Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become – or have not become – wives, wage-earners, mothers, home-makers, gardeners or taxpayers. Our place in post-war history, formed by a procession of notions (often experimental, often contradictory) of what success is for women, has settled into a pattern that can be discerned and appraised. We can begin to compare our lives with those of our mothers. Hilary Mantel, born in 1952, has tried out a number of female identities – more than most of us – and succeeded more than most. She has trained as a lawyer and given it up, she has been a social worker and a teacher, she has earned a living in the Middle East and in Africa. She has also been several kinds of good writer – a film critic, a travel writer and a prolific novelist. Her fiction has continually tested different formats. Black comedy, supernatural fantasy, political satire and social realism move in and out of her books. A Place of Greater Safety (1992), a brave and solidly researched novel on the French Revolution, was a surprise. Perhaps it ought not to have been, for the Revolution, the biggest experiment in European history, must have been a magnetic subject. These diverse novels all survey the provisional. Mantel is unremittingly concerned with the multiple models available for a good life, the choices that might be within reach, worth a try, or even, conditionally, best.
This preoccupation may have obstructed her formal attainments as a novelist, for a restless cast of mind makes conclusion difficult. Her books close in suspension, undetermined possibilities circulating in final paragraphs. Mantel’s earliest solution to this perplexity must have seemed obvious: the sequel. Her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day (an irresistibly grim study of family wrongs), was followed by Vacant Possession, with the same cast of luckless misfits. It was a device that enriched rather than resolved Mantel’s fictional enigmas. Questions expanded, but were not answered. Mantel hasn’t yet repeated the strategy of the sequel, though a further novel on the French Revolution is promised. She has, however, regularly returned to the radical mysteries contemplated in her first book. Where does evil come from? Can it be overcome by human good? For all her sharp-eyed social comedy, Mantel is consistently a philosophical novelist, and often a spiritual one.
In An Experiment in Love, Mantel thinks about such matters in terms of the experience of a generation. It is not autobiography, but it is written out of her own life, locating itself at the point where, as she noted approvingly in her recent review of Doris Lessing’s autobiography in this paper, ‘fiction transmutes the personal to the general.’ Carmel McBain is the daughter of hard-working Catholic parents in a small Lancashire cotton town. ‘My father was a clerk; I knew this from quite early in life, because of my mother’s habit of saying, “Your father’s not just a clerk, you know.” ’ Irish in origin, Carmel’s family has acquired new aspirations with its new nationality. Urged by her dour and discontented mother, Carmel and her friend Karina pass the entrance exam for the rather grand local convent school (‘the first girls from our school – from any school like ours – to go to the Holy Redeemer’). In one sense, their breakthrough is a paradigm of social success, upward mobility as commended by post-war optimism. Carmel and Karina work hard, earn places at London University. They find themselves in the same hall of residence, just as the Sixties come to an end and ‘the miniskirt fell totally and decisively out of favour.’ The novel tells linked stories; what made the ambitions of the two girls, what then happens to unmake them.
The substantial pleasures here are those of recollection, sometimes of wry nostalgia, edged with detail. Described particularities of Carmel’s childhood are neither soured by resentment nor softened with sentiment – the fawn socks and pixie hoods, women in the kind of solidly tailored suits that were called ‘costumes’, the artificial roses that came free with detergent, made of ‘slimy, pliable plastic ... scentless, accreting to themselves a sticky grey dust, as if the plastic petals leaked something that would attract it.’ If, like me, you remember those roses – or the comics (Judy, Bunty, Princess and Diana – Carmel, clearly not a deprived child, was allowed all four, which would have been unimaginable indulgence in our house), this novel has the immediate appeal of shared memory. Others will find social history with a light and witty touch. Neither fictional reward, though, is quite the point. The novel searches deeply into the motivation of a generation. Mothers and their displaced needs are its pivot. Carmel’s mother, despising her own work as a domestic cleaner and vicariously hungry for her daughter’s fulfilment, extends her insatiable appetite to include the life of Karina, whose parents were refugees from Eastern Europe. Their undefined wartime sufferings, leaving memories of a different kind of hunger, cast a long shadow over the events of the book. Karina, stolid and competent, must eat to assuage her mother’s wants, just as Carmel must study. Potato pies, roast meat, damp sausages and glutinous pasta dominate Karina’s life. Education and enterprise apparently form the parameters of the girls’ progress through adolescence, but the novel insists on the hidden relation with food that lies behind much of what happens to them. This is, after all, also the generation of Twiggy.
Once at college, Carmel signals her separation from her mother by developing anorexia. Karina, meanwhile, grows ever larger, devouring all that comes her way and more besides. Both find long-nurtured ambitions pushed aside by their obsessive and destructive manipulations of their own appetites, their own bodies. Carmel broods on what went so badly wrong for them, and thinks over the education that led to their troubled hall of residence. Women had been permitted the right to learning, but on the male plan. ‘Good’ schools for girls adopted the boys’ muddy team games and school songs and collars and ties. Forced to imitate men, they were bound not to succeed at it. ‘They forfeited today for the promise of tomorrow, but the promise wasn’t fulfilled; they were reduced to middle-sexes, neuters, without the powers of men or the duties of women.’ Once out of their collars and ties, they found themselves torn in ways no one had prepared them for. Fulfilling their mothers’ ambitions, still working to win the high marks they had been trained for, they found themselves half-wanting, half-fearing, what their mothers had taken for granted or resented – homes, husbands, and especially babies. ‘The little women inside were looking out through our eyes and waving to the world.’ The violence of the conflicts generated by these divided desires disrupts all expectations, especially those of the reader. The unflinching dénouement of this book consumes the hostel in a murderous conflagration. Old arrangements are cancelled, but at great cost. Karina, self-sufficient, scornful and patronised throughout her life, turns out to be fertile and merciless in unsuspected ways, with energies previously hidden from observation. She remains, to the end, an inscrutable figure – a monstrously cruel victim of her mother’s pain, but a robust survivor too.
Like its predecessors, this novel ends on a question mark, for Karina’s nature can be revealed but not wholly explained, and her future is not disclosed. Here, however, a point of uncertainty takes a conclusive place in a confidently managed narrative design. The debates are historical and personal, but they are also explicitly fictional. Brooding on complicated relations with our mothers, An Experiment in Love is in part a confrontation with Mantel’s own literary mother, Muriel Spark. The particular point of reference is The Girls of Slender Means, published in 1963. Parallels between the two books are specific enough, in terms of plot, style and narrative structure, to make the later work something approaching an act of homage to its distinguished ancestor. They function ‘like the fingerprints of those giants on whose shoulders we stand’. The definition of Spark’s fingerprints in Mantel’s new novel are the frank acknowledgment of a longstanding imaginative debt. But this close engagement, conducted on equal terms that reflect Mantel’s achieved maturity and stature as a novelist, is also an act of measured rebellion.
Spark’s novel, set like Mantel’s in a London hostel for young women, also thinks back over the objectives of a generation. Her girls, too, are poor, perpetually hungry for more than the frugal rations doled out in 1945 – more money, more food, more life. But they are also divided, for sexual success seems to depend on limiting the female appetite. They must confine themselves to slenderness to make it to the top as women. Spark, like Mantel, focuses on the pitiless pressures of women’s hunger. Her hostel, like Mantel’s, finally goes up in flames. Those thin enough to squeeze through a narrow skylight at the top of the building – the girls of slender means – are able to escape; while the most solidly virtuous (and naive) woman of the group loses her life in the fire. Spark’s ravenous inferno generates a moment of shocking corruption which foreshadows the disconcerting climax of Mantel’s novel – both novelists remind us that nicely brought up women can be far from nice. But Spark’s Catholic concept of evil leaves no doubt of its transcendent existence, or of its capacity to generate eternal good. The deed of female savagery which is central to the action of her book leads to the conversion and eventual martyrdom of the man who glimpses it, appalled – ‘a vision of evil may be as effective to conversion as a vision of good.’ For Mantel, who writes as thoughtfully here as elsewhere about the legacies of a Catholic upbringing, this won’t quite do. Neither absolute evil nor absolute good can be determined in her humanly mixed and contingent world. Damnation is not final, salvation is never certain. The crime committed by Karina is worse than anything that happens in Spark’s novel. Yet Mantel’s vision is less fixed, and less bleak, than Spark’s devastating certitudes. Karina is what her life has made her; a consequence of the harm visited on her parents years before she was born, but also stubbornly herself, a source of life, ambivalent, puzzling and persistent.