An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel book cover
An Experiment in Love (1995) by Hilary Mantel is the story of one girl’s passage into womanhood. Carmel is an unexceptional girl from Lancashire, who finds herself studying Law at university in London in 1970, at a time of great social upheaval. Having attended an all-girl Catholic school as a child, Carmel is green to the world, but in London she is joined by two fellow classmates from home: Karina, a distant and difficult girl from a European family, and Julianne, an accomplished young lady who becomes Carmel’s roommate. Along with other girls – Clare, a devout Christian; Lynette, a wealthy European - all three navigate their way through the claustrophobic atmosphere of university halls, where their behaviour is under strict observation and their lives are controlled more than a newly liberated generation might care to have imagined. The sheen of expected freedom soon rubs thin as worries about friendships, relationships, money, and health begin to drag Carmel down. It’s a rough if quietly internalised induction into adult life for all the girls, and the few terms they spend together threaten to leave a permanent mark on their young lives.

There certainly seems to be snippets of autobiography here: like Carmel, Mantel studied Law in London starting in 1970, and came from a similar family background. While having little bearing on the story itself, this understanding of her characters’ lives allows Mantel to draw quite poignantly their existence, and to go about discussing friendships, both female-female and male-female, with deft flourishes. The descriptions of the girls’ lives as they balance their pasts with their futures, are excellent, the silent tensions that act upon them drawn out beautifully.

The narrative is split across three timeframes, between which Carmel’s narration flits: her time in university halls, and her past both in her state school and, later, the Catholic convent (for which it’s thought Mantel drew on Harrytown Convent School where she studied), which propels her on to university, having prepared her to compete, as a pseudo-man, in the world of men. Across each of the narratives, minute social mores press in on the girls, forcing them to compete with one another in an unspoken game where victories are generally small and competition is attritional. Away from their mothers - their instructive feminine influences - for the first time, the girls navigate their way through this world of issues - from boyfriends to religion, fashion to food - alone. The mother-daughter relationship is important here, and Carmel’s own mother has shaped her daughter’s childhood, urging her towards success with tough homework schedules and unforgiving moral standards, driving her forward into the world.

Indeed, it’s Carmel’s mother who pushes her daughter into a shaky friendship with Karina as a child; a friendship that will prove destructive. Karina is a difficult character: fiercely jealous, she glories in puncturing the happiness of others at every opportunity. The physical opposite of Carmel, Karina is plump and motherly even at the age of twelve, and her dark eyes hold knowledge long before Carmel’s. It’s a worldly rather than an academic knowledge and, although Karina is not pushed academically like Carmel, she understands the world of manipulation, and progresses through life on this merit. More than any other character, Karina’s motives are veiled from both Carmel and the reader, and this idea of the hidden interior – the unknowable – is a major theme and stylistic choice in An Experiment in Love.

Carmel’s move from her home in the North to the South for university is seen as an escape to a better life in a lot of ways – despite being shackled by Karina’s presence. There is certainly something on the leap from a working class background to perceived respectability here, and this social mobility is echoed in a few political references in the novel. That Carmel looks forward to a woman Premier is, in a lot of ways, ironic. When the landmark would come, via Thatcher, so too would reforms that seem antithetical to many of Carmel’s own feelings but, at the same time, somehow in line with the competitive, self-advancing way in which she has been raised by her mother.

The balance the young women have to strike between pleasure and education at university, the temptations that face them and the difficulty of delayed gratification is well drawn by Mantel. As Carmel gains more knowledge and more experience, she grows no happier, but rather sadder, more torn in a world of tensions that act upon her. The female body is a huge topic in the book: from the contrast between Karina’s and Carmel’s weight, to the body as a vessel for new life, and as one of the few things the girls can exert any significant control over. In many ways, this is a novel about the fight for control of the body. Carmel’s quietly developed anorexia is indicative of her position to the world, of choosing to consume only so much, before withdrawing, denying herself. Carmel’s hunger is also representative of her generation’s hunger for recognition, for success, even if these drives are imbibed from the previous generation. By the novel’s end, it feels as though the narrator has been telling one about more than her own struggle into womanhood, and has been speaking about her generation generally, as they grapple with, and often fail in, their new found freedom, and the responsibility they have in protecting and cherishing what they have inherited.

The plot itself is pretty simple, and, like Carmel herself, there’s little superfluous meat on the bones. It rolls along, much focus on the depth of the characters – their back stories – but always leaving something hidden from the reader, who is left to piece together the girls’ individual realities from what is offered in the text. It’s not until the high melodrama of the denouement that the gentle progress of the plot is splintered – as with Carmel’s anorexia, the magnitude of the sickness unfolding before the reader’s eyes isn’t fully realised until it’s too late, and things have spiralled out of control.

Mantel’s writing is vivid and her prose has a weight all of its own, not dramatically unique but beautifully pitched. Her descriptions are fantastic, her metaphors and similes sharp and meticulous. One has the sense of an author comfortable in her style, and able to write with a freedom that sets her apart from other, more formulaic writers. She faces the truth of human nature with resolute affection, and draws characters rooted in firm reality. This lack of sentimentality creates some fascinating characters, perhaps none more so than Karina. There is certainly more than a touch of the Uncanny about Karina, and the book in general. So much is left to the reader’s imagination; so much lurks in the recesses of the mind, for both Carmel and the reader.

The title is perhaps a play on Stephen Crane’s male-narrated short story, An Experiment in Misery. Here love replaces misery, but this is somehow an irony. Love in this book is a tricky subject: there are many forms dealt with, but few are shown to be pure and positive. In a genre dominated by the male, this is an unusual and feminised bildungsroman of great sensitivity, but also firmness. Mantel’s wonderful writing, and the strangely disquieting world she creates, makes this a surprisingly resonant read.

This took a little while to settle with me. The quality of the writing was evident throughout, but the actual resonance of the story took a while to hit. Very clever on Mantel's part.

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