Thursday, June 13, 2013

Fludd, by Hilary Mantel

I have not intentionally gone on a Christian-themed reading spree. I was simply reaching for the next novel in Hilary Mantel's back-list, and it turned out to be Fludd, about which the author notes, "The Church in this story bears some but not much resemblance to the Roman Catholic Church in the real world, c. 1956. The village of Fetherhoughton is not to be found on a real map."  Mantel, however, stays much closer to the universe we know than, say, Philip Pullman's Oxford in Northern Lights.

The priest is a weary fellow who draws much more solace from whisky than from God. His housekeeper, Agnes, tries to hold things together. Theirs is a semi-functional, platonic marriage of inconvenience.
Father Angwin was a foxy man, with his dead-leaf-colour eyes and hair; head tilted, he sniffed the wind, and shied away from what he detected. Somewhere else in the house, a door slammed.
Consider Agnes Dempsey: duster in hand, whisking it over the dustless bureau. In recent years her face had fallen softly, like a piece of light cotton folding into a box. Her neck too fell in floury, scalloped folds, to where her clothing cut off the view. Her eyes were round, child-like, bright blue, their air of surprise compounded by her invisible eyebrows and her hair, a faded gold streaked with grey, which sprang up from her hairline as if crackling with static. She had pleated skirts, and short bottle-shaped legs, and pastel twin-sets to cover the gentle twin hummocks of her bosom. Her mouth was small and pale and indiscernible, made to ingest the food she liked: Eccles cakes, vanilla slices, miniature chocolate Swiss rolls that came wrapped in red-and-silver foil. It was her habit to peel off the foil carefully, fold it as thin as a pencil, twist it into a ring, and pop it on her wedding finger. Then she would hold out both hands -- fingers bloodless and slightly bent by incipient arthritis -- and appraise them, a frown of concentration appearing as a single vertical line at the inner corner of her left eyebrow. Then she would rest her hand on her knee for a little; then remove the ring, intact, and throw it on to the fire. This was Miss Dempsey's private habit, which no one had ever seen. Above her upper lip, on the right-hand side, she had a small flat wart, colourless as her mouth itself. It was hard for her not to touch it. She was afraid of cancer.
Father Angwin, we learn, has many crosses to bear:  his parishioners, the nuns at the village convent (most especially the mother superior), and the bishop, whom he refers to as 'His Corpulence'.  When the bishop arrives on short notice to bring the fruits of Vatican II to Fetherhoughton, Fr. Angwin is uninspired. He doubts his parishioners will profit any more from an English Mass than they do from the Latin one.
By the time the bishop came bustling in, Father Angwin had got over his hangover. He sat in the parlour, with his neat ingratiating smile. "Father Angwin, Father Angwin," the bishop said, crossing the room, and taking him in a grip; hand squeezing upper arm, hand pumping hand, quite beside himself with joviality, and yet those episcopal bifocals glinting and swimming with suspicion, and the episcopal head turning, turning from side to side, like a mechanical toy that you shoot for at a fair...
"Well," said the bishop, "have you heard of the vernacular Mass? Have you thought of it? I think of it. I think of it constantly. There are men in Rome who think of it."
Father shook his head. "I couldn't be part of that."
"No choice, my dear man, no choice; in five years, mark my words, or a little more than five --"
Father Angwin looked up. "Do you mean," he said, "that they could understand what we were saying?"
"Exactly the point."
"Pernicious," Father muttered audibly. "Arrant nonsense." Then, louder, "I can well understand if you think that Latin's too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?"
Fetherhoughton, besides being a notch or two below the neighbouring and downtrodden Netherhoughton, is a grim place.
The people of Fetherhoughton kept their eyes averted from the moors with a singular effort of will. They did not talk about them. Someone -- it was the mark of the outsider -- might find a wild dignity and grandeur in the landscape. The Fetherhoughtonians did not look at the landscape at all. They were not Emily Brontë, nor were they paid to be, and the very suggestion that the Brontë-like matter was to hand was enough to make them close their minds and occupy their eyes with their shoelaces. The moors were the vast cemetery of their imaginations.
Father Angwin insists that his parish is not fertile ground for the finer points of liturgical adjustment. There is no need to replace the incomprehensible Latin with incomprehensible English, as no one really listens to any of it, anyway. Unheeding, the Bishop then inspects the church and demands the removal of most of the statues. This, Father Angwin pleads, will throw the parishioners into fits. They adore their statues.
"We are not here for frills and baubles, Father," said the bishop. "We are not here for fripperies. We are here for Christian witness."
"Rubbish," Father said. "These people aren't Christians. These people are heathens and Catholics."
The bishop has one loyal fan in Fetherhoughton, and that is Sister Perpetua, the ferocious head of the local convent who would like nothing better than to see Father Angwin crucified. Her underlings are terrified of her. Her name is beyond the local abilities, so she is known to young and old as Sister Purpit.
Purpit was a stumpy woman, of middle years -- it is not proper to speculate about the exact age of nuns. Her skin was pale and rather spongy, her nose of the fleshy sort; she had a hoarse flirtatious laugh, and with this laugh, a way of flicking a corner of her veil back over her left shoulder; she had tombstone teeth.
Most of the nuns teach in the village school (caning wayward children is their only exercise), and one does her service to the Lord by preparing inedible and tooth-breaking food for the others. A young Irish sister, sent to Fetherhoughton after trying to pass off the dermatitis on her palms as stigmata, is Purpit's most vexing charge. When Father Angwin asks her if any of the nuns might be free to help dig a shallow grave in the cemetery for the statues the bishop had identified for removal, Purpit has just the woman for the job. Honestly, those Irish!
"I can lend you Sister Philomena. A fine strong girl. She can dig. A true daughter of the Irish soil."
"Oirish," she said; it was her little joke. You cannot expect much of the humour of nuns. ...
"She said she had the stigmata. She said her palms bled every Friday."
"And did other people see this?"
Perpetua sniffed. "Irish people saw it," she said. "Some senile old donkey of a parish priest -- forgive me, Father, but I always speak my mind -- who was foolish enough to fall for her nonsense. It caused a stir, you see, had a whole parish in a state of excitement. I'm pleased to say that when he took it further the pair of them were pretty soon stamped on. At diocesan level, you know. In my experience you can count on a bishop."
"So they sent her to England?"
"Yes, to get her out of that over-excited, unhealthy atmosphere. Well, I put it to you, Father, have you ever heard anything like it? Stigmata, indeed, in this day and age? Did you ever hear of anything in such poor taste?"
The bishop had also mentioned the possibility of sending a young curate to the parish, and everyone knows what that means:  someone to keep Father Angwin in line. When a young cleric shows up late one rainy night and introduces himself as Fludd, people assume him to be the new curate. As he joins in the chore of digging the graves for the statues, though, Sister Philomena gets a different sense, a most decidedly unclerical inpression of him.

Fludd shares his name with a 16th-century alchemist, and when he says things like "this is my nigredo, this is the darkest night of my soul", one senses that alchemy is still the business of the new 'curate'.  He certainly facilitates some remarkable transformations in the people of Fetherhoughton before he disappears.

So this was Hilary Mantel's first contribution to the genre of religious farce, and it's a smash hit. There are five more of her novels between Fludd and Wolf Hall that I've not yet read.  I think the woman is constitutionally incapable of writing a bad book, but there are five more chances to be proven wrong. I may just put a statue of St. Hilary on my writing desk in the meantime and pray for a fraction of her talent.

1 comment:

  1. What rum! Sounds like a most exciting book, with very interesting and intriguing characters!


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