Monday, December 10, 2012
In A Change Of Climate Hilary Mantel presents what is essentially a family saga, but in settings that add extra dimensions to the expected dilemmas. The family in question is the Eldreds. Ralph and Anna have shared an unusual if not an altogether unconventional married life. They have spent time in Africa as missionaries. They have devoted their time to helping others less advantaged than themselves. Ralph runs a charitable trust in Norfolk in the east of England. But they have also found the time and energy to raise children of their own and experience the day-to-day pressures of any family’s life. But there has been more, more that has not been voiced.
Volunteer missionary work took them to South Africa, to a township called Elim near Johannesburg. It was during the era of toughening Apartheid, a time when new powers threatened whole communities with eviction and resettlement to “tribal homelands”. Ralph and Anna begin to identify with their community and deal with certain people who held particular opinions about the way South African society was being organised. Their activities catch the eye of the local police and, as a consequence of their contact, Ralph and Anna are arrested and imprisoned.
For them there is a way out of jail, and it is a way that is not available, of course, to the others who had been associated with them in Elim, those who have to continue living with the injustice that seems to affect the lives of the Eldreds. Hilary Mantel’s novel, however, doggedly follows the Eldreds to Botswana, where the family apparently gives up thinking about those they have left behind. Known then as Bechuanaland, Botswana provides the family with an opportunity, but they are offered a posting that the previous incumbents did not appear to like. By this time Anna has been through a pregnancy and has been blessed with twins. It seems, however, that the mission’s previous occupants were correct about the undesirability of the posting. Problems ensue for the Eldreds. What happens to the couple in the latter days of their stay in southern Africa is crucial to the plot of the A Change Of Climate. But there are two or three aspects to these events, not just one relating to a child. Perhaps sometimes overlooked is the fate of the others involved with the tragic events at the end of the family’s time in Botswana, a fate that returns to haunt via an almost passing mention towards the end of the book. Guilt, it seems, has many manifestations, mostly ignored.
Back in Britain, the Eldreds devote themselves to assisting those less fortunate than themselves. Thus Melanie appears on the scene. She is young, self-abusing, antisocial and in need. But then all these characters find themselves in need - in need of comfort, reassurance, something that might salve the conscience, replace the loss, turn time around and allow a different path to be taken. Devoted to alleviating the suffering of others, neither Ralph nor Anna can cope with their own traumas. These have to be lived with and relived every day, the guilt they engender colouring most of their lives. Ways out of the impasse of coping are always at hand, however. When Ralph and Anna’s son takes up with the daughter of a local single mum who ekes out a living from standing markets and trading junk, an opportunity burns suddenly bright and new suffering and guilt is wrought in the furnace.
In the end, no matter what life throws at us, we all depend on one another and need the succour of others to survive. This remains the case, even when our ideals lead us blandly towards avoidable tragedy and our ensuing suffering impinges on the lives of others.
Hilary Mantel’s novel invites us to empathise with the suffering and guilt of Ralph and Anna Eldred. But what the book fails to examine in depth is their motives. Given the consequence of some of their actions, whether intended or not, these could surely have come under greater scrutiny.
In a very famous context, D. H. Lawrence is himself famous for using a word beginning with ‘f’, a word that is infamous rather than famous. Mentioning this word and then repeating it got the author into some serious trouble that was not resolved until decades after his death. In this book, The Lost Girl, Lawrence is clearly preoccupied with the word and the novel is very much focused on it and its associated act. Its anticipation, achievement, consequences and perceived implications seem to be the very stuff of the heroine’s life, but in this book the word never actually appears. So, like Lawrence, let’s use a euphemism, but let’s also be more direct than the writer. Let’s use ‘fabrication’, an activity that is central to the work of any author.
The Lost Girl is Alvina Houghton. The surname is pronounced with an ‘f’ sound in the middle, not an ‘o’, so its first syllable rhymes with ‘fluff’, not ‘now’. She is the daughter of James, a shopkeeper in a small Derbyshire town called Woodhouse, in the north English midlands. James has a shop selling Manchester goods, the mass produced textiles of the late nineteenth century. He is not the best businessman, however, and his activities shrink over time. His daughter, Alvina - that’s with a ‘y’ sound in the middle, not an ‘e’ - is rather plain-looking and apparently not too interesting either. She thinks quite a lot about fabrication from quite an early age, but she is a determined spectator when it comes to relationships. Her counsel, especially after her mother dies, is from older women, some of them determined spinsters.
After some prevarication, Alvina eventually trains as a midwife. The skill offers her a chance of independence, but she chooses to revert to her preferred state of familial dependence. After all, Alvina will probably inherit her father’s business. Thus she continues her arm’s length relation with life.
There is a short affair with a local man, a rather goofy figure who goes on to Oxford University and probably lives long enough to make a packet. But clearly the safe option is not for Alvina, who equally seems utterly afraid of risk in any form. She clearly cannot bring herself to the fabrication she privately craves and so the affair, surely destined for marriage in the eyes of the locals, comes to nought.
Women close to The Lost Girl die. Others remain like perched birds watching over events. And, when James decides to leave the shop and sell off the little coal mine he also owns there is much consternation. There is even more to chirp about when he announces he is going into the entertainment business by opening up a little music hall, especially when Alvina declares that she will play the piano. Until this point, she had not mentioned being a musician. It is worthwhile remembering that we are in age when playing the instrument was almost part of any single woman’s trousseau.
And so the music hall presents its act, a motley crew of Red Indian impersonators, including a German called Max and an Italian called Cicio. Initially, the show packs them in, but the passing of time sees interest start to dwindle. But suddenly new opportunities arise for Alvina to think of fabrication, and fabrication with foreigners involved to boot!
And so the story of Lawrence’s The Lost Girl eventually fabricates its way from Derbyshire, and we leave Alvina in what looks like a new - though very old fashioned - life in changed circumstances. She seems now completely enslaved in her chosen womanly role, but we are at the start of the First World War and surely the role of women in society is about to change for ever.
The Lost Girl deals with many of Lawrence’s recurring themes, but its fabrication is often rather clumsy and its style often less than comfortable. It is, however, worth seeing through, if only to realise just how much both Lawrence and his fabricated characters - especially the women - are still locked in a soon to be changed mind-set about gender roles and social class.