While I wait impatiently for the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I decided to make a start on her back catalogue. Her French Revolution tome, Place Of Greater Safety, waits enticingly by my bed, but before I embark on that adventure, I decided to start with one of her slighter books, her 1995 novel, An Experiment In Love set closer to home and one of Zadie Smith’s choices in her fiction seminar at Columbia University.
Mantel is a master writer, who tackles huge subjects in a quiet and thoughtful way. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies she told small, human truths within a big story. In An Experiment In Love she gently tells big, social issues in a small story.
Set in the 1960s and early 70s, An Experiment In Love is the story of Carmel McBain’s childhood and teenage years. It oscillates between the working class Lancashire town she grew up in and the maze-like streets of London’s Bloomsbury where she finds herself aged 18, studying law at the University of London, living in a hall of residence with a bunch of home counties ‘Sophys’ and two of her school ‘friends’, the self-assured Julia, and Karina, the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who are in even more reduced circumstances than Carmel’s parents.
An Experiment In Love may not be a flag-waving political novel, but feminism and class are evident themes throughout the book. In the late 60s women were finally being educated to degree level en masse, and working class girls like Carmel began to break the class and gender barrier. But Carmel’s generation were struggling with their identities as intelligent, educated women. Carmel looks on, peering up from her law books, baffled as these clever girls playing housewife to their various ‘Rogers’ (Carmel’s name for the identikit boyfriends of these similarly non-distinguishable ‘middle class ‘Sophys’), ironing their shirts and dreaming of marriage and babies. These women aren’t leading the march for female equality, despite benefiting from feminism (something that still rings all too true these days).
It’s not all playing house. The lives of these girls, bar Carmel, who struggles to feed herself on her student grant, and Karina, whose stoicism hides a cruelty that even Carmel doesn’t see coming, are untouched by the vagaries of life before they came to university. The early days of adulthood bring with it tragedy and adversity.
This coming-of-age tale also touches on Carmel’s relationship with food, although she herself stresses that this is not a novel about anorexia, but about appetite. Even before she leaves her strict Catholic school and the confines of her mother and her cold house with its outside loo, Carmel needs cultural and political nourishment.
There are unmistakable whispers of Jeanette Winterson, both in the working class northern town and the tough angry mother, as well as in the dreamlike quality of her writing. Mantel may not veer into magic realism, but there’s an bewitching quality to her works. There are also shades of Anne Enright, another writer who is able to elevate the everyday to poetic truths.
Mantel’s characters remind me of ink-soled ghosts that tread lightly over the pages but leave an indelible mark on the story and the imagination. They are laid before us lightly, revealing themselves through Mantel’s words that don’t force feed a very different picture of the character than the one that is laid before the readers’ eyes.
An Experiment In Love may not have the gravitas and epic sweep of her two Booker Prize winning novels, but it’s an exquisite, perfectly drawn tale of women on the brink of a revolution that they don’t know they’re living through.
by Suzanne Elliott