Mantel, Hilary (2004), An Experiment in Love, Harper
During the past year, it was hard to escape articles about or interviews with Hilary Mantel. Almost unanimous critical praise for her most recent novel Wolf Hall, a flood of praise and attention which culminated in her winning, among other things, the 2009 Booker Prize, and did not abate for months after that. I was, erroneously, under the impression that Mantel was some sort of historical novelist, given that Wolf Hall (and the next novel, according to some interviews I read), as well as A Place of Greater Safety are about periods long past, taking place on the territory of the historical romance. So I was startled to find that Mantel has indeed written books in a more contemporary setting, although imbued by a vivid sense of history and the interconnectedness and roots of community. One of these books, her 1995 novel An Experiment in Love, is an absolute marvel of a book. I may have the tendency to be too effusive in my reviews, but books like this one deserve all the adulation, praise and wonderment we can muster. Mantel’s book, set in 1970s Britain, is about a young girl’s or woman’s process of growing up, and growing into adult life. That sounds simple, and in many ways, the book is committed to a certain efficient simplicity. There are no extraneous plot strands, no superfluous characters, everything is part of Mantel’s overarching vision, and her small coterie of characters and places fit each into their assigned places in that vision without straining the overall control and structure. The book’s intentions are, one might say, small-scale. The historical view of the British 1970s is particular and careful. There are no sweeping panoramas of society, no large disquisitions on the state of politics and there is no need to provide a variety of naturalistic ‘slices of life’ for Hilary Mantel. There is just Carmel McBain, her protagonist, and what happens to her during her final years at school and first years at university. My ability to contextualize her life are naturally limited, yet for several reasons, her life rings true and is absolutely believable. The conclusion of the book, and the way it wraps up the whole epoch and a section of female experience, is all the more devastating. An Experiment in Love is a great novel. It may seem small, in more than one way, but it most certainly is not. It is a novel that is both economically written and readable, smart and moving, authentic yet densely constructed.
The plot is roughly chronological, but contains so many flashbacks that it, in effect, takes place on three different levels. The most obvious and most direct are Carmel’s university years. We follow her as she finds her room in the dormitory at London University and leave her years later, as she has matured, both in matters of love as well as academically. This account is threaded through and through with flashbacks to her time at school, first at a regular school, and then at a posh Catholic grammar school to prepare her for university. Each phase of her life, school, grammar school and university adds at least one significant person to her life, and when, at the end of the books, events come to a head, she is, in a way, forced to look through the ranks of the friends and acquaintances she has acquired and understand their role in her life and how her life is connected to theirs. The person who seems most significant at the end, whether in a good or a bad way I won’t divulge just yet, is Karina, the first friend she makes at school, who will accompany her throughout grammar school and university. At times, in the book, the two levels, university and school, seem to run alongside, but not only are the school days more often framed as flashbacks. There’s also the fact that Carmel has to explain to fellow university/dorm students the odd behavior of Karina, and the book never quite distinguishes between remembered history and re-told history, dependent on the contextual use of that telling. All this is further complicated by the fact that a third level exists, beside school and university days. That third level is the present day. The first sentence of the novel is “This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia.” The narrator here is Carmel, and on that third level, we never leave “this morning” and since there are no indicators as to when exactly “this morning” is, we are led to believe that it is roughly the time of the book’s publication, i.e. 1995. The present day narrative is a sort of frame story for the whole book, providing not just bridges and segues between the different smaller episodes, and between school and university years. That means it is difficult to really persist in calling the schooltime narrative ‘flashbacks’, because not all of them are.
Some are memories dredged up by the present day narrator, some are remembered by the university-era narrator (as remembered by the present day narrator) and some are told to fellow university-era friends. If I make it all sound complicated, that’s not how the reader experiences the book, which is a smooth and supple read. However, Hilary Mantel shows herself to be a consummate prose writer and her elaborate narrative structure helps her touch on several registers and evoke different emotions and appeal to different readers without really compromising any single narrative. Also, it is important to note that Mantel’s protagonist addresses an audience. There is no explicit listener in the frame narrative, but through devices such as procatalepsis, the narrator often pre-empts and adresses objections her readers might have. We as readers are taken by the hand, we are part of a dialogue. This is important because, in fact, communication, connectivity, is a central concern of the book. This book is not merely about Carmel McBain and her friends Julia and Karina. This book tries to be about far more: a book on the female experience at the beginning of the Thatcher era. To manage that, the book mixes two different kinds of écritures. There’s authentic, almost memoirist writing, and there is artfully heightened near-allegorical writing. The first is Mantel’s way in, her basic connection of the material to the time and to actual female experience. Of course, there’s a distancing moment, and of course plots and devices further that distance, but the multiple re-framing of memory as detailed above lets the reader see a life, though told by one and the same person, from similar but different angles. A certain simplicity inasmuch as details are concerned, are part of this. Although a high amount of details adds to the convention of realism, furthers the verisimilitude, no-one actually remembers so much. Construction, and re-interpretation in hindsight is obvious in such stories. Mantel however focuses on just a few details, just a few aspects and problems, and so, in an uncluttered language, in uncluttered rooms, we are closer to the devastation that her time, her education and her fellow Brits wreak on her. There are a handful of themes which the book pursues doggedly, without distractions, without indulgence, yet wrapped in soft and clear English. This kind of writing is supported by the near-allegorical elements. Most of the plot elements do double shifts as tropes or allegories.
It is really difficult not to read everything as being there not because it is remembered as having happened or having been there, but to signify something to the reader. Whole dialogues sometimes have an otherworldly sheen to them. This, however, does not lessen the authentic impression of the book at all, which is a very impressive achievement. These two levels additionally, implicitly, address a certain androcentric bias in Bildungsroman literature and in the tropes surrounding the genre. One of the ways that the book does that is by developing one of is characters consistently as a villain. One of the girls is odd, mean, and growing fatter each year. She’s zaftig but stingy. One memorable scene has her scarfing noodles without even adding butter, all the while growling at her best friend. We should empathize with her: she helped the protagonist now and then in school, she takes care of her mother, and because of her dialect and her foreign looks, as well as because of her increasing girth, she’s an outcast. At the same time, the book does not want or allow us to do that, pushing the stereotypical villainous description. She is both a person we should like, as far as the authentic, realistic level is concerned, but one we don’t like, almost as a direct result of the literarily heightened structure and the way her character is related to us, the audience. That girl does something terrible at the end, but in a moving, and hard twist at the end, we are not allowed to single her out for derision. “This is where we went wrong”, the narrator says, in the frame narrative, a “we” that includes all the women of her generation. And the illness, the problem, the great plague that the narrator sees as emerging from that period is not villainous meanness, or any act of individual violence, but “Slimmer’s Disease”, anorexia, an disorder that Carmel herself suffers from during her university days. This juxtaposition of a complex analysis of what’s wrong with her generation, and a subtle use of tropes usually used in androcentric narratives reinforces the problematic at the heart of the novel: the pressures of becoming a woman in modern Britain, and the difficulties of writing authoritatively about it. These pressures can, again, be divided two ways: class issues, and issues concerning the female body. Easiest to discuss is probably class.
Carmel hails from Lancashire, up north. When she enters university in 1970, Lancastershire is the most populous British district, and one closely associated with working class values, and an industrial landscape. Before a reform in 1974, both Manchester and Liverpool were part of Lancashire, and going south means escaping all that, building a better future for yourself. Carmel’s mother tries to make her daughter apply for Oxbridge, but Carmel eventually goes to a college in London. Be that as it may, it is still respectable, and still a way out of the same old, same old. Additionally, this is a time on the brink. In 1970, a Tory prime minister was elected (Carmel says “It wasn’t my fault, I wasn’t old enough to vote.”), and the Tory party runs on a platform that will eventually turn into Thatcherism. Thatcher wasn’t elected until 1979, but the roots of her politics can be found in the years covered by An Experiment in Love. Mantel, without lapsing into complaints, does an excellent job in detailing how poor and affluent families are part of different cultures and of the pressures at work in each of them. Ultimately though, all the women are on equal footing as far as their bodies are concerned. Although love plays a role in the book, bodies play a larger role by far. Bodies, that is, not in a general way, but specifically bodies as they come into play at the crossroads of experience. Among the two most central experiences involving bodies are pregnancy and hunger. Hunger is, of course, also hunger for success, hunger for public recognition, but hunger here is also the self-imposed hunger that self-consciousness and stress can effect. In the discussion of the Slimmer’s Disease that begins and ends the book, hunger is further elevated to the status of a general problem. It ties into the class problem, of course, since for Carmel, food competes with clothes and train tickets and is not taken for granted. But it’s also a matter of self-preservation, a sign of self-respect, and it directly corresponds to how the world reacts to you. The people in the novel can be arranged to how they feed their bodies, how they react to hunger. Bodies, without Mantel having to stoop to preaching, or obsessing, are a battleground here, and appearances are key, oddly enough for a novel in a tradition that emphasized interiority.
But interiority is most easy to achieve for the unmarked, and confirms structures and strictures at work in society, interiority, for all the seductiveness it can bring, is often deaf to the din of other voices, other people, other minds. Hilary Mantel isn’t, and An Experiment in Love is a wonderfully open, important, tough book. There are far more aspects to it than I was able to mention, as for example its treatment of politics (with traces of Doris Lessing’s reminiscences) and of religion, as well as of issues like marriage, knowledge and learning. Mantel is a grand writer, who is able to expertly manipulate both private and public registers, a craftsman in full control of her craft, and a dear, moving novelist, to boot. Read this book.
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