A Man for All Seasons Brought Low by Fiction ; by Traducing Sir Thomas More, Hilary Mantel's Novel Wolf Hall, Frontrunner for the Man Booker Prize, Does History a Disservice [Edition 2]

By McDonagh, Melanie | The Evening Standard (London, England), September 17, 2009 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Man for All Seasons Brought Low by Fiction ; by Traducing Sir Thomas More, Hilary Mantel's Novel Wolf Hall, Frontrunner for the Man Booker Prize, Does History a Disservice [Edition 2]


McDonagh, Melanie, The Evening Standard (London, England)


YOU can see why the critics have fallen for it. There's no tedious archaic diction. There's all the human interest of David Starkey's take on Henry the eighth without the strict limitations of historical fact. There's absolute self-assurance in the narrative, especially because it rehearses so much really good tittle-tattle from the period and, heavens, there was any amount of it around. Hilary mantel's Tudor novel, Wolf Hall is a kind of onevolume compensation for all the times the man Booker prizewinner has been bought and not read.

And that's the trouble. Because it's so readable, so convincing, it risks being taken as a true version of events in one of the very few periods before the last century in which we take an interest. One of the things it does is to reverse the standing of two Thomases: cromwell and more. The novel does a grave disservice to more who was, whatever else you say about him, one of the great men of the renaissance.

in Wolf Hall, you don't get the author of Utopia, erasmus's favourite companion (these things are mentioned but with a sneer). You don't get the humanist and the humorist. What you get is a heretichunter, whose wit is turned to dry sarcasm and whose world view is simple religious fanaticism. This is robert Bolt's A man for All Seasons turned on its head. Bolt's play wasn't historical verity either but it was, in depicting Thomas more as the martyr of conscience, truthful.

All right, historical fiction is just that: fiction. But nowadays, we know so little history, the Wolf Hall version may well pass for reality, especially when it's true to some extent (the sympathetic portrait of cardinal Wolsey is perfectly credible). certainly its prejudices are congenial to the liberal- individualistic mindset that dominates our intellectual life. We may read the novel, or at least the reviews; and that's what's going to stick. (most novels are given to literary critics to review, not historians, with the honourable exception of this paper where the historian John Guy reviewed Wolf Hall, with a bracing eye on reality.) For the simple-minded dinner-party liberal, the Thomas cromwell that Hilary mantel depicts is infinitely attractive: secular-minded, tolerant, contemptuous of superstition, sneery about religious credulity, a meritocrat of humble origins, fond of children and animals, multilingual, handy in a fight. indeed, if the prevailing mindset in Britain right now is a kind of secular Protestantism then Thomas cromwell as drawn by Hilary mantel is its man.

Trouble is, there is a reason why cromwell has had a longstanding reputation as a complete bastard. The tally of the executions over which he presided -- including those for heresy -- far surpassed more's. And unlike more, he was unlikely to have been swayed by the notion that what he was doing was for the good of souls.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Man for All Seasons Brought Low by Fiction ; by Traducing Sir Thomas More, Hilary Mantel's Novel Wolf Hall, Frontrunner for the Man Booker Prize, Does History a Disservice [Edition 2]
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?