Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A failure of historical imagination

I've been enjoying Wolf Hall on PBS. It should not, however, be mistaken for history. Some writers of historical fiction go to considerable lengths to ensure that the known facts are not messed with. Hillary Mantel, on whose books the series is based, doesn't appear to have been particularly scrupulous in that respect. George Weigel:
.... Hillary Mantel is a very talented, very bitter ex-Catholic who’s said that the Church today is “not an institution for respectable people”.... As she freely concedes, Mantel’s aim in her novel was to take down the Thomas More of A Man for All Seasons—the Thomas More the Catholic Church canonized—and her instrument for doing so is More’s rival in the court of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell.

Hillary Mantel does not lack for chutzpah, for Cromwell has long been considered a loathsome character and More a man of singular nobility. In the novel Wolf Hall, however, the More of Robert Bolt’s play is transformed into a heresy-hunting, scrupulous prig, while Cromwell is the sensible, pragmatic man of affairs who gets things done, even if a few heads get cracked (or detached) in the process. All of which is rubbish, as historians with no Catholic interests at stake have made clear. Thus the president of the U.K.’s National Secular Society, historian David Starkey, finds “not a scrap of evidence” for Mantel’s retelling of the More-Cromwell tale; Mantel’s plot, he claimed, was “total fiction.” And as Gregory Wolfe pointed out in a fine essay on Wolf Hall in the Washington Post, historian Simon Schama has written that the documentary evidence he examined “shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.” .... [more]
All historical fiction involves anachronism, of course, and depictions of the Tudors often reveal more about contemporary issues than they do about the past. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons portrayed Thomas More as a liberal dissenter from state ideology, a man committed to individual conscience and the rule of law. (In the 1960s, liberals identified with such people.) ....

Wolf Hall—which, incidentally, has great production values and wonderful performances, especially by Damian Lewis as Henry VIII—inverts the conventional portrayal of the Henrician Reformation. Most past film and television versions, even those sympathetic to Henry, show More as a kind of hero, a noble, if misguided, martyr for freedom of conscience. In Mantel’s version, by contrast, it’s Cromwell, the supporter of state orthodoxy and More’s tormentor, who is the hero. And More, the man who resisted the state from religious conviction, is the unalloyed villain.

Now, More was a more complicated figure than widely understood. Even saints have failings. He may have been, as Swift famously wrote, “a person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced,” but, as chancellor, he persecuted Protestants and approved burning heretics at the stake. Mantel’s portrayal goes beyond offering a helpful corrective to the conventional wisdom, though. Her More is not deeper or truer to the historical record. He is simply evil, a nasty piece of work—cold, fanatical, and sadistic.

Mantel’s Cromwell, by contrast, is warm, self-effacing, and pragmatic, even wistful—a family man, though with a ruthless edge. Between him and More, Cromwell is easily the more reasonable. Religious enthusiasm is not for him; he is far too insightful and levelheaded. He is also more compassionate. .... [more]
What George Weigel...calls “upmarket anti-Catholicism” is, in my view, simply a failure of historical imagination. Hilary Mantel could only present an admirable Thomas Cromwell by assuming, or pretending, that he’s a lot like people in her social circle: tolerant, skeptical, indulgently affectionate towards children, fond of animals, shy of violence — a typical 21st-century educated Londoner who was inexplicably born half a millennium too early. Having created Cromwell in her own image, Mantel then makes him the proxy for her own inability to make sense of someone like Thomas More.

It doesn't have to be this way. I seriously doubt that Peter Ackroyd’s beliefs are any closer to Thomas More’s than Hilary Mantel’s are, but that didn't stop him from pursuing a deep and sensitive understanding of the man in his brilliant biography. Mantel simply shirked the hard labor of trying to understand people from the distant past, and because her readers, by and large, and the people who made Wolf Hall into a television series, aren't interested in that labor either, we get the cardboard caricature of More that Weigel and Movsesian rightly protest. [more]
I will continue to enjoy this well-done television drama keeping in mind that it isn't history. A restored, Blu-ray, DVD of A Man for All Seasons (1966) will become available later this year and as soon as it is possible I will buy one. It is one of my favorite films. It isn't history either.