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
Byline: Melanie McDonagh
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. And that's scary. Because 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. Granted, 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. …