reviewed by Kiernan Schroeder
Nearly every Tudor royal, statesman, and courtier has starred in a book or film in recent years: Queen Elizabeth I, Thomas More, King Henry VIII and his many wives—even Mary Boleyn, forgotten sister of the more famous Anne. Perhaps the most unlikely person to join this cast of reincarnated characters is Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's right-hand man and the statesman who finally engineered Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon. In the Hans Holbein portrait, Cromwell is a short, chubby man, tightly gripping a piece of paper and staring with a frown out the window. He doesn't look like the sort of man you'd want to keep company with. He seems ruthless, calculating, Machiavellian—not at all an ideal hero for a novel.
But in Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and now out in paperback, Cromwell takes center stage, and here he plays the "enlightened" statesman: a gentle father, a just and forgiving patron, and a defender of the common man—in short, the ideal modern man. In reality, historians know little of Cromwell's family life, and although Cromwell was renowned as a lawyer and patron, Mantel's interpretation of the facts—in particular, the altruistic motives she attributes to Cromwell—is her own.
His magnanimous attributes stand out in relief because of their contrast to his nemesis in the novel: Thomas More. The book has become a subject of controversy for its portrayal of this Catholic saint, and rightly so—the More of Wolf Hall is nearly unrecognizable to readers of More's own writings and biography. In one scene, More and his daughter Meg berate his wife Alice in Latin in front of visitors, and More later comments that he only married to have someone "to keep house." He is merciless as a magistrate, instigating the torture of Protestants, hunting down even old men and chaining them in damp prisons, and he listens unmoved to the Dissidents as they scream on the rack. His personal piety is equally cruel—he mutilates himself with flogging and fasting, and wears a hair shirt at all times.
But it is not the differences between More and Cromwell as fathers, magistrates, or religious men that polarize them most in the novel; it is their different views of the political realm. In Mantel's re-creation, Cromwell is the champion of the common people, of the here-and-now, of modernity, and of justice. More, in contrast, seeks to impose some sort of theocracy upon the people of London. He seems incapable of compromise, of the small deceits that smooth the wheels of the political machine, because he is too much of a dogmatist, with a mind "fixed on the next world" and therefore unable to see any real prospect "of improving this one."
A Sumptuously Realized Fiction
Other details of Mantel's portrait of More—particularly her accusation that More was active, or even the leader, in torturing Lutheran dissidents—are debatable. But this dichotomy between Cromwell as a servant of the people and More as a religious tyrant simply doesn't match the historical record. To portray More as a man who desires only to impose his religious creed and strict morals upon others, and who does not truly seek to make life better for the citizenry, particularly the poor, is not only inaccurate—it's an unjust slur on a man who turned from a clerical career because he felt called to serve others in public life. The historical record demonstrates his steady commitment to improvement and justice in the political realm, a dedication that Mantel's portrayal denies him.
In other respects, however, Mantel offers up a riveting and often accurate portrait of the Tudor period. She devotes the majority of scenes to encounters between Cromwell and other figures of the day, all of whom she brings vividly to life on the page. Anne Boleyn is particularly memorable, as are Jane Seymour and Mary Boleyn (here in a very different, and less flattering, reincarnation than that found in the recent film). The novel's greatest weakness is its narrative arc, which never seems to reach a climax. More's death is something of a final victory, but it rings hollow, and the novel ends abruptly without tying together the threads of the story.
Still, Wolf Hall is worth reading for Mantel's uncanny ability to reveal character in the little things, and for her stellar dialogue. The book immerses the reader in a rich world of its own, and every detail is precise and unique. Be forewarned, however. As with most historical fiction, even when it is well-researched and brilliantly written, one will discover in it more about the author than about the true history of the characters. Mantel's world, however sumptuously realized, remains a fiction. To meet the real More or Cromwell, you must search the historical record and let them speak for themselves. •
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“Tudor Makeover” first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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