WASHINGTON – “Wolf Hall,” the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novel about the court of Henry VIII — and most dramatically, the conflict between Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More – is now a TV series (presented on PBS). It is maddeningly good.
Maddening because its history is tendentiously distorted, yet the drama is so brilliantly conceived and executed that you almost don’t care. Faced with an imaginative creation of such brooding, gripping, mordant intensity, you find yourself ready to pay for it in historical inaccuracy.
And “Wolf Hall’s” revisionism is breathtaking. It inverts the conventional view of the saintly More being undone by the corrupt, amoral, serpentine Cromwell, the king’s chief minister. This is fiction as polemic. Author Hilary Mantel, an ex- and anti-Catholic (“the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people”), has set out to rehabilitate Cromwell and defenestrate More, most especially the More of Robert Bolt’s beautiful and hagiographic “A Man for All Seasons.”
Who’s right? Neither fully, though “Wolf Hall’s” depiction of More as little more than a cruel heretic-burning hypocrite is particularly provocative, if not perverse. To be sure, More-worship is somewhat overdrawn, as even the late Cardinal Francis George warned at a 2012 convocation of bishops. More had his flaws. He may have been a man for all seasons but he was also a man of his times. And in those times of merciless contention between Rome and the Reformation, the pursuit and savage persecution of heresy were the norm.
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Indeed, when Cromwell achieved power, he persecuted Catholics with a zeal and thoroughness that surpassed even More’s persecution of Protestants. “Wolf Hall’s” depiction of Cromwell as a man of great sensitivity and deep feeling is, therefore, even harder to credit. He was cruel and cunning, quite monstrous both in pursuit of personal power and wealth, and in serving the whims and wishes of his royal master.
Nonetheless, Cromwell’s modern reputation will be enhanced by Mark Rylance’s brilliant and sympathetic cinematic portrayal, featuring a stillness and economy of expression that is at once mesmerizing and humanizing. The nature of the modern audience helps too. In this secular age beset by throat-slashing religious fanatics, we are far more disposed to despise excessive piety and celebrate the pragmatic, if ruthless, modernizer.
Which Cromwell was, as the chief engineer of Henry’s Reformation. He crushed the Roman church, looted the monasteries and nationalized faith by subordinating clergy to king. That may flatter today’s reflexive anticlericalism. But we do well to remember that the centralized state Cromwell helped midwife did prepare the ground, over the coming centuries, for the rise of the rational, willful, thought-controlling, indeed all-controlling, state.
It is perhaps unfair to call Cromwell (and Henry) proto-totalitarian, as some critics have suggested, essentially blaming them for what came after. But they did sow the seed. And while suppressing one kind of intolerance, they did little more than redefine heresy as an offense against the sovereignty not of God but of the state.
However, “Wolf Hall” poses questions not just political but literary. When such a distortion of history produces such a wonderfully successful piece of fiction, we are forced to ask: What license are we to grant to the historical novel?
For all the learned answers, in reality it comes down to temporal proximity. If the event is in the recent past, you’d better be accurate. Oliver Stone’s paranoid and libelous “JFK” will be harmless in 50 years, but it will take that long for the stench to dissipate. On the other hand, does anyone care that Shakespeare diverges from the record (such as it is) in his Caesar or Macbeth or his Henrys?
Time turns them to legend. We don’t feel it much matters anymore. There is the historical Caesar and there is Shakespeare’s Caesar. They live side by side.
The film reviewer Stanley Kauffmann said much the same about David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” vs. the real T.E. Lawrence. They diverge. Accept them each on their own terms, as separate and independent realities. (After all, Lawrence’s own account, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” offers magnificent prose but quite unreliable history as well.)
So with the different versions of More and Cromwell. Let them live side by side. “Wolf Hall” is utterly compelling, but I nonetheless refuse to renounce “A Man For All Seasons.” I'll live with both Mores, both Cromwells. After all, for centuries we’ve accepted that light is both wave and particle. If physics can live with maddening truths, why can’t literature and history?