Postal Reading group
September 2020
Notes on the book Fludd by Hilary Mantel

If Megan’s assertion that “Hilary Mantel is a bit like Marmite” is correct, then I would fall fairly and squarely in the loathe her category. I did try to read Wolf Hall once (in another reading group) and struggled to get much beyond a few chapters. This book, however, was such a pleasant surprise; so much so, I wonder if it is really by the same author!

The story is set in the 1950’s in an industrial town in the North West of England. Although Fetherhoughton is intended to be a fictitious place, the railway line would place it somewhere in Upper Longdendale. The story opens when the local Catholic priest, Father Angwin, is being asked by his bishop to remove the statues of saints from the church on the grounds that they promote ‘superstition’. Although he knows the statues are popular with the rather conservative parishioners, he does remove them. When later Fludd turns up, it is widely assumed that he is the new curate sent by the bishop. However, Fludd is intent on ‘transformation’, and is set to create a stir in Fetherhoughton.

The first surprise about this book is its length, especially given that Hilary Mantel is most famous for the two substantial works Wolf Hall and Bring up the bodies. Likewise the style of writing seems to be much easier to follow than I remember from my previous, admittedly brief, encounter with the author. Although still slightly obtuse, I found it easy enough to read, and it did convey an effective impression of the grim Northern mill town. Perhaps there’s a hint of stereotyping here, especially given the town’s high rainfall. Similarly, some of the characters are, perhaps, type cast: the priest who has lost his faith, the ‘modernising’ bishop (with an eye to promotion) and the downtrodden spinster housekeeper. However, all of these seem to work together to create a humour which some have likened to Iris Murdoch at her best.

Like Father Angwin in this novel, I lost my faith many years ago, and I therefore really enjoyed the irreverent, humorous take on the Catholic Church. Of course to talk of “losing one’s faith” is very much an euphemism, as it implies carelessness. In my experience the opposite is often the case. Although the author does acknowledge that the church is only loosely based on the Roman Catholic Church, it does appear to be all too realistic. The book opens with talk of having the Mass in English, a debate which the Catholic church did have prior to the Vatican 2 liturgy. While the parishioners were against this (and all change in general), it should be noted that the air of mystery conferred by the Latin Mass was very useful for the Church too.

Similarly, although the statues were deemed to be superstitious, you might think that anything which helped the congregation would be beneficial to the church too. At one time, I thought the Catholic idea of praying to the saints was more accessible than the Anglican insistence that you can only pray direct to the Godhead. Equally, how can a statue be any more superstitious than the virgin birth or the rest of Christianity. There any many other theological references too, such as Fludd’s belief that the torment of hell might be “a purifying process” (p. 104). Again, I often thought the Catholic doctrine of purgatory was at least slightly more humane than the Anglican boolean state of heaven or hell.

Some of the discussions would also seem to have relevance beyond the narrow confines of the Church. The discussions in the confessional about hypothetical moral dilemmas highlight the problem with any system which seeks to replace thought with a comprehensive system of rules. The problem is that such systems fail to consider the grey areas which are part of real life; there are inevitably cases which the rule-giver failed to consider. There are clearly parallels here with the proliferation of arbitrary restrictions designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, or the myriad rules which seem to govern all aspects of modern society. Although this mentality is clearly not unique to religion, the Church does provide fertile ground for it, made all the worse with the ultimate sanction of hell if you disobey!

My main criticism of the book is that the plot is a little simplistic, and even then, most of the action takes place in the final third of the book. Likewise, Fludd remains an enigma until the very end. This leaves too much open to interpretation: presumably Fludd wasn’t sent by the bishop, but why did he arrive in Fetherhoughton? Was he a real curate? Likewise, we are denied the opportunity of find out the effects that his sudden departure have on the parish. Although the review in New Statesman assures us that Fludd believes in happy endings, it is far from clear that the ending will be universally so. While it may be so for Fludd and Roisin O’Halloran, it may be less so for Father Angwin and all those left behind to pick up the pieces.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very readable and humorous take on the Catholic Church. Despite having had difficulty with Hilary mantel’s writing previously, I particularly enjoyed this slightly irreverent novel, despite the rather confused ending. Although this novel preceded the child abuse scandal, it clearly shows that “Divine revelation and two thousand years’ experience” (p.158) is an unreliable guide in life.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler