A Form of Showing Off

Anna Vaux

  • A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel
    Viking, 352 pp, £15.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 670 83051 8

‘If God knows our ends, why cannot he prevent them, why is the world so full of malice and cruelty, why did God make it at all and give us free will if he knows already that some of us will destroy ourselves in exercising it?’ The question is put by Father Angwin, the non-believing priest in Fludd, Hilary Mantel’s short, black, funny novel about Roman Catholicism. Then he remembers that he doesn’t believe in God – an unusually quick solution to the Problem of Evil – and goes about his business, dispensing pieces of wisdom to his flock, thinking of ways to avoid the bishop, and looking out for the Devil, in whom he has no difficulty believing. He’s seen the Devil, after all: he runs the tobacconist’s shop at the bottom of the hill and he smells of sulphur.

Ralph Eldred in A Change of Climate believes in God but has read some Darwin and some geology and puts the matter differently:

If we are not to be mere animals, or babies, we must always choose, and choose to do good. In choosing evil we collude with the principle of decay, we become mere vehicles of chaos, we become subject to the laws of a universe which tends backwards towards dissolution, the universe the devil owns. In choosing to do good we show how we have free will, that we are God-designed creatures who stand against all such laws.

It’s not clear that Mantel agrees with him about this. Her opinion may be closer to that of Ralph’s sister Emma, a doctor: devout believers are ‘safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses: their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them from the task of constructing a personal one.’ But she is going to test him in any case. She borrows lines from the Book of Job, as well as from Darwin, for her epigraphs – and in the course of A Change of Climate sends Ralph his apportionment of trouble.

Ralph is not Job, but he is a ‘professional Christian’. He works for a charitable trust, dealing with runaways and suicides, children who have been ‘in care’ and who hang around railway stations and amusement arcades. He has a wife, Anna, two sons and two daughters. They live in a large house in Norfolk, a farmhouse that has lost its farm, with bicycle sheds and dog kennels and wood huts filled with the detritus of family life. It is the beginning of the Eighties, and Ralph’s world divides broadly into ‘Good Souls’ and ‘Sad Cases’, as in ‘Your Aunt Emma’s giving so-and-so a lift to her drugs clinic in Norwich – she’s a good soul,’ or ‘So-and-so’s a sad case.’

Good Souls are not always good souls. Anna’s parents, for instance, who ran a shop, eschewed the cinema and determined that women who wore make-up were ‘not their sort’. They looked up to customers with big houses and accounts and down on customers who queued for their sugar. They were the first in their district to employ the useful deterring sign, ‘Please do not ask for credit as refusal often offends.’ They beat the drum for the Christian faith, ran jumble sales and flower shows and believed most strongly that ‘cold, poverty, hunger must be remedied because they are extreme states, productive of disorder, of psychic convulsions, of demonstrations by the unemployed. They lead to socialism and make the streets unsafe.’

Ralph’s parents were pretty much the same. Printers who refused to give up rationing when rationing was over, they were as ‘clever in charity as they were in business’. They believed God made the world in a week, and practised an ‘active, proselytising, strenuous and commonsensical’ religion in dark houses, like Ralph’s aunt’s, where there were too many chairs, ‘as if preparations were constantly in hand for a public meeting’. ‘They saw no need to inquire into God’s nature; they approached Him through early rising, Bible study and earnest, futile attempts at humility.’

Ralph thinks that he would like to write the history of his family. He can’t, or doesn’t – for reasons that become apparent – but there is a sense in which Mantel takes on the job instead. In particular she tells the story Ralph can’t tell, about what happened when he and Anna were young and newly married, and went to South Africa to take charge of a mission in a freehold township which has wide roads, on a grid plan, neat brick houses, and is set on the heights looking down on the suburbs of Pretoria.

Places like South Africa suit Mantel’s fictional habits. She likes systems that her characters can rub up against. Father Angwin in Fludd had the Roman Catholic Church. Desmoulins, Robespierre and Danton in A Place of Greater Safety had Louis XVI and the French Monarchy. Frances Shore in Eight Months on Ghazza Street found herself pitched against the whole of Islam, whose more objectionable-sounding tenets were sweetly explained away by her forbearing neighbour Yasmin. Yasmin had no doubt that things were far worse in the West.

It is the mid-Fifties when Anna and Ralph arrive in South Africa, and there is much for them to dislike. Smuts is out, the Nationalists are in, the township of Sophiatown has been dismantled, and their own township may be next. The Church, in any case, is under special suspicion, as the Archbishop of Cape Town explains: ‘the churches have done everything, the government nothing. It is we who have educated the African. We did not know, when we were doing it, that we were going about to embarrass the government. All we have achieved, as they see it, is to create a threat to them.’

Anna and Ralph are not well prepared, and there is from the start something unnerving about the people they are to live among, like Mr and Mrs Bishop Kwakwa, from the ‘Zionist Mount Carmel Gospel of Africa. Not at all a real church,’ and the kitchen girl, Dearie, whose babies keep dying for no apparent reason. Everyone has a bad luck story, including the friendly Afrikaner doctor. Koos, who has some secret trouble of his own and a mysterious understanding of local lore. He keeps a native doctor in his yard, ‘Luke the dispenser’, whose stock he has to check, ‘to make sure there’s nothing human’:

A lot of his mixtures you don’t swallow, thank Christ, you just put the bottle on a string and hang it round your neck ... He does business by mail, too. Love potions. Maybe other kind of potions – murder ones – but I don’t ask him. A man came in last week and said he had beetles in his bowels. I sent him straight through to the back. If he believes that, it’s Luke he needs, not me.

Anna and Ralph worry about how to live. What is the best way? They want to be like those they live among. They go to matins and sewing mornings and busy themselves with those in trouble with the law. But this is a bad time. The police don’t like them much, and one day at dawn the Security Branch comes, knocking politely on the mission house door, and conducting a search with ‘creepy-fingered care’ – emptying wastepaper baskets, noting the titles of books, reading the mail – before removing them to prison.

They are suspected of hosting political meetings: ‘So what were you doing, Mrs Eldred, if you weren’t having a political meeting? Just having tea and cake, were you? Perhaps reading the Bible together?’ This is something of an embarrassment both for the English mission society back in Clerkenwell who sent them out, and for the South Africans themselves (‘the fact is that we are not used to prisoners like you’), and a solution is looked for. Offered a choice of voluntary repatriation, or deportation further north to ‘a post, possibly a temporary one, in Bechuanaland, in the Bechuanaland Protectorate’, Ralph and Anna go north to Mosadinyana (another fictional settlement). And it is here, in this ‘toehold in the desert’, on a night of rain like metal drumming against the roof, that they get their final load of trouble.

What happens on that night should probably not be revealed in a review, for the story depends on this secret at its centre. Mantel herself saves it up for nearly two-thirds of the way through the book, though hints are laid down early that something went wrong for Ralph and Anna in the time that they were away. Why does the family dream such compulsive dreams and have memories that are strangely etched into their bodies? Why do the children appear to be able to remember things from before they were born? Coming back from university, the eldest daughter Kit detects some new atmosphere of unhappiness in the house and takes to her bed with an unspecified illness. There are times when Ralph and Anna can’t meet each other’s eyes; conversation about South Africa is quickly deflected. Some of these hints are like a nudge in the ribs. Aunt Emma’s stage-whispered thought, for example: ‘in my family ... we practise restraint and the keeping of secrets ... But our secrets do not keep us. They worry at us; they wear us away, from the inside out.’

Mosadinyana is clearly, in any case, the setting for a disaster. Even the furniture in the mission house looks portentous – a couple of bookcases ‘indecently empty: a solitary picture on the wall, of Highland cattle splashing through a stream’. Here the air is so dry ‘it seemed to bum the lungs,’ the landscape looks flattened, ‘as if it were always noon’. ‘When storms came, the downpour whipped garden snakes from their heat trances. Green mamba, boomslang, spitting cobra: after the rains the ground seethed like a living carpet. Six legs, eight legs, no legs: everything moved.’ Alone in the mission schoolroom, Anna sees her path in life ‘tangled, choked, thorny, like one of the cut-lines that ran through the bush and melted away into the desert’.

The tragedy is a large one, and prompts the kind of questions one might have expected from Ralph about the nature of his God and what it is he believes in. Is God a good God? Is one’s will free? Will a final dispensation even up the score? Is there pattern and order in life, or is it all a question of chance? He sends off volleys of letters to his holy Uncle James in England, a man ‘sucked dry by the constant effort of belief’, who looks out of his East End mission window at the waste paper and the cabbage leaves and can think of nothing particularly comforting to say.

Those who have least comfort are the people back in Norfolk. ‘Events were dubious matters, and often in bad taste. It was a form of showing off, to have things happen to you.’ And so the secret is buried, and repression gets to work. Anna develops a heart complaint, Ralph works hard for his Trust, firm in his belief that the past can be buried under ‘a weight of daily preoccupation’. He writes letters and fund-raises; he makes telephone calls and TV appearances; he gives interviews to newspapers on education and housing policy, drugs and the homeless. This is his new creed – though by the first summer of the Eighties, some twenty years later, neither he nor his wife seem quite to have adjusted to the change in climate: ‘English heat is fitful; clouds pass before the sun.’

Still, Anna and Ralph are not the only ones in the book to have a secret, and metaphors of secrecy and occlusion have been at work from the start. They are there in Ralph’s boyhood passion for fossils and geology (‘another secret, buried life’, he thinks as he finds a flint arrowhead to take home and put on his mantel-piece); and they are present in the novel’s setting. Mantel appears to have chosen Norfolk not just because of its abundance of churches, but also because of its abundance of ancient sites. The message seems to be the not particularly startling one that there is more to people’s lives than meets the eye – or, as one character puts it, we don’t know ‘the hall of what goes on’. One of the tricks Ralph tries to perfect as a boy is to ‘look at a landscape and strip away the effect of man ... Where others saw the lie of the land, Ralph saw the path of the glacier; he saw the desert beneath copse and stream, and the glories of Europe stewing beneath a warm, clear, shallow sea.’

This, of course, is the way in which we read about the lives of Ralph and Anna Eldred. As the story moves backwards and forwards and between Norfolk and South Africa, what is mysterious about them comes to light, and what they’ve kept secret is eventually disclosed. We are meant to see a connection too between the way Ralph thinks about evolution and progress and the way that lives work out in the book. It is largely an ironic connection, for life doesn’t, on the whole, match up to the impressive success story that marches through Ralph’s head, an evolutionary frieze that has the line of man improving, ‘edging nearer all the time to the summit of God’s design’, just as ‘society creeps forward, from savagery to benevolence’.

The novel ends on an optimistic note, however. There are symbolic bells clanging and the feeling that something large has been achieved or is about to be worked out. Salvation seems to be in the offing – though there is a further irony in the fact that this only starts to happen when the Eldreds shake off some of their saintliness and begin to behave in ways that they shouldn’t. Godliness, it transpires, is more of an affliction than a boon.

Ultimately this is a morality tale without a moral. The heave of good and evil goes on (and in the South Africa chapters at a very great pace), but Mantel is a curiously invisible author, and doesn’t make her affections and sympathies either clear-cut or clearly felt. The viewpoint switches round; questions about faith or free will are picked up and left off; and the dialogue is often woodenly pointful: ‘“Sorry,” Kit said, “I know I’m contradicting what I said earlier, but I do see your point, Dad,”’ for example. A dutiful earnestness of tone occasionally overwhelms, as though the grand ideas at work in the novel demanded a certain reverence. But then, perhaps Mantel feels the Eldred family demand it too, since a short note at the beginning of the book informs us that cases similar to theirs ‘may be found in the Law Reports of Botswana’.