Those three Henrican Lord Chancellors – Wolsey, More and Cromwell – seem to hold an endless fascination for historians and fiction writers alike. From Anthony Munday to Robert Bolt, that procession of Thomases has proved fertile ground for speculation. I’m just in the midst of yet another example of this tilling, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It’s been on my shelves for months, and was shortlisted for the Booker in July – which was probably the kick I needed to actually read the thing. Communicator has already pointed out that Mantel opposes Bolt – in her fiction, Cromwell is the humane moderniser, More the (faintly absurd) medieval hangover.
I haven’t yet read enough of the book – I’m not quite halfway through – to be able to pass judgement as to whether Mantel succeeds in her design to present Cromwell as an accidental politician, a modern spirit in an otherwise alien age. I do so far like, however, the extent to which the intense politicking of the Tudor court is not made the be-all and end-all of the plot: Cromwell’s inner life is here much broader than that, and the depth of the characterisation is strong. It may not, though, ultimately be convincing – More was, it seems unecessary to say, as much a product of his age as either of his predecessors. No signpost to the future, him.
It’s interesting to compare Mantel – though no doubt she would be scandalised by this – to the often close-to-farcical US TV serial, The Tudors. The show makes absolutely no attempt to be historically accurate – it is happy to merge two or more historical figures into one character, collapse time for its own narrative convenience, and most of all makes each and every one of its characters a modern figure in a remote historical age. It is disjointed, illogical and unintentionally hilarious, but one of its most compelling figures is Thomas Cromwell, played with more than a dash of charisma by James Frain as the ultimate pragmatist – one moment a secret Calvinist, the next a thorough moderate, allied with the Boleyns and then against them, Wolsey’s servant and then his Judas. (In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s loyalty to his first master is stressed again and again.) Unbelievable as it may seem to claim historical fidelity for The Tudors, this feels closer to the truth of the real Cromwell than the ‘oops, I seem to be popular at court again’ career path Mantel has so far given hers.
The Tudors‘ third season begins here in the UK on August 21st, on BBC Two. Wolf Hall is, as they say, in all good bookshops, yadda yadda.