At the opening and closing the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall I was asked to share my thoughts on Thomas Cromwell with presenter Simon Bates on BBC Radio Devon’s ‘Good Morning Devon’ Breakfast Show. Hilary Mantel’s novels have challenged the conventional casting of the familiar Reformation drama making Chancellor More the grim-faced obstacle in the path of our new hero, ‘Mr Secretary Crumwell’.
The Wolf Hall phenomenon, of course, owes much to the general appeal of the Tudors and a fair number of the 3 million viewers that switched on to the TV adaptation were drawn purely by the promise of witnessing once more the marital melodrama of Bluff King Hal. Yet the summons to Wolf Hall has resounded far further than any other of the recent retellings of Henry’s serial monogamy. For those that profess to select their reading from the Man Booker shortlist, Philippa Gregory is generally a guilty pleasure to be left on the holiday cottage’s communal bookshelf. But Mantel’s books have returned historical fiction to the Paperwhites™ and Book Groups of these Readers of Literary Novels and to the Public Critics – the Frostrups and the Naughties – who guide them. Part of it, of course, is her painstaking authenticity. As an early reviewer trilled, you can almost scent the damp wool of Cromwell’s cloak as he steals across the outer court of old Austin Friars, and the Readers of Literary Novels need to know that their fare has been lovingly prepared through long hours in the BL reading room. But the root of Mantel’s success, I suspect, lies not in her careful recreation of an old reality but in her subtle fashioning of a new one; for what might at first appear to be simply another strain of the timeless chant, ‘divorced-beheaded-died’ – which the self-conscious literati would spurn – in fact recasts the story to fit the historical imagination de nos jours. Mantel’s Tudor England is no stock-image of that generic ‘past’ which we want served up in colour and drama but not in detail. No, these Tudors have been photo-shopped to suit our new historical aesthetic; above all, to satisfy our ultra-relativism.
So it follows that neither one nor t’other Boleyn girl is now our hero, still less Lord Chancellor More, a man whom Mantel seems on the brink of mocking for his Brownian ‘moral compass’. No, it is Thomas C. who must be the man for our seasons. Thomas of the troubled childhood, the victim of an abusive father for whom he harbours hope of formal justice into middle age; Thomas of the exemplary work-life balance, as likely to be found working-from-home and even contemplating home-schooling his clever daughter than to play the monarch’s minion. The case for home-schooling, of course, is as clear as day to the auto-didact Thomas, the University-of-Life man whose internship with Wolsey propels him further and faster than the smug graduates which surround him. Thomas is a man of new science, not old books, a champion of the communications revolution coming with the printing press, now poring over the tablet-sized page-proof of Tyndale’s dangerously Smart Testament. Thomas learns quickly the truth of our preferred clichés about politics and public life, the greasiness of the pole, the venality of those that make the climb, and that money and sex that always drive them. These each serve to make Thomas a recognisable, sympathetic figure but what brings him wholly onside is that in his progress to Wolf Hall he exposes the always narrow, often wicked world view of the old establishment. This is the view represented not only by Wolsey – the figurehead of a hierarchical church securing privilege and sustaining inequality through fear and superstition – but also by the urbane More, whose Christian Humanism is equally if not more insidious since it cloaks a creed of cultural and social elitism in the promise of Utopia. Here, curiously, as well as a Thomas Cromwell-for-our-time, Mantel would seem to want to breathe new life into the oldest Tudor myth of all, of the Reformation as a definitive step towards the rational, liberal uplands of the modern world.
Now, you might well say that it hardly matters if through the doors of Wolf Hall we glimpse a grotesque distortion of the Henrician Reformation: these days surely it is something that only animates us academic historians, and every other reader and viewer will be well satisfied as long as Anne does lose her head at the appointed time, with the right sort of weft showing in her worsted cloak. Well, maybe so. You might also be inclined to argue that bringing Thomas and his world closer to our own can only be a good thing: empathy and relevance should not be dismissed, otherwise, before long you will be in danger of questioning the spectacle of ceramic poppies outside the Tower. But if we continue in this direction, isn’t there also a danger that we will narrow our historical imagination to the point of closure? If that happens, it won’t only be our understanding of something with apparently such low stakes as the Reformation that will be in peril. We must cultivate the curiosity – and at the same time, perhaps, suppress the instinctive self-obsession – to explore a world whose views on childhood, family, education, work, technology, and the power of ideas – were far removed from our own. In looking on the past it is high time we rediscovered the virtue of difference.