Blog, Wolf Hall

“In Defence of Thomas More”: A Rebuttal

[A friend sent me a recent(ish) article from the Times Literary Supplement titled, “In defence of Thomas More.” My quick answer is: that guy doesn’t need a defense. But I put a little more work into it, and that’s what follows. It’s long, by the way, for those who like a warning.]

[Oh, and also, because every piece of writing has a bias: My friend is ::very:: Catholic and I…am not.]

What I have noticed in a lot of Catholic criticism of the Cromwell series is a mistake in reading. Catholic readers, and others (we’ll get to Anne Boleyn), assume that their favorite person is going to be presented favorably; or they may have an idea of what they think the “historical truth” is (there is no such thing as “historical truth” and I am glad to answer any questions about that), and assume that their assumption is going to make it into the pages of Wolf Hall. And that’s just not how novels work.

In the Cromwell trilogy, Mantel is writing everything from Cromwell’s point of view. We are never with characters when Cromwell isn’t present. We never get anyone else’s subjective ideas about the characters they are interacting with — though we do get what Cromwell thinks other people are thinking. This is one of the most important keys to understanding this novel: It is not a historical novel in the traditional sense. It isn’t a survey of many Tudor-era figures. It’s the psychology and motivations of one man, in the Tudor era, whom Mantel presents as a protagonist.

One thing we know of Cromwell (and “know” here is a word doing a lot of work — I could argue we don’t know anything about anyone; we just have our personal and public guesses on which we base our relationship to/with that other person) is that he was not a Catholic. And one thing we know about More is that he very much is. Or was. Spoiler alert. And since we’re listing things we know, we also know that the novel, as I mentioned above, is written from entirely within Cromwell’s head. Knowing that, it becomes clear why More is portrayed the way he is: it’s because that’s how Cromwell sees him.

And Cromwell’s relationship with More, in the novel, is more complicated than simply like/dislike. Cromwell has some respect for More: he admires More’s intelligence very much. Where Cromwell starts to part ways with More really appears to be less over religion — I think Cromwell, at least in the novel, is someone who is semi-ecumenical — but really over matters of personal philosophy. Cromwell’s motto is: stay alive as long as you can because you might win tomorrow (“I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can”* WH, Part 6, “Supremacy”); More’s personal philosophy is that sacrificing yourself for your beliefs is the ultimate expression of that faith. (“You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror, I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification.” WH, Part 6, “Supremacy.”)

[* See also, “And look, Gregory, it’s all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.” (WH, Part 6, “Supremacy”)]

By ignoring the complications in the relationship between Cromwell and More — that tense sense of mutual respect and mutual frustration — a reader misses out on what Mantel is doing. They’re not reading the novel she wrote; they’re complaining about a novel they wish she had written.

Of course, Catholic readers aren’t the only ones who may be misreading Mantel’s series. There are people who are rabidly pro Anne Boleyn and feel she is done a disservice in the novels. (She is not.) They want to see Anne’s humanitarian efforts, how she helped spur on the Reformation in England, and for an emphasis to be placed on how She Wasn’t Guilty. But again, that’s not how Cromwell would have seen Anne; and we’re only ever getting Cromwell’s point of view. Cromwell needs Anne to be guilty, whether she is or not.

But, again, Mantel presents us with a very complex and complicated relationship between Cromwell and Anne: he knows she holds Wolsey responsible for her past unhappinesses, as well as not succeeding in the King’s Great Matter. But they also have this alliance, and even a friendship of sorts; however, I think both know that the friendship is very situational. Readers are in danger of missing out on the pleasure of this relationship if they come to the book looking for Anne Boleyn as a hero. Mantel’s question is: Once you’re in the king’s orbit, how do you stay there and stay alive? And a misstep of Cromwell’s is to think that being in Henry’s inner circle is a place one should want to be; and then, when he starts to see the success rate of others who have been that close (which is…not great?), he finds himself needing to balance self-preservation with his responsibility. And that doesn’t go so well, either.

Mantel is very anti-Catholic, so I think people read her Cromwell as a mouthpiece for that. I don’t know how much of any author’s life we can say contributed to any one of their novels. I think it’s a mistake to use an author’s biography to assert clues to a novel. But even if Mantel gives Cromwell some of her own biases, or even all, I still don’t know that I’ve ever been convinced by a “Mantel got it wrong” argument, because she’s not writing a novel about the Tudor era, or even the beginnings of the Reformation. She’s writing a Cromwell novel, with Cromwell as our only entrée into the world.

In the Wolf Hall class, I asked everyone to imagine a time, 500 years in the future, and a writer — or whatever writers are in the 2500s — writes a novel — or whatever books are in the 26th century — about Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham. And this person writes a Wolf Hall-esque novel about him, from a sympathetic point of view, or at least from a point of view that seeks to understand how he understands his point of view. It would seem as impossible to us today as it would have seemed to the Tudor-era Catholics to know that a book with Cromwell as the protagonist was winning awards and enthusiastically received. And I am working on immortality so I can read that novel.

1 thought on ““In Defence of Thomas More”: A Rebuttal”

  1. This is very reasoned and sensible. I just decided NOT to finish Gore Vidal’s long “historical” novel on Darius and Xerxes from the point of view of an intimate of the latter’s, who did not exist in real life—so far as we know…. Let me say now that I have read a few of Vidal’s historical novels and have not much cared for them—although I have great respect for his political judgment (and believe he would not have been in the least surprised by Trump—not one damn bit)….Vidal evidently did some very careful research, and I am dead certain based his manner of writing on the mythological and historical novels of Robert Graves—but did not do as well at integrating all of that necessarily complex and conflicting data. And after a while I got bored—he was chasing too many philosophical ideas mixed in with his “history.” But then Graves was a different and in the last analysis greater writer, with less grandiose ambitions. (Vidal’s title is Creation, which gives you an idea…)

    But he wrote from inside his narrator’s head, in the way Graves wrote from inside the head of his re-creation of Princess Nausikaa in Homer’s Daughter, to come up with a wildly different narrative than the Odyssey. And Mary Renault wrote from inside the head of her Persian Boy, to write of Alexander, and of Theseus’ head to write the two novels in that splendid duo. Yes, this is the way such novels are (frequently) done.

    But Mantel’s novel is much more subtle and intricate simply in that we do have a great deal more—a helluva a lot MORE, in every sense of the word!! about the Tudor era than we do about Alexander or Homeric myth. So the task she set herself was that much more difficult. In that her re-creation MUST include what we do “know” or can surmise pretty surely from the available data. More praise to her then in achieving what she did.

    You should suggest to the cavillers that they go and see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the wildly funny but fascinating take on Hamlet in the silent film starring the great Danish actress Asta Nielsen—or more to the point, read Josephine Tey’s marvelous The Daughter of Time—which has some things to say about “the sainted More.”

    And I believe it is Orwell who said—but it could have been Shaw—or both—that EVERY saint needs to be examined very carefully, or perhaps should be considered guilty until proven innocent. Reading Hitchens on Mother Teresa is—interesting—as well as a book I came across by one of her former acolytes…

    Hang in bro’—and sockittooum!


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