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Wolf Hall: When ingenious fiction meets public ignorance

From hero to anti-hero

Just in time for the publication of The Mirror and the Light, the third and final volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell later this year, my old friend Richard Rex, a history professor at Cambridge, has delivered a lecture in Dublin on the first volume, Wolf Hall. It should be required reading for anyone thinking of reviewing the latest book.

Like Henry VIII, I do like a skilful hatchet job, and Rex offers a thoroughgoing demolition of Ms Mantel’s claim to veracity in her treatment of Thomas More. As he observes, More takes over the story, and in order to make Cromwell a hero, More must be made a villain. Or to paraphrase John the Baptist, More must decrease, so that Cromwell can increase.

If you’ve read Wolf Hall – and it was an astonishing, deserved success on publication in 2009 – you’d have been startled at the way Mantel’s depictions of both characters reversed all the received truths. Out went Thomas Cromwell, the calculating, ruthless, avaricious destroyer of Catholic England; in came Cromwell the Renaissance man, linguist, humanist, devoted family man, proto-liberal, equally at home with soldiers and with scholars. Out went Thomas More, the humanist, friend of Erasmus, enlightened father, wit, humorist and martyr for conscience: in came More, a bloodless, solemn, ruthless antagonist of the Church’s enemies.

We are, of course, talking about a work of fiction, though one apparently based on five years’ research. And the thing about Wolf Hall (and its successor, Bring Up the Bodies) is that it was a remarkably convincing attempt to make the Tudor world seem as intelligible to us as our own, its language as familiar as ours, its characters as real as ours. It was a feat: a depiction of a 16th-century man which made him seem like one of us, not removed in time and sensibility. It was an extraordinarily skilful remaking of Cromwell, one of the least attractive individuals in English history, with traits calculated to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. For instance, he turns out to be revolted by hunting… Who’d have thought it? The trouble is that Mantel’s fictional creation of Cromwell as a proto-liberal risks becoming the modern take on the man.

Rex has a good deal of fun pointing out the peculiarities of this reworking of Cromwell, and the corresponding falsities in the demolition of More. Cromwell was, for instance, responsible for turning a statutory instrument, the Act of Attainder, into a means of convicting men of treason without due process. But here More is made to accept that he would have used it too.

More was remarkable for the egalitarian education he gave his daughter Margaret. But he gets no credit for it here. There is no hint of the friend of Erasmus, the author of Utopia, the noted wit. Instead we get a man who does not balk at torture or deception – precisely the sins of which Cromwell was in fact guilty.

It’s unfair to blame a novelist for creating a convincing hero – that’s her job. But ours is not an age with much historical knowledge, certainly not enough to distinguish between fact and fiction. We are much less well taught in the basics of history than people were even a couple of generations ago. I recently read Josephine Tey’s brilliant novel A Daughter of Time, published in 1951, about a policeman who takes on the case of Richard III, exonerating him for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower, and blaming instead Henry VII, the first Tudor. But the really interesting thing was that even the nurses in the hospital he was in had views about Richard’s guilt. Can you imagine that now?

And in this vacuum of knowledge of the actual history, we have Hilary Mantel’s partisan take. The inevitable happened: readers embraced fiction as fact, and the idea of More as anti-hero is now taken as read. It’s a revisionism that chimes with contemporary prejudice.

Mantel has been disarmingly frank about her distaste for Catholicism, the religion in which she was raised, and Thomas More embodied the Church. As Rex says, “Cromwell was a destroyer – of institutions, of traditions, of people. He set about destroying Catholicism, which he saw quite rightly – and far more clearly than poor, confused Henry – as the opposite of Henry’s supremacy. And it is this about him that appeals to our age, which also sees Catholicism, quite rightly, as inimical to its tastes and values.”

It is this sentiment – animus towards Catholicism – which unites author and subject. Rex is right about that. Wolf Hall is still a cracking novel, and the final book will probably merit a third Booker prize for its author.

Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard. Richard Rex’s talk is available at https://ionainstitute.ie/thomas-more-thomas-cromwell-and-wolf-hall/