present, ill-recompensed for what I suffer and despairing of promotion. My feet are size eight and a half, and I belong to the generation of Angry Young Men, though I was never angry until it was too late, oh, very late, and even now I am only mildly irritated. I am not a vegetarian and contribute to no charities, on principle; I loathe beetroot, and the sexual revolution has passed me by. My taste in clothes is conservative but I get holes in my pockets and my small change falls through; I do not speak to my wife about this because she is an excellent mother and I am intimidated by her, also appalled by the paltry nature of this complaint or what might be construed by her as a complaint. The sort of writing I want to do is the sort that will force me to become a tax-exile.
Thoreau proclaimed, 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation', and although Colin may be a fairly ordinary member of the mass, Mantel paints him in vivid colours. Before the class is over, Colin has proclaimed his love for a fellow classmate, Isabel Field, a social worker who has, incidentally, just been assigned to Muriel Axon's case. Isabel is single, living at home with her elderly father. Her affair with Colin follows a bleakly predictable path.
“It’s so sordid,” she laughed. “It’s so properly sordid. Like a film.”The day-to-day strain of her social services work and the inequalities of her affair with Colin begin to take their toll on Isabel. On one exceptionally foggy day, Isabel has a minor car accident, which only accentuates her sense that her life is on the skids. The chill fog seems to permeate her, physically manifesting her malaise.
“I shall get a night from somewhere,” he said. “I’ll get some petrol in the car and we’ll go—drive up to Manchester, get a decent meal and find a hotel. I’ll come up with something. Just give me time.”
“Give me time,” she said mockingly. “That’s the anthem of the married man. Give me time while I make my excuses, give me time while I sort out my head. Just another week, just another decade, just till my wife understands. Be reasonable, give me time, just till my children grow up, give me time. And what do you suppose time will give to me?”
At the end of this conversation the feeling of heavy unreality inside her skull was much increased. She waited a long time for a bus, and as it crept along in the still thickening fog her mind emptied of her problems and professional duties and became blank and grey. When she arrived at the office she found she couldn’t get warm. People said she Might Have ’Flu Coming On. She put her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes. Her friend Jane said that they should go to the pub and get her a double Scotch and some cottage pie. All that, the Senior said glibly, the common cold, ’flu, hay-fever, it’s a form of suppressed weeping, you know.
Meanwhile, Evelyn Axon has withdrawn Muriel from the social services day-care centre, as Muriel has mysteriously turned up pregnant. If discovered, of course, the pregnancy will solicit even more social work intrusions, and she can't abide that thought. How on earth will they cope with it? Muriel is certainly unequipped to be a mother. Evelyn sits in her dusty shambles of a house and recalls the early days of her marriage and her own pregnancy.
In the days after their marriage, the house had been very tidy. She had polished and swept all day. Clifford came and went. He went out to business. He was a handsome, taciturn man, a fastidious eater, a vegetarian. He shaved twice a day. She did not really know him well, not well at all. She had made an appointment with the doctor, an elderly and sallow man.
“Well, I suppose you know your condition,” he had said. “It is sufficiently evident.”
She had gathered her courage, clearing her throat softly. “How does this come about?” she asked.
The doctor had looked up at her. “My dear lady.” He chuckled without a semblance of humour. “My dear lady.”
She had told Clifford the same night. He was not pleased. But he said that no doubt the child could be trained to be not much inconvenience. After all, he had never imagined that he would be a dog-owner, but the Airedale was very well-behaved. Unfortunately, soon after Muriel was born, the Airedale chewed up a rug and Clifford took it away to the vet’s.
Colin dimly assumes that his wife, Sylvia, is content with their marriage, their children, and their home.
She put her hand against the radiator. It would soon be as warm as they could afford. She had always wanted a cosy house, low and cream, with plump flowered cushions; now she was as cosy as a fish under ice.On Christmas morning, that most joyful day of the year, the children have gone at each other's throats over holiday gifts, and Colin lets slip his own marital frustrations.
Colin moved and took her by the arm. A corner of the vegetable rack caught him painfully on the shin. “This is what I stay for,” he said. “They’re your children, you wanted them. Can’t you manage better than this? Do you realise this is what I stay for?”
“Stay?” Sylvia gaped. “And where are you planning to go? What are you talking about? Who else in the name of God would want you?” Her mouth quivered, in disbelief, and suddenly tears plopped out of her pale blue eyes and ran down onto her housecoat, Christmas or no Christmas, the first in years.
As his affair with Isabel begins to show the strain, he sees that she is no longer the woman with whom he was first in love. Neither, of course, is Sylvia. Most appalling, there just doesn't seem to be a damned thing he can do about any of it.
Because it cannot be sustained, he thought. Last time they met, the strain was telling on her [Isabel]. These days she forgot things, lost her files, she jumped when she was spoken to. He saw her corroded spirit in her eyes, watched her twist her fingers together, frail, timid, flawed. She was not the woman she had been in September. He thought of Sylvia weeping in the kitchen, her face cruelly blotched. His marriage had not disappointed him; his grief was that it had turned out exactly as he had expected. The past can’t be changed, but you should be able to change the present. My present isn’t under my control, he thought, it doesn’t seem mine to dispose of.
Colin's sister (and Evelyn Axon's next-door neighbour), Florence, has never married and so has some very clear ideas about how marriages and households should be run. She's not a nagging woman; she genuinely means well, and her feelings are bruised when her gifts and suggestions miss the mark. Sylvia can't even pretend to be gracious.
She was staring at Florence’s gift to her, twelve plain cream linen tablenapkins, requiring to be washed, starched, and ironed. “Blimey,” Sylvia said. “Real serviettes, Florence. I always have paper ones, you know, when there’s company, otherwise I don’t bother with any.”
“Ah well,” Florence conceded pleasantly. “Of course you’re not newly-weds now. When you are putting your household together these gay little informalities are excused you, but as we get older, and established, it is not always becoming to be casual.”
“Why didn’t you put a message in them?” Sylvia asked. “Just to make the point? A little motto, like you get in the crackers?”
Marriage and motherhood make for a trying existence, whether for a widowed spiritualist with a deranged and pregnant daughter or for 'normal' women like Sylvia. It's no cakewalk for the husbands or their lovers, either. These characters are a long way from the great drama of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn in temporal terms, but Hilary Mantel gives them equal stature in emotional scale. By all means read this novel. Maybe not on the eve of your wedding, but do read it.
Erratum: I imprecisely called this Hilary Mantel's first novel. It was her first published novel, as I learned from this interview with her in the Guardian after she won her second Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies.