Saturday, November 07, 2009

Future History, Repeated

In my post about The Children's Book, I suggested that historical fiction might be broadly defined as fiction that takes place in a time and setting not directly experienced by its author.  Within that definition one can distinguish between different kind of historical novels according to how close they come to recorded history, to the people and events in the history books.  A historical novel can center entirely or for the most part around fictional people living ordinary (for their time) lives in the past (The Little Stranger, Sacred Hunger, Possession).  Or it can describe fictional people being caught up in momentous events (Octavian Nothing, Year of Wonders, The Children's Book).  Or it can place fictional characters at the epicenter of the great changes of their time, sometimes rubbing shoulders with historical figures, sometimes taking their place (Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, The Baroque Cycle).  Or it can dispense with fictional characters and plots altogether, and simply fictionalize the recorded events of the past.

Hilary Mantel's ecstatically-received, Booker-winning Wolf Hall is of the latter type.  It follows the rising fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, counselor to Henry VIII and one of the chief architects of the English Reformation, from the downfall of his patron Cardinal Wolsey to that of his enemy Sir Thomas More.  It's the kind of historical novel I tend to view with distrust, which tries to make stories out of recorded events and characters out of real people.  I've written before about my unease with works that try to fictionalize reality.  A person's life, be it ever so important and full of event, is not a story, with structure, themes, and most importantly, a point, and to reduce it to one is to diminish it, and that person, in some ineffable but very real way.  And whereas works like The Other Boleyn Girl or the television series The Tudors reshape the events of history into a genre that wears its unreality on its sleeve--respectively, a romantic melodrama and a trash soap opera--and thus defuse that inevitable diminishing, Wolf Hall is told with a straight face, as a naturalistic novel that purports not only to describe events as they were but to describe Cromwell as he was.  It thus borrows significance from history even as it embroiders it and twists it into a shape that suits Mantel's purposes.

It's a difficulty that Mantel herself seems aware of.  Some way into the novel, Cromwell travels to France with Henry's entourage, and has an audience with the French king, Francis I.  As the two discuss their hopes for more friendly relations between their countries, Francis breezily observes "Who now remembers Agincourt?"
[Cromwell] almost laughs.  'It is true,' he says.  'A generation or two, or three... four... and these things are nothing.'
It's a startling exchange, and it takes a few moments to realize just why it's startling--because the event that will make Agincourt immortal won't happen for nearly 70 years, when a playwright trying to curry favor with a queen not yet born will write a piece of hagiography about her ancestor, and tie Agincourt to a piece of writing so sublime that it will come to epitomize valor, leadership, and courage on the field of battle.  To put it another way, very few of us remember Agincourt as it was, or the significance that Cromwell and Francis I attach to it, but very many of us remember the spin Shakespeare put on it in a piece of historical fiction.  The story, so long as it's sufficiently well told, is much more powerful than the fact, something that Cromwell is very much aware of, seeing as much of his service to Henry involves passing laws and proclamations that change the nature of reality and rewrite the past, turning a legal wife into a mistress, a legitimate daughter into a bastard, a pope into a bishop and a king into the head of the church.  "It's the living that turn and chase the dead," Cromwell thinks at the end of the novel.  "The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives."

There has, of course, been much rewriting of the lives of the movers and shakers of the English Reformation, and as much as it is (an attempt at) a straight retelling of that history, Wolf Hall is response to these retellings.  The general consensus they--and most particularly Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, to which Wolf Hall often seems like a direct response--have reached about Cromwell is that he was a grasping, unprincipled man, willing to adopt any creed and mouth any ideology in order to get ahead, as opposed to Thomas More's staunch adherence to his beliefs, which eventually lead to his death.  In Mantel's hands, More becomes dogmatic and intractable, his ironclad belief the root cause of his pitiless pursuit, torture, and brutal execution of anti-Catholic heretics, whereas, as Dan Hartland points out, Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of conviction:
Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.
I would go even further and say that Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of integrity and sense of personal dignity as well (the latter is presumably linked to his humble origins, which leave him, unlike the nobles around him, indifferent to his family's honor).  Several times over the course of the novel, Cromwell visits prisoners condemned for their words--the heretic John Frith, condemned by More; the self-proclaimed prophetess Elizabeth Barton, who had threatened Henry with divine retribution for casting off Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn; and finally, More himself.  Each time, he counsels the prisoners to lie, recant, and compromise their principles in order to save themselves.  "I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can," he tells Barton, advising her to 'plead her belly' in order to delay her execution, and the final conflict of the novel, between Cromwell and More, hinges on More's refusal to compromise his immortal soul by swearing an oath acknowledging Henry as the head of the church in England and the legality of his marriage to Anne.  What in A Man for All Seasons was treated as the crowning glory of More's saintliness is, in Wolf Hall, described as the epitome of his arrogance and self-regard, with Cromwell, instead of the devil trying to tempt More away from righteousness, portrayed as a humanistic angel trying to save More from himself.

But Wolf Hall doesn't simply depict Cromwell as a modern person, but as a modern literary character.  If Mantel is storying history, she's doing so in the style of the 20th century stream of consciousness novel, and her study of Cromwell reveals a very familiar type of person--complicated and conflicted, never entirely possessed by a single emotion or completely certain of his feelings.  The novel's storying of history of overlaid by an almost impressionistic journey through Cromwell's past and present, and his concerns are larger than the affairs of state he's tasked with--securing the future of his children and wards, mourning for his wife and daughters, cultivating relationships with the heretics, freethinkers, and the merchants who are remaking Europe, slowly and imperceptibly wresting power away from the feudal lords.  Mantel's Cromwell may not hold to a system or a creed, but he does have a goal--a stronger, more prosperous England, whose wealth is held by its government rather than by Rome, and whose people, high-born and low, aren't held back by tradition and superstition.

So Wolf Hall does three things--it retells the story of the early years of the English Reformation; it is a character study of Thomas Cromwell as a modern humanist; and it is a meta-commentary on historical fiction and how it can come to supersede historical facts.  Each of these elements is extremely well done, and the novel, despite its brick-like appearance, is such an engrossing read that I very nearly swallowed it whole.  But I find myself falling short of the rapturous praise it's received in other quarters, and I think this is because these three elements end up warring with each other.  Cromwell is the heart of the novel, but how seriously can we take Mantel's hagiography of him when even she's poking holes at it?  And if we were tempted to read Wolf Hall as the character study of a fictionalized Cromwell, there is its careful, almost meticulous attention to detail, to even the smallest events of the period, to contend with, which insists that we take it seriously as a realistic and accurate representation of its era.

I'm not quite as down on the novel as Dan Hartland, who, despite enjoying it, concludes that Mantel goes too far in portraying Cromwell as an accidental politician, and ultimately makes him almost a Mary Sue, but I do feel manipulated by her use of history.  Wolf Hall ends with More's execution, which might be said to be the apex of Cromwell's career--his last and most powerful enemy vanquished, his immediate goals--the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn, the divestment of England's ties to Rome--achieved, but rather conveniently leaves off the actual, more bitter, ending to his story.  Mantel has said that she plans to write a sequel to Wolf Hall covering Cromwell's downfall, but it's hard not to feel that she cut the story off when she did not because she wanted to write a duology but because it would have been so much harder for her to spin as sympathetic and humanistic the events of the last five years of Cromwell's life, in which the very mechanisms he put in place to stave off the corruption of the church end up enabling the corruption of the state, and the same tools he used to get rid of Catherine and cement Henry's power will be turned against Anne and finally himself, turning a faithful wife and a loyal counselor into traitors.  Whether or not the sequel was in Mantel's mind when she sat down to write Wolf Hall, the fact remains that, taken on its own, it makes for a confusing statement--simultaneously relying on history, and our familiarity with it, for its significance, and expecting us to ignore those bits of history it finds inconvenient.

Wolf Hall is the third of this year's Booker nominees I've read, following The Little Stranger and The Children's Book, which I believe is a personal record (still on my to be read stack is Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, but I'm not particularly drawn to either of the remaining nominees).  Each of these historical novels is an accomplished, engrossing, albeit seriously flawed read, but if I had to pick a favorite, I would probably give the Byatt the slightest of edges over the Mantel, not so much for being a better book but for treating history in a way that I'm more comfortable with.  As I wrote at the time, Byatt doesn't so much story history as report it, and as problematic and frustrating as this approach can be, it did at least draw a line between the fact and fiction that kept me from being knocked out of the story, as I repeatedly was during my reading of Wolf Hall, by the realization that, for all her acknowledgment of the unreliability of any fictional representation of the past, Mantel was selling as historical fact a bit of mythology.  It is, of course, inevitable that any work of historical fiction will twist and shape the facts of history to fit its own story, but I prefer a work that acknowledges this inevitability to one that pays lip service to it, but also expects us to forget it.


Raz Greenberg said...

Completely off-topic, but do you plan on doing a review of the new "V"? I just watched the pilot, and while far from perfect, I think it can develop in interesting directions. And having watched the original mini-series on DVD a few years back, I can tell that the new version is actually a huge improvement.

Martin said...

I would love to read that V-Review too. :-)

Jackie said...

Have you ever read anything by Sharron Kay Pennman? Her main line is historical fiction, using real characters. She mostly deals with the English, although a bit before the Tudors.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Raz, Martin:

Something about V (and a few other fall pilot stragglers) is in the works and needs only my actually watching the pilot to be posted :-)


No, I don't know that name. Any good?

Anonymous said...

Mantel said, in a recent Wall Street Journal piece about "how writers write", that she felt stuck on WOLF HALL and took a shower and all of a sudden it came to her: "Two books!"

Which would suggest that her original plan was indeed to tell Cromwell's entire story. And why she was stuck? I suspect you may be right -- she felt telling the bitter conclusion would have undermined what she was doing in the first part -- better to wait for another book (which now can, perhaps, be ironically positioned as a balance to WOLF HALL, or something like that).

I'm not sure if the article is publically accessible (I'm a WSJ subscriber) but it might be because I didn't enter my username going there today:

Dan Hartland said...

One of the strange things about Wolf Hall is that your characterisation of the traditional view of Cromwell has been significantly nuanced by modern historians. Her refutation of Bolt in favour of another wildly inaccurate fiction seems misplaced, particularly as part of her project is as you say the construction of a conflicted, ambiguous modernist voice (and a detailed, dense historical past). Why not, then, a conflicted and complicated history?

Cromwell is undoubtedly a fascinating subject, and Mantel's thesis that he was instrumental in constructing the modern state is half-way sound. I may even have revised my opinion of the book upwards a little after a few re-reads of key sections, but I agree that Wolf Hall is a disingenuous book: if it is to make an historical argument (Cromwell was cool) it must engage with historical reality: he was immoral by the standards of his day. It is the novelist's (though not the historian's) prerogative to reject those standards; but to depict a historical character's similar rejection is a far more complex undertaking than putting the reader on his side because he's More Like Us (excuse the pun).

What does it mean to be opposed to your own prevailing intellectual environment? Because Wolf Hall puts Cromwell on our side of the curtain of history - the right side, the liberal side, the open-minded side - I still don't know. That seems to me the shame.

In fact, isn't there something odd about the way in which the book pretends to offer a whole new vision of Cromwell by falling back on the oldest prejudices against medieval Catholic England?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Yes, the article is accessible, thanks. I do actually think that the two book structure will give more balance to Mantel's portrayal of Cromwell - one book for his glorification, another for his feet of clay. As frustrated as I am by her choices in Wolf Hall, I can't actually complain about a decision that not only gives us another book of (hopefully) the same caliber, but leaves the first novel as a complete, if somewhat manipulative, argument.


See, I knew you'd have interesting things to say about Cromwell. You actually know something about this period, whereas, I'm ashamed to say, everything I know about the English Reformation I learned from The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I think it was actually my awareness of my own ignorance that hindered my enjoyment of the novel - I was constantly reminded of how easily Mantel could spin me a tale whose falsehood I wouldn't be able to recognize.

I like your observation about Cromwell being opposed to the prevailing opinions of his time, and there is much of that in the novel, but I was actually struck by the modernity of many of those prevailing opinions - the criminalization of speech, the devaluation of legislative bodies in favor of governing ones, and the use of legislation against specific individuals or bodies opposed to the government. I don't doubt that Mantel framed these issues in such a way as to recall the present, but I thought it was nicely done - particularly the way that Cromwell's sympathetic portrayal, and the perfidy of his Catholic opponents, combined to make his measures seem reasonable, even though we know that they're going to be used against him and Anne Boleyn.

Dan Hartland said...

I was constantly reminded of how easily Mantel could spin me a tale whose falsehood I wouldn't be able to recognize.

I recall Niall saying something similar about The Baroque Cycle, and I understand the concern. At the same time, though, we're all at the mercy of historians eventually - unless we go and read the primary material for ourselves. But, yes, this is a problem for historical novelists with a project - or rather for their readers. :P

I was actually struck by the modernity of many of those prevailing opinions - the criminalization of speech, the devaluation of legislative bodies in favor of governing ones, and the use of legislation against specific individuals or bodies opposed to the government

I'm a bit confused here, though - you call these prevailing opinions of the time, but then call them Cromwell's measures? I think we're confusing each other. :P

My reading, which I can modify upon your reply: Yes, and this recalling and presaging of modernity is obvious central to Mantel's vision of Tudor England. But what you list are really tools of whatever system holds sway: the Catholics suppress the Protestants, the Protestants ban Catholicism. What Cromwell did was overturn the system of government (largely by championing Protestantism and strengthening the Crown) - he still used many of those same tools to achieve his ends. And he did this because he had to - that is, because everyone but him (and Henry?) had beliefs - in Catholicism, in feudalism, in nobility and order and the importance (one way or another) of sedition. Where Cromwell stands in contraflow to his own time (at least in Mantel) is in denying that a system built on obstinate faith is desirable. He is more flexible, and he encourages those around him to be the same.

As I say, Wolf Hall accepts the twin aims of statism and Protestantism unquestioningly - hence hugging close to its (flawed) version of Cromwell, but in so doing trading in a lot of old-fashioned anti-medieval finger-pointing. (Nice series of compounds, there.)

I am conscious that I am not really treating the book like a novel, and I do think that is unfair. It has a story to tell, not a historiography. But then we come back to your point about how heavily the book relies on its history, and I wind up skipping, scowling, around the mulberry bush all over again.

Dotan Dimet said...

According to this piece of writer-porn (by which I mean pornographic descriptions of the writing "process"), she decided to break the story into two books during the writing process:

Abigail Nussbaum said...

What Cromwell did was overturn the system of government (largely by championing Protestantism and strengthening the Crown) - he still used many of those same tools to achieve his ends. ... Where Cromwell stands in contraflow to his own time (at least in Mantel) is in denying that a system built on obstinate faith is desirable. He is more flexible, and he encourages those around him to be the same.

More flexible, yes, but not to the extent that he sees a problem with, say, criminalizing speech (I think it's another character who points out the difficulty, which Cromwell brushes off). Or, to put it another way, he rejects obstinate faith but not the tools used by those who hold it (of course, Mantel is careful to point out that unlike More Cromwell doesn't use torture, but then we know that Anne Boleyn, at least, will be condemned based on false evidence extracted through torture). So that's an anti-modern aspect of the character which, honestly, I wish the novel had highlighted a bit more. I suppose, though, that it would have clashed with Mantel's aim of mythologizing the man.

Like you, I go back and forth over whether to treat historical novels as fiction or historiography. What it comes down to, for me, is whether the book feels like an entity in its own right (like, say, Henry V, though of course in that case I'm not as knowledgable about the real history), and accomplished as it is, Wolf Hall doesn't.

Dan Hartland said...

Or, to put it another way, he rejects obstinate faith but not the tools used by those who hold it

I think the point is that he has to - because others have that faith. As you say, the novel repeatedly has him ask people to recant, and they repeatedly refuse.

accomplished as it is, Wolf Hall doesn't.

This is an excellent rationalisation, and I'm going to use it. :P

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