In one of the early episodes of the BBC mini-series Wolf Hall, based on Hilary Mantel's award-winning novel of the same name, there is a conversation between King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell about the monasteries. Henry sees their confiscation as a fiscal resource for the crown. Cromwell responds:
If you ask me about the monks, I speak from experience, not prejudice, and my experiences have largely been one of corruption and waste. I've seen monks who live like great lords on the offerings of the poor, take children in and rather than educating them as they promise, use them as servants. For hundreds of years, the monks have written what we take to be our history. I think they've suppressed our true history, and written one which is favorable to Rome.
Cromwell takes the moral high ground or, perhaps more accurately, coyly offers Henry a higher reason, a public justification (moral purification and frugality), for his baser motives. Even more interesting is Cromwell's claim that the monks have substituted a Roman Catholic history for the true history of the people of England. Until fairly recently, that was the accepted scholarly and popular opinion of the English Reformation; until, that is, the release of Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, a magisterial study of pre-Reformation England Roman Catholicism. Mantel's book, the first in a trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell, attempts in its own way to reverse the change in perception of the English Reformation effected by Duffy's research, even as it strives to reverse the pictures of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.
The latter reversal has been the subject of most of the commentary about the TV series; as George Weigel notes in his recent piece, "'Wolf Hall' and Upmarket Anti-Catholicism," the critical consensus leans strongly against Mantel's version, even if the debate should remind us that Robert Bolt's magnificent play, A Man for All Seasons, itself gives us an idealized Thomas More, one that ignores his treatment of heretics.
Apart from the debates over its historical veracity, Wolf Hall underscores the significance of two cultural trends. One concerns the rise in the quality of certain TV series, not just from the BBC but also from American cable channels, which include The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, among others. Indeed, combining two consecutive episodes at virtually any point in any of these series would create a film superior to the vast majority of films released in any given year in recent memory. The second has to do with the enduring attraction of narrated history. On TV, one thinks immediately of the popularity of the various historical documentaries of Ken Burns, from Brooklyn Bridge to The Roosevelts, or in film of Spielberg's Lincoln. In the academic world, we seem to have emerged from a long period in which narrative history was spurned. In his justifiably celebrated Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (2003), Tom Holland observes, "Following a lengthy spell in the doghouse, narrative history is now squarely back in fashion—and even if, as many have argued, it can function only by imposing upon the random events of the past an artificial pattern, then that in itself need be no drawback." If narrative history imposes a pattern on the received data and documentation, historical fiction uses historical documents as a framework for, and a prod to, the creative imagination. When the former is done well, it is directly answerable to the documentary evidence, notes discrepancies in that evidence, and keeps a certain distance from the interior lives of its subjects. By contrast, historical fiction, as Stephen Greenblatt notes in his review of the book Wolf Hall ("How it Must Have Been," The New York Review of Books, November 5, 2009), is always "an act of conjuring," that "gives the illusion of complete access."
In an op-ed piece ("Wolf Hall: Truths and Fictions," May 2, 2015) rightly praising the TV series for being "maddeningly good," Charles Krauthammer wonders about the twisting of historical truth for the sake of fictional story-telling and settles upon the view that so long as there is sufficient distance between the historical event and the fictional reconstruction, it is fairly easy for an audience to live with both. That might be true, although the assumption that today's audiences know the actual history of the events reconstructed in historical fiction is dubious. (Indeed, the media and President Obama seem to think the only parts of history that we have an obligation to recall, at least as far as Christians are concerned, involve the Crusades and the Inquisition.)
Even more problematic is the fact that viewers and commentators often confuse historical fiction and narrative history. Mantel herself ignores the distinction. In a recent interview with Jamie Sharp (Vulture, April 3, 2015), Mantel responds to the question, "Do you think the Wolf Hall audience should root for Cromwell?" by saying, "I want the audience to try and understand him a little better. I want people to walk a mile in his shoes. I'm hoping people look at the world from behind Cromwell's eyes instead of rushing to judgment and automatically vilifying him. People need to ask themselves, What would I do? He's reacting to circumstances that can sometimes be very frightening, and he's able to advance his station despite the obstacles in his way."
In order to make Cromwell more sympathetic, Mantel not only freely fills in and in some cases alters details, she also gives us the illusion of complete access into Cromwell's inner life. She writes historical fiction, not narrative history. As James Woods comments in his New Yorker review of the novel Wolf Hall ("Invitation to a Beheading," May 7, 2012), "One effect of this authorial proximity, and of Cromwell's impressive self-motivation, is that he emerges from these novels if not quite a hero, then at least someone whose torments have been chosen for comprehension, like the sinful protagonist of a Graham Greene novel." That is almost right. The conflicted characters in Greene's novels typically suffer from the tension between their desires and the commands of God. Although regretful, Cromwell exhibits no religious scruples. In a scene in the last episode of the series, in response to the accusation that he is a Lutheran, he quips, "Me? No, a banker." And Mark Rylance's Cromwell is much more sympathetic than any of Greene's characters.
By contrast, Thomas More (Anton Lesser) is a sanctimonious dullard. In the TV series, Thomas More, whose trial and execution are completed in the third of six episodes, is important mainly as a set-up and contrast to Cromwell. But there are dramatic problems here, especially of internal coherence. More is supposed to be playing the witty, erudite aristocrat in contrast to Cromwell's rough-hewn, lower-middle-class origins. With his stringy hair and ostentatious habit of pointlessly speaking in Latin, More comes off as creepy and sophomoric. This is manifestly not the More of history. The underwriting of More results in caricature rather than enriching historical fiction.
Meanwhile, Mantel's Cromwell is as much victim and underdog as he is clever political tactician. Wolf Hall, the novel, begins with a young Thomas Cromwell being brutally beaten by his father. He tells himself, "Get up," and thus begins his self-made social and political ascent. Early in the series, Cromwell is also depicted as a devoted family man; the scene in which he endures the death of family members is the most affecting in the entire series.
With something of a tin ear for theology, Mantel has a good sense for the ways in which Cromwell anticipates the stewards of the modern nation state, which was in Cromwell's day just beginning to assert its control over all that mattered in public life, including ultimate control over life and death. Her Cromwell is the modern rationalist-pragmatist, impatient with the fanatics who surround him. He abandons others, but he does so reluctantly. Even in his quest for power, he remains a victim, if only of the whims of the king. When the king nearly dies, we see a private moment with Cromwell and a confidante in which he admits that his security is tied directly to the fate of the king. But even that is uncertain. Publically dressed down by a Henry furious for what he takes to be Cromwell's usurpation of prerogatives that are the king's alone, Cromwell looks quite vulnerable. "Everything that you are," says Henry (Damian Lewis), "everything that you have will come from me."
To make us sympathetic to Cromwell, Mantel depicts him in our image and likeness: an underdog, skeptical of claims to absolutism, at least when those claims come not from the secular state but from religion. In certain respects, Cromwell is akin to the sort of conflicted character that has proven so popular in contemporary cable drama, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad. Cromwell does evil with reluctance and with a sense of the cost to his humanity. Even at his most malicious—as he prepares to do the king's bidding in the framing and execution of Anne Boleyn—he is depicted as something of a victim. An early scene in the final episode of the series, which culminates with Anne's beheading, has Cromwell at table being afflicted by Macbeth-like visions of a dagger he holds over Anne's head. He is momentarily horrified and regretful throughout.
In the interview cited above, Mantel discusses her focus on the middle class: "Cromwell was a blacksmith's son. He moved through London's professional middle class with lawyers and businessmen, and this aspect usually gets ignored. I think some writers might not think it's dramatic enough. It lacks the glamour of the court and the desperation of sniveling, toothless paupers who have nothing.... It creates a much more complex but realistic reality." That is true, up to a point, but only to a point. Mantel's novel is less complex and realistic, for example, than the picture of the vibrant religious life at the Catholic parish level, which included all ranks of society, as depicted in Duffy's Stripping of the Altars. Based on a wide range of evidence (accounts, wills, primers, memoirs, rood screens, stained glass, joke books, graffiti, and so forth), Duffy demonstrates that "the Reformation as actually experienced by ordinary people was not an uncomplicated imaginative liberation, the restoration of true Christianity after a period of degeneration and corruption, but, for good or ill, a great cultural hiatus, which dug a ditch, deep and dividing, between the English people and their past." Merchants and lawyers as well as the sniveling, toothless paupers, it seems, were part of a fairly vibrant Church.
The at times contentious contemporary debates over this period revive in surprisingly dramatic and surprisingly passionate ways the debates of early modernity at the time of the rise of the nation-state. That these debates endure in our day, that the stories of More and Cromwell have not been reduced to highbrow entertainment, is a good sign, I think, a sign that we—living with the consequences of the secular-rationalist-pragmatist vision that Mantel's Cromwell anticipates—have not become entirely oblivious of the past and reduced to the soul-starving immediacy of the present.