Well, we knew Hilary Mantel to be brilliant, right? The research, the sweep and scope and humanity of Wolf Hall bring English history to life and makes Thomas Cromwell a fascinating character. But here’s my news for today: Mantel is also hilarious. Best of all, she can be funny about the Big Things. Like faith, and death, and food, and clothes. And she can be silly. She can write with affection about silly characters. She does all of this and more in Fludd, a sly little fable about some nuns and some priests grappling with belief in the middle of the twentieth century.
We’re in northern England, on the edge of the moors. Which we readers can take as scene-setting, but we can also take the moors as allusions to The Romantic, right? This is one of those fictions like The Goldfinch where the narrative reads easily as both story and allegory. I’m usually very dim about symbols but somehow Mantel’s playful quality makes it easy to track both the fictional action and its greater metaphoric significance.
It’s 1956 and Catholic priest Father Angwin is being harassed by his bishop who wants him to become more up-to-date. Forget the petty details of observance, the priest is instructed: get some guitars. Become relevant. Oh, and get rid of those hideous statues in your church. And by the way, you’re getting a curate. He will breathe some new life into you.
This is all terribly upsetting to Angwin, whose faith vanished years earlier, like a pair of spectacles disastrously misplaced. All he has left are the petty details of observance, thank you. And he quite likes the statues, as do his parishioners, especially one of the nuns in the convent next-door.
Yes, in addition to its other many charms, Fludd is a nun book! Young Sister Philomena claims most of our sympathy and attention since she seems so very out of place in this dark, wet, depressing religious backwater. (“Christ died to free us from the burden of our sin, but he never, so far as she could see, lifted a finger to free us from our stupidity.”) But then a stranger — Father Angwin’s curate Fludd — comes to town and changes everything. That’s really all you need to know about the plot, except perhaps that Fludd may actually be the Devil.
I have saved some space to give you a sample of the humor. Here is Fludd, on a visit to the convent, making small-talk with the nuns:
‘Your tapestry…,” Fludd said, ‘what is the theme?’
‘The plagues of Egypt,’ said Sister Cyril. ‘It is novel.’
‘But edifying,’ said Polycarp.
‘It is an undertaking,’ said Fludd, respectfully.
‘We have done the plague of frogs,’ Polycarp said. ‘And the murrain, and the grievous swarm of flies.’
Sister Ignatius Loyola coughed a long hacking cough, then spoke for the first time: ‘Now we are up to boils.’
Boils, rendered in chain stitch and French knots? Novel but edifying indeed!