Playacting History

ImageReading Wolf Hall, the first volume of Hilary Mantel’s fictional trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, I found myself wishing that Peter Jackson had become interested in sixteenth-century England rather than the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Because, despite all my initial misgivings about historical fiction, anything that occurred before the nineteenth century, and the English monarchy, I am now certain that I would much rather watch three 3-hour movies about Thomas Cromwell than about Bilbo Baggins.

Particularly because of the potentially stultifying subject matter – I know there are people who think that both history and monarchy are interesting, but they are not me – it is entirely to Mantel’s credit that this book is any good at all.  Luckily, Mantel shows her skill early; I knew the book was worth reading by page 15, the end of the first section, when Mantel describes Cromwell’s first view of the open sea: “a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.”  The book is full of details and descriptions like this, and they lend humanity and color to what is otherwise a humdrum tale of political maneuvering and religious schism.  It seems likely that Mantel could even make the current sorry workings of the U.S. government interesting, which is saying something.


Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein, who also makes an appearance in the novel. Check out that codpiece!

I have no idea how faithful Mantel is to Cromwell’s life, and so much of the novel is internal that much of it must be invented, but it is his uniquely sympathetic character that makes the events of the book come to life.  The plot of this first part of the trilogy focuses on the creation of the Church of England and its roots in Henry’s somewhat banal desire both for a legitimate male heir and to get into the pants of the virginal and mysteriously attractive Anne Boleyn.  At the same time, the novel charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell from his low breeding as a blacksmith’s son (the book opens with a terrific scene of his drunk father beating the crap out of him at age 15) to being, first, the confidant and fixer of Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, and, by the end of the novel, Chancellor of the Exchequer and councilor to the king.  These developments parallel each other, as Cromwell survives the ouster of his first master, the cardinal, over matters relating to the king’s divorce only to become indispensible to the king’s fortunes, both literal and figurative.

Cromwell, who belongs both to the humble, proletarian world he comes from and to the aristocratic, noble world he has risen into, has a vision greater than either, and in his machinations in the king’s interest we see that he serves, more than anything, his own vision of England, a progressive vision that we might recognize.  The Europe of this period is poised on the brink of modernity: the printing press has been invented, ideas are beginning to circulate, people are learning to read, and both monarchy and church are challenged by the new developments.  Cromwell, it becomes clear, is the symbol of modernization.  Literate and self-taught, experienced in commerce and knowledgeable of the various languages and cultures of Europe, he is, quite literally, a Renaissance man.  Ridiculed by Stephen Gardiner, the king’s Master Secretary, for wishing to swear the English populace to an oath of loyalty to Henry and his royal line through Anne Boleyn, he responds: “Look at any part of this kingdom, my lord bishop, and you will find dereliction, destitution.  There are men and women on the roads.  The sheep farmers are grown so great that the little man is knocked off his acres and the plowboy is out of house and home.  In a generation these people can learn to read.  The plowman can take up a book.  Believe me, Gardiner, England can be otherwise.”


Cromwell as rendered by Holbein, in a portrait whose creation is also chronicled in the novel.

And though Cromwell serves the needs of the king – to secure his lineage, to legitimate his queen and his rule, to establish his control over the church in England – we see that it is this vision, of an England otherwise, to which he ultimately dedicates himself.  The idea of dual purposes, of appearing to be or do one thing while simultaneously, and secretly, working at an entirely different, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, goal, is the overarching theme of the book.  Repeated references to the theater, to acting, to plays remind us that half the work of governance is appearance, and that there is always something being concealed.  One reason for Cromwell’s success is his ability to conceal his hand, to control his reactions and emotions.  He reminds himself of Erasmus’ advice to “put on a mask, as it were” each morning as he leaves his house.  “He applies that to each place, each castle or inn or nobleman’s seat, where he find himself waking up.”  Part of the intrigue of the novel is that only we, the readers, know what Cromwell really thinks.

That is the glorious delusion of the historical novel, the idea that you can know or understand  people long dead whose thoughts and feelings are lost to history.  Like the machinations of government or the process of wooing a lover, the historical novel itself is a kind of play in which the roles have already been written but the lines must be improvised.  Wolf Hall, like Cromwell, understands that its success lies in the quality of that improvisation.

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