Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love, Picador 1996; first published 1995. This is another novel I heard good things about recently, in this case on the BBC Radio 4 book podcast, A Good Read (link HERE: the item comes after about nine minutes). I was attracted by the main setting: a hall of residence for women at the LSE (part of the University of London) in the early 70s – the very time when friends of mine were there.

Hilary Mantel An Experiment in Love cover

This is the edition I borrowed from the library; it was published in America.

I found these university/London scenes compelling and realistic – I felt I was reliving my own youth. The class differences are particularly well brought out: the privileged ‘Sophies’ and their boyfriends, the ‘Rogers’, are well off, privately educated, with a veneer of sophistication and casual generosity blended with condescension. Then there are the poor, working-class (northern) girls like Carmel, whose unfulfilled and angry mother is a cleaner, and who struggles to make her meagre grant stretch to keep her alive. At least students got a grant in those days (I was one of these lucky ones); now they’re left with huge debts when they graduate.

The women at the heart of the narrative are also well done: Carmel is a self-confessed mouse, timid and nerdy, but also sensitive and perceptive. Oddly enough she has a (doomed) sex life with a dull man who fails to see her true self and dumps her when she reveals her inner truth.

In fact it’s the sexual element of these young women’s lives that’s a key feature in the novel. In 1970 the liberation of women was beginning to take shape – but within patriarchal limits. Abortion was available, after a fashion, but the women who went through the procedure were viewed with a mix of pity, scorn and awe by the likes of Carmel. She believes, perversely, that it’s the nice girls who are foolish enough to get pregnant. I remember well this weirdly perverse and ambiguous attitude at the time.

Despite the early stirrings of feminism and the continuing quest for equality for women, girls from Carmel’s background could only hope to gain a good education as a way out of their otherwise inevitable fate: the drudgery of unequal marriage, motherhood and housework. Even this hope turns out not to be all it seems. She starts out well, winning a scholarship to a smart but repressive Catholic convent school, and then a place at London University. The price of being a swot is high: social life is limited by her poverty already, and she’s no competition for the glamour-pusses like the Sophies.

There was something amiss with this novel too, though. There was something a little too contrived about the plot, and the ending (which I didn’t see coming) was a dramatic shock. As the podcast participants point out, however, there are clues strung through the narrative, and it’s probably a good idea to re-read, to see how skilfully Mantel builds the tension and the inevitable outcome that shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me after all.

The depiction of anorexia – I suppose these were days when it wasn’t much understood or acknowledged – is interesting. The descriptions of the institutional meals are stomach-turning – but I realised eventually that of course they are seen from Carmel’s food-averse point of view. My own recollection of hall of residence food was that it wasn’t great, but not as disgusting as Carmel makes out.

Karina, who has a love-hate relationship with Carmel from their early childhood, is another complex character. Her family were east European immigrants, seemingly having escaped persecution decades earlier, although this is never made explicit. Carmel dislikes her mostly because her mother, taking pity on Karina’s family’s poverty (they’re even poorer than hers) and history, insists that Carmel walk to primary school with her every morning. This reaction quietly points to the kind of initially unperceived, insidious bigotry that caused Karina’s family to be persecuted in the first place. It also explains why Karina becomes so bitter and angry.

At the novel’s end, though I was less irritated than I was with the Nymph (see my previous post), I wasn’t enthused. I’m not sure about the novel’s uninspiring title, either. There was little I could see in the way of experimentation, in love or anything else.


18 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

  1. I have trouble reading books featuring eating disorders as I have a couple of friends who have been badly affected by them (weirdly, I can read books on other topics that affect friends). And I am also not keen on HM, though I admire her as a person and as a writer – she just feels a bit too cold and calculating (even though I like other writers known to be cold, like Elizabeth Taylor). But you have interesting things to say, as always!

  2. You seem to be on a bit of a bad run at the moment, Simon! The last book you reviewed (Nymph) was decidedly unpleasant and this one sounds a bit uninspiring. Have you tried Hilary Mantel’s ‘Beyond Black’? It’s very good. Coincidentally, I had a friend at the LSE in the same period as you. She was in Passfield Hall and will, in fact, be getting a mention in a blog post I’m currently writing.

  3. You do seem to be on something of a bad run, Simon. Sorry to hear that…

    I don’t think this is for me, if I’m being honest. I admire Mantel, but she’s not my writer based on previous experiences. Beyond Black is good, though. I heard an abridged version on the radio several years ago, narrated by Alison Steadman, IIRC – a great match for the part.

    • Jacqui: as I said to Bobby, I need something good to cheer me up after this run of so-so novels. I’m a big fan of Alison Steadman – I’m sure her reading was worth listening to.

  4. Thanks for that recommendation, Simon. I admire Mantel’s writing, though have only read her Cromwell trilogy, so would be interested to read this more contemporary one, set at a time when I was also at university.

    • Helen: this is very different in style and content. She’s always entertaining, but I thought it was just a bit creaky, though good in parts. The relationships between the central women characters was largely well done. The men don’t come out of it very well – but neither do some of the women.

    • Beyond Black WAS dark, I grant you. I must admit that I was perfectly o.k. with that quality, at least in that particular book.
      It’s an odd thing about Mantel’s appeal for me. I see the things that bother her critics, such as the emotinal coldness and, yes, a certain quality that could be described as “calculating”. (I’m quoting Liz Dexter). But, as Liz pointed out in her own comment, what disturbs a particular reader in one writer is often perfectly acceptable to that reader with another! Go figure. In the end, I suppose we bond with a particular writer because of some weird alchemical thing, akin to the mysteries of certain friendships. That I remained a Mantel fan after slogging through A Place of Greater Safety (all 750 pages) speaks of the enduring she has for me!

  5. Beyond Black WAS grim, I grant you that. I must admit it didn’t bother me a bit, at least not in that particular book.
    It’s very interesting, how certain writers appeal to one. I have no difficulty at all in seeing the qualities in Mantel’s writing that turn off some of her readers, such as the emotional coldness and what Liz Dexter accurately describes as a certain caluclating quality. But as Liz also points out, things that a particular reader might deplore in one novelist doesn’t bother that same reader at all when it pops up elsewhere. Go figure. In the end, I suppose it’s some literary version of that weird alchemical power that forms the basis for certain unlikely friendships. I remained a Mantel fan even after slogging through A Place of Greater Safety (all 750 pages), so I’m obviously willing to overlook a few flaws!

  6. Oh dear – not so many good books lately for you, Simon. I confess I still haven’t read any Mantel, and although I’m superficially attracted by the setting and the era, I really don’t think I’ll start of with this one…

  7. In spite of your lukewarm comments, I’m intrigued by your review to look for this. I haven’t read any non-Cromwell Mantel and want to and I was also in university in the early 1970s. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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