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.