Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Running with the wolves

Please forgive a little re-cycling.  The following is a slightly-modified Amazon review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  The New York Times Book Review just this last Sunday featured the title story from her newly-published anthology, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher."  Both Wolf Hall and its first sequel, Bring up the Bodies, took Britain's Man Booker Prize, a remarkable achievement, and many are waiting with anticipation for the promised third and final installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  My review of the first:    

One difficulty with reviewing a historical novel is determining the importance of historical accuracy. The very name "historical fiction" assumes a certain license with the facts, and its appeal often lies precisely in the freedom of a novelist to propose a fresh take on a story we already know. But there are limits, and it's not easy to say when revisionist history impermissibly blurs into "Springtime for Hitler."

Thomas Cromwell is one of the great stock villains of English history. Some few years ago I read G.R. Elton's England under the Tudors, in which Cromwell was famously re-evaluated as the genius of the Tudor revolution, an unsung visionary of the modern practice of reform by parliamentary legislation. Elton's limited rehabilitation didn't, however, go so far as to elevate Cromwell's character.

One has to give Hilary Mantel credit for taking on such a task. Wolf Hall opens with Cromwell being beaten senseless by his father, a somewhat manipulative way of initially engaging our sympathies. Mantel's Cromwell is not only capable and resourceful; he is a loving husband and father, a loyal retainer to his beloved Wolsey, and a semi-secret adherent to the new religion of simple goodness for simple people through the translation of the scriptures into English. The problem with this characterization, of course, is squaring it with what the historical Cromwell actually did: enabling the absolutism of the English crown (and the political, dynastic, and sexual desires of Henry), and the destruction of all who stood in its way. The result is a Cromwell who is sometimes a modern secular liberal, sometimes a Machiavellian, sometimes a proto-Protestant. This succession of personalities gives the novel a certain variety, but at the expense of consistent characterization. Like Stendhal's Julien Sorrell, Cromwell has memorized the Latin New Testament; also like Sorrell, it seems to have had no effect on him. There is no apparent progress or corruption; the Cromwell who takes in hapless children at the beginning is the same Cromwell who destroys Thomas More, John Fisher and the Carthusians at the end.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised by my registering some protest at the characterization of More. Yes, of course, this is fiction, and there is plenty to criticize in More's conduct as chancellor. But Mantel has taken the leading light of English Renaissance humanism and cast him as a sadistic, arrogant bigot. Anyone familiar with More's own writing, or the writing of those who knew him, or even the most critical of his modern biographers, will not recognize the nasty character that Cromwell finally sends to the block. And, given the announcement of film deals, it's hard not to suspect that Mantel will be shaping the popular public image of More for the foreseeable future.

Mantel's writing style is vigorous, and her characterizations have force and life. The overriding atmosphere, though, is one of claustrophobia--both physical and moral. There is a recurring theme of incest: Henry and Arthur with Catherine, Henry with Ann and her sister (and perhaps their mother), Cromwell with his wife's sister, Ann with her brother, and anybody and everybody in the Seymour clan at Wolf Hall. These inbred loves, and the squalid, violent conclusion, made it, for me, a relief to reach the end, and I doubt I'll be returning for the sequels.

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