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Wolf Hall: history and her story


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The current television adaptation of Wolf Hall, it is generally agreed, is somewhat dull, though lavishly produced and with that attention to detail, laudable though necessarily fallible, which characterises modern period dramas. Its appearance offers an opportunity to reflect anew on the unaccountable success of the original book.

Wolf Hall was meant to be a novel about Thomas Cromwell, but something went wrong. Wolf Hall itself, the country seat of Jane Seymour’s family, is only mentioned right at the end. Somewhere along the way the book was hijacked by its pantomime villain, Thomas More. Cast by the author in this unaccustomed role, he nevertheless manages to steal the show, as she ruefully admits through the voice of her hero, Thomas Cromwell (the traditional choice for villain in previous productions), who resentfully observes at one point that everyone seems to be acting out a play in which More ‘has written all the parts’. We should not be too surprised: as the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt noted, More was adept at on-stage improvisation. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is defined in contrast to More, his common sense and decency set against a charge-sheet of fanaticism, superstition, cruelty, malice, and hate. The More of Wolf Hall is also defined in contrast to More, or at least to More as usually understood, for he is heavy-handedly stripped of all the sympathetic qualities credited to him by those who knew him and by the consensus of historians and biographers. Yet somehow, devoid of any redeeming features, he still overshadows the novel. It is his story that gives the drama whatever unity it has. His execution is its last act.

Things have changed. In his classic play A Man for All Seasons (1960), Robert Bolt gave us Thomas More as a liberal hero for the Cold War, a lone voice speaking the truth and standing up for the rights of the individual against the totalitarian demands of the State. Bolt’s play was a brilliant dramatisation of the liberal More painstakingly constructed by R. W. Chambers in his 1935 biography. It was not ‘the truth’ about More, but it was a persuasive transposition of the heroic Catholicism of the sixteenth century into the heroic liberalism of the twentieth. It told some of ‘the truth’ about More: he was in the end a hero, meeting death with fortitude and even a measure of humour. As he knelt down he stroked his long grey beard forward and laid it carefully over the block so as to avoid the blade, telling the executioner that he didn’t need it trimmed. Edward Hall, the chronicler of Henry VIII’s reign who put a po-faced paragraph into the mouth of Cromwell on the scaffold, was frankly baffled by the ironic cast of mind which enabled More to meet death with a wry smile.

The great Tudor historian Geoffrey Elton, determined as he was to exalt Cromwell as the defining genius of Henry VIII’s England, chose to make diminishing More an integral part of his enterprise, partly in reaction to Bolt’s iconic portrayal. Elton’s iconoclasm was taken further in the 1984 biography by Richard Marius, who advanced a sub-Freudian vision of More as a ‘failed priest’ haunted by a savagely repressed but slightly perverse sexuality. John Guy, who has written three of the most important books ever written on Thomas More, has comprehensively dismantled the Elton-Marius construct in his incomparable forensic work on the sources for More’s life. But it is the More of Elton and Marius who has become the villain of Wolf Hall, just as Bolt’s hero was drawn ultimately from the pages of Chambers.

Truth, in so far as the historian can get near it, resides not so much in the details as in the proportions. Accuracy is a more attainable scholarly target, and Wolf Hall does reasonably well in this regard, though the mixture of fact, fiction, and credulous reportage will inevitably mislead the unwary or inexpert reader. The deeper problem is that the portrayals of Cromwell and More are wholly out of proportion – a problem manifest in the way that More hijacks the story. The quiet but relentless ferocity of the demonisation of More betrays not Cromwell’s vision of him but the author’s. The transmigration of a twenty-first century Islington soul into the sixteenth-century Putney body of Cromwell is an equally striking piece of authorial alchemy. Hagiography has notorious flaws as a genre. But to be made, as More was, the subject of prompt and plentiful hagiography is historical evidence in its own right. It hints at a certain character, a certain charisma. Thomas More had biographers to spare: his friend Erasmus, his relatives John Roper and William Rastell, and his later admirers Nicholas Harpsfield and Thomas Stapleton, were as busy as a bunch of Boswells in perpetuating his memory. Even Cardinal Wolsey found a biographer in his loyal personal aide, George Cavendish. The early biographers of Cromwell are notable only by their absence.

The ‘Cromwell’ of Wolf Hall, this witty and genial chap, this caring, sensitive and tolerant fellow, the best of sorts, a no-nonsense man, no standoffishness about him, not too obsessed with religion – where were his friends? Henry VIII did not need to issue any proclamations forbidding his subjects to describe Cromwell as a martyr. Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell lived at the same time, acted on the same political stage, and met the same fate at the hands of the same master. But they do not stand on the same level.

There were those who went along with Henry at the time who wished later that they had taken a stand with More in 1535. Nobody said anything like that about Cromwell. Who ever thought him a hero? He took no stand. His death was, tragically, rather pointless, serving only as an object lesson, the emblem of a royal vindictiveness pursued with a zeal worthy of some high principle, a vindictiveness which Cromwell’s servile instrumentalism had honed to an edge that would take off his own head. Poor Cromwell’s end was not like More’s. No one reported his merry jests on the way to the scaffold, nor even thought to put any in his mouth.

The poet Charles Péguy once said that ‘the fight is against the intellectuals, against those who despise heroes and saints alike’. The intellectuals he fought have, to a large extent, triumphed. The Thomas More and the Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall are adequate reflections of that. Hers is indeed a story for our age. But it is not history.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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