An Experiment in Love is Carmel’s story of her childhood somewhere near Manchester. She is educated at Catholic schools, earns a scholarship as a passport out of her working class background, and fetches up at university in London. Here she makes new friends from different classes and parts of the country, but fails to sever her ties with her school friends, who have joined her at the same hall of residence.
Carmel reflects back on her life, prompted by a newspaper article about a friend and former co-student, but it is only when we approach the novel’s end that we realise how her story, and her friend’s profession, are linked, and can understand what has prompted Carmel’s reminiscences.
This is a coming of age biographical novel, told against a background of the 1960s and early 1970s, of girls leaving home for the first time and trying to live independently in London. We are vaguely aware of the wave of feminism that underpins the era, although these girls are having to work it out for themselves. As someone who was born in the same year as Hilary Mantel, I was also touched by the memories that are so relevant to the 1960s, especially the ritual of buying the first school uniform, and encountering school teachers who are quick to lash out with a ruler.
T S Eliot famously stated that his past was part of his present, and this is acutely true of Carmel and her tale. She may have risen above her working class background, but she can never leave her former self behind.