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.’

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