Tag Archives: Hilary Mantel

Book review: Fludd by Hilary Mantel

This gentle ecclesiastical comedy, published in 2010, borders on the satiric, and is utterly different from the two Hilary Mantel books I’ve already reviewed1. Its dry humour often produces a kind of tickling in the upper reaches of the abdomen, that wants to break out into a full blown laugh but never quite makes it!

In a foreword, Mantel informs us that the real Fludd (1574-1637) was an alchemist, alchemy portraying a world that not only has a literal and factual dimension but one that is also symbolic and fantastical. And that’s an apt representation of this story, which hints at hidden meanings, actions and motivations, lurking beneath the surface of everyday life in 1956 in a fictitious village called Featherhoughton and the neighbouring community of Netherhoughton.

Eye-catching similes (for example, the church door “opened with its customary groan, like a jaded actor falling back on proven effects”) and metaphors (eg “she had tombstone teeth”) abound – and add sparkle to this sometimes dark, somewhat absurd, award-winning tale.

The Fludd of the novel’s title is a young curate brought in by the local bishop to liven up the appeal of the village church. Fludd’s appointment immediately gets tongues wagging and his effect on the neighbourhood is decidedly different from what was anticipated. As the story unfolds, it opens out into a catalogue of the foibles of a number of the characters in this cloistered, constrained society, with its rules, regulations and quirky routines, whilst all the time implying something about the foolishnesses of the wider world. To that extent, and though the nature of the prose is very different, I was reminded of Dylan Thomas‘s Under Milk Wood and the way it holds up to ridicule the mores of an inward-looking community and the individuals and groups who populate it. On more than one occasion I also felt, style-wise, that I was reading a third person version of Virginia Woolf‘s stream of consciousness.

Although there’s much caricature in the novel, Mantel certainly makes us stop and think. This is a book that can prompt us to reflect on our own character and attitudes and, shudder the thought, occasionally see aspects of ourselves in these seemingly ridiculous people.

It’s a clever admixture of religion, doubt, love, deceit, obsession, intrusion, denial and many other emotions and essences. In short, this fairly brief, comic novel presents a little world of universal and often inconvenient truths.

1 See my reviews of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

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Book review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies is the second historical novel in Hilary Mantel‘s Booker Prize-winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

I was delighted to find that the author manages to carve a narrative no less gripping and realistic as that which she achieved in the first book, Wolf Hall, which I reviewed a few months ago. That word “realistic” can be taken to mean many things; but for me, in this context, it signifies (again) a filling-in of the huge gaps in our knowledge about the fine detail of life in and around the court of Henry VIII. Mantel once more employs a wealth of intriguing and convincing suppositions, psychological insight and plausible dialogue. No-one will ever know to what extent her suppositions are correct – but they are always persuasive.

I turned the final page feeling that this was more or less how actual events must have played out in the physical settings, the inter-personal relationships and the psyches of the principal characters who were held in near orbit around this tyrant king.

The story moves on, of course, and in some ways the pace increases. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Henry’s marital timeline is no doubt aware of the fate of his six wives. Primarily, this book tracks the gradual and terrifying slide out of Henry’s affections by Anne Boleyn (drawing, above right, by Hans Holbein The Younger), towards her doom. Our witness to all the goings-on is again Thomas Cromwell, whose persona is once more used as an on-the-spot notary of key moves by the pieces on this unfolding, life-and-death game of chess. Some are pawns, some, like Cromwell, are more powerful pieces; but there is only one king …

I was just slightly more struck this time around by the richness of Hilary Mantel’s prose. It feels like not a single paragraph, even when the event described is mundane, can go by without the addition of some small but eye-catching gem of literary embellishment. At one point, for instance, the king rises from his place and “His servants eddied about him”. What a lovely choice of verb!

There are innumerable other examples: as when Cromwell pays a visit to Henry Norris at the Tower of London (see below): “Gentle Norris: chief bottom-wiper to the king, spinner of silk threads, spider of spiders, black centre of the vast dripping web of court patronage”.

Another distinguishing characteristic is an increasing resort to a more earthy prose style, with the use on a number of occasions of obscenities and unrestrained descriptions of bodily functions and sexual acts (of numerous kinds). It’s not over-done but is a very telling ingredient in the blunt realism and quasi-documentary feel of the novel.

I say again: this is an imagined account of life and death in the court of Henry VIII which will not be surpassed.



Image credits: Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein The Younger: public domain

White Tower at the Tower of London: Padraig.

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