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Fludd by Hilary Mantel
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Fludd (1989)

by Hilary Mantel

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    Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness (deb80)
    deb80: Similar plot and characters. The bishop is not amused. He sends an emissary to investigate a malfunctioning pastor, church and congregation, with wacky and wonderful results.
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Hilary Mantel is best known in recent years for her award winning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Given the accolades showered upon Mantel's fictional treatment of Tudor England, readers may be forgiven for overlooking one of her earlier novels, Fludd (1989.) Indeed, short, strange, tragicomic, and allegorical, Fludd could easily be dismissed as a curio, a relic from before Mantel's ascent to literary stardom. But like the novel's title character, Fludd conceals more than it lets on.

Mantel takes us to Fetherhoughton, a dour mill town in the north of England. Mid-twentieth century Fetherhoughton is a singularly miserable place, surrounded by moors on three sides, "the vast cemetery of [the villagers'] imaginations" (12). Father Angwin, Fetherhoughton's spiritual leader, is a drunk. He is also an atheist. Agnes Dempsey, Father Angwin's be-moled housekeeper, cares for the priest and keeps him to a semblance of order.

The "modern" bishop, upon visiting Fetherhoughton, insists that Father Angwin dispose of the statues of saints that line the church. Father Angwin is distraught: "[F]aith being dead, if we are not to become automatons, we must hold on to our superstitions as hard as we may" (27). The bishop will also send a curate to "assist"--that is, spy upon--Father Angwin. When the titular Fludd arrives in Fetherhoughton, he is both more and less than what he seems, and he sets into motion events that will change the lives of Father Angwin, Agnes, and Sister Philomena, among other Fetherhoughtonians.

Mantel narrates Fludd with a diction that is distinctly English even to these benighted American ears. The "typography of Fetherhoughton may repay consideration," Mantel tells us. "So may the manners, customs and dress of its inhabitants," all of which, by the way, Mantel neatly skewers (11). That line is representative of a syntax and vocabulary that is singularly English. The propriety of Mantel's writing lends it an archness that simultaneously softens and enhances the jibes she makes at her characters' expense. Fetherhoughtonians, stand-ins for Mantel's northern countrymen, refer to the second stories of their homes as "miyoopstairs" (13). Distraught by the suggestion of the vernacular Mass, Father Angwin comments of the townspeople, "I can well understand if you think Latin's too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?" (10). Mantel employs this diction and tone to great comic effect throughout Fludd. She makes it plain that Fetherhoughtonians know nothing about their faith, and the (faux) politeness of her delivery makes clear not only the absurdity of their practice, but also the absolute confidence with which they mangle their religion.

Some readers have complained that Fludd loses its momentum in its third act. It's true that the story grows somber as Mantel shifts her perspective from Father Angwin's battles with the bishop to Sister Philomena's more existential struggle with life as a nun. In my opinion, Mantel's decision to focus on Sister Philomena improves the story. It takes what would be a passing comedy and lends it greater depth. As Mantel makes clear before she begins the novel, Fludd is based on a sixteenth and seventeenth century alchemist, so the story must involve transformation. Some readers may find Sister Philomena dull--I did not--but, by becoming involved with her, Fludd himself is changed. Fludd confesses that he normally ignores women, but he is drawn to Philomena. Through Philomena, then, Mantel takes a deus ex machina-type character, the mysterious and unknowable Fludd, and illuminates his humanity. The novel is the better for it.

Fludd may not be a perfect or even a great novel, but it is a very good one. Some readers have commented on its subtle "gothic" tone, but that's hardly right; indeed, if the gothic is present at all in Fludd, it is there for Mantel to mock. Fludd is something of a paradox. It is a comedy that knows the importance of the issues at which it pokes fun. Mantel is cynical, but she also believes in personal transformation. It is complicated, like Father Angwin, who, having given up on God, fights all the harder on behalf of "the dear old faith." Fludd is of two minds, like many of us these days: "Everyone is where they should be; or we may collude in pretending so. And God's in his heaven? Very bloody likely, Father Angwin thought" (157). Highly recommended. ( )
  LancasterWays | Apr 3, 2015 |
Another excellent read
Pragmatic description of Catholic Church circa 1950's
Mantel is undoubtedly a brilliant writer ( )
  sogamonk | Feb 9, 2015 |
Perhaps the most disappointing book I've read in a while. The first two thirds are fascinating and excellently done: a range of great if type-cast characters, including the witty, non-believing priest, the 'modernising' (read: self-serving) bishop, the downtrodden spinster housekeeper, the repulsive but somehow attractive proles, the awful senior nun. Add to that the mysterious Fludd - who may or may not be the early modern alchemist, dedicated to effecting transformation in all he touches - and you've got a great mix of Muriel Spark, David Foster, and J. F. Powers.

Then - plot spoiler!

It turns out to be a fairly dull tale of a young nun, who was bullied into the nunnery, being 'liberated' by having a few days' worth of sex with the aforementioned alchemist. Really, Ms. Mantel?

This is very vexing, because the book is otherwise so very excellent. I can almost believe that this has meta-fictional importance (i.e., the book, which looked like it was going to be about a man, ends up being about a woman). That's all very well if you have to write an ENG201: Contemporary Female Authors paper, but it doesn't do much for those of us who actually wanted to read the damn thing. A fabulous theme dealt with intelligently in a beautifully written book that doesn't advertize its 'relevance' is a rare thing, and it's too bad that Mantel either got too lazy or too smart for the book's own good in the last third. How's about a sequel to Fludd that focuses on Angwin, the bishop and Miss Dempsey rather than the unbearably dull Roisin O'Halloran? ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
My husband, bless him, knows very well that the presents I like best are books. For my birthday the first year we were married, he picked out Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and for my first Mother’s Day, it was Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel. Forget brunch and overpriced flowers: I’m all about Cromwell and Anne Boleyn. As a bonus, he gave me enough time away from my beloved son to devour the book in two sittings.

Since it appears I’ll be waiting a while for the third installment, my last birthday brought with it A Place of Greater Safety (very long, and to be embarked upon when my beloved son decides to sleep through the night and past 5:00a.m.) and Fludd. [And the new biography of Leonard Cohen, which I can't wait to get to, and The Song of Achilles, so good I read it twice, and a few other gems.]

Fludd is a slim volume (under 200 pages), with a cover design I can’t quite get behind, but it’s a gem of a novel. Ms. Mantel regards her characters with an unsentimental but ever-interested eye, transforming, like her creation Fludd, the frustrated men and women of cold and grimy (and fictional) Fetherhoughton in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Ms. Mantel’s mordant but quiet wit suffuses the novel, which I highly recommend.
  Oh_Carolyn | Sep 28, 2013 |

Mantel won the Booker Prize a few weeks ago for her new novel, which alas sounds totally unappetizing to me. However, I decided it really was about time I read some of her work -- and Fludd was the first book that came to hand.

In the mid-1950s in a ghastly English Midlands village called Fetherhoughton, whose shambling atavistic inhabitants regard themselves, probably wrongly, as at least superior to the denizens of neighbouring village Netherhoughton, there's trouble afoot in the Catholic church. The local bishop wants to impose "modernization" on crusty old Father Angwin and his flock. To this end he demands the statues of the saints and Virgin be removed from the church and insists he will inflict a new, young curate on the priest. Meanwhile, in the nearby convent comely young Sister Philomena is bridling against the dictatorial regime of Mother Purpiture. And then one day the new curate arrives, called Fludd, like the 17th-century alchemist . . .

The blurb, picking up on the Fludd connection, is full of hifalutin stuff to the effect that this is "a novel about alchemy and transformation", and maybe the intention was there. For me, though, the book read more like something the lovechild of Diana Wynne Jones and Tom Sharpe might produce, especially if assisted by the ghosts of Stella Gibbons and Mervyn Peake. The writing ranges from the entrancing ("Christ died to free us from the burden of our sin, but he never, so far as [Sister Philomena:] could see, lifted a finger to free us from our stupidity") to the Thog's Masterclass (". . . the very suggestion . . . was enough to make them close their minds and occupy their eyes with their shoelaces" -- ouch!). Although I'm not sure, then, that Fludd is great literature and worth all the plaudits it got  from the posh press, I certainly enjoyed its bitchy humour and its mercilessly exaggerated characterization. A fun read.
( )
  JohnGrant1 | Aug 11, 2013 |
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For Anne Ostrowska
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On Wednesday the bishop came in person.
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Out of her black drapings and her rolls of petticoats, standing shivering in the fireless parlour in her long linen drawers, she looked a pitiful beanpole ... she stood with her arms crossed over her breasts in a pose at once picturesque and gauche: going to God knows what.
"Twilfit or Excelsior?" Sister Anthony asked.
"Oh, I couldn't. I couldn't put on corsets. I've never worn corsets in my life."
Sister Anthony was taken aback. "Don't you have them in Ireland these days?"
"I shouldn't know how to manage. What if I wanted to go to the lavatory?"
"You'll have to have something, you know." Sister Anthony felt around in the chest. "Try this bust-bodice. Come on now, look lively. ... Either you may have my silk combinations," she said, "or you'll have to go in your drawers, please yourself.""
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805062734, Paperback)

Fetherhoughton, the shabby and provincial village of Hilary Mantel's fifth novel, Fludd, possesses a charm that is, at best, latent. The surrounding moorland is foreboding, the populace is querulous and ill-educated, and the presiding priest is an atheist. It's 1956, and drabness is general to this English backwater. Until, that is, the appearance of a disarming young priest who, apparently, has been dispatched to wrest Fetherhoughton out of its superstitious stupor. One of the novel's several wonders is that Fludd surpasses all expectations.

Father Angwin, Fetherhoughton's disbelieving priest, has--much to the displeasure of his superiors--grown comfortable with the entrenched, misapprehending devoutness of his flock. Fludd, who may or may not be the curate sent to deliver the wayward, exerts an immediate, if unexpected, influence. He intrigues the townspeople, flusters the church's gaggle of nuns, kindles a welcome self-examination in Father Angwin, and arouses the passion of the young and yearning Sister Philomena. A charge of possibility suddenly animates the village, accompanied by several incidents that seem midway between coincidence and miracle. Fludd, however, remains beset by an insistent disillusionment--his clarity, it seems, arcs outward only.

Mantel's cramped and pliant village is a marvel. Fetherhoughton "wrestles not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world," insists the dour headmistress, Mother Perpetua. A local tobacconist, not so trivially, just might be the devil in human garb. Fludd's gift lies in unearthing all the lovely and fearsome truths buried just beneath the surface. "The frightening thing is that life is fair," he observes, "but what we need... is not justice but mercy." The fruits of this conviction, in Fetherhoughton, are rebellion, self-assertion, and even scandal; but Mantel's lovely tale suggests that difficult possibility is fair compensation for a sloughed predictability. --Ben Guterson

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:18 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

From the double Man Booker prize-winning author of 'Wolf Hall', this is a dark fable of lost faith and awakening love amidst the moors. Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town's cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them. Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin's faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart? Full of dry wit, compassionate characterisations and cutting insight, Fludd is a brilliant gem of a book, and one of Hilary Mantel's most original works.… (more)

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