...if I hurry I will lose the thread; or the narrative will be like knitting done in a bad temper. The tension goes wrong; you come back later, measure your work and find that it hasn't grown as you'd imagined. Then you must unravel it, row by row, resenting each slick twist and pull that undoes, so easily, what you laboured over; and when you work again you must do it with the used wool, every kink in it reminding you of your failure.
Our autobiographies are similar, I think; I mean the unwritten volumes, the stories for an audience of one. This account we give to ourselves of our life -- the shape changes moment by moment. We pick up the thread and we use it once, then we use it again, in a more complex form, in a more useful garment, one that conforms more to fashion and our current shape. (p.50)
Carmel grows up working-class Catholic in a Lancashire mill town; from the age of four her life's entwined with that of Karina, unlovely daughter of immigrants, who has the gift of finding the dross in everything. By the time they both end up at the same Hall of Residence in London, Carmel can't bear the thought of sharing a room with Karina; instead, she elects to share with sophisticated middle-class atheist Julianne, a classmate from the convent school that all three girls attended. It's the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties, and London is their oyster. This is a freedom that Carmel never dreamt of.
An Experiment in Love is a layered novel. There's a layer that's about girls from different backgrounds being brought together in the hothouse of a single-sex Hall of Residence, Tonbridge Hall. Another layer is about control of the body; haircuts, anorexia, the Pill, pregnancy, abortion. Another layer is about Carmel's relationship with her mother. (This layer resonated strongly with me; the angry mother, the letters sent in haste and, perhaps, repented at leisure.) Yet another layer is about class and education: the opportunities open to an academically-minded working-class girl in that era. There's a layer about learning to be an adult -- if not from one's parents, then from books and from one's peers. And perhaps the novel's most important layer is about love -- not the humdrum mundanity of Carmel's relationship with her teenage sweetheart Niall, but the relationships between the girls.
Carmel is at pains to distinguish between love and sex: ...women carry this faculty into later life; the faculty for love, I mean. Men will never understand it till they stop confusing love with sex, which will be never.Even today there are ten or twenty women I love ... I would no more go to bed with any of them than I would drown myself. (p.56) She loves several of her friends in Tonbridge Hall. What she feels for Karina is altogether more complex. And what those friends feel for Carmel is entirely opaque -- to her, if not to us.
An Experiment in Love knows it's a novel ("like girls in novels that predate this one", p.138) which sits uneasily with the way it's presented as autobiography sparked by a photograph in the newspaper.
I can't help wondering if this is the Mantel novel that seemed, to a friend, a disturbingly similar rewrite of another author's book; and I wonder if that other book was Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means, which is referenced on page 18 ("we haven't the class for Girls of Slender Means," says Carmel to Julianne.) I want to read that other book now, and explore the similarities for myself.