Tuesday, July 16, 2019

"Thomas More changed the course of the narrative"

In a presentation on June 25, 2019, Richard Rex spoke in Dublin -- in the Church Blessed John Henry Newman built for the Catholic University of Ireland, which is under the stewardship of the University of Notre Dame as the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason -- on what Hilary Mantel has done to the reputation of St. Thomas More for the sake of elevating the reputation of Thomas Cromwell. The Iona Institute website offers this introduction:

Professor Richard Rex of Queen’s College, Cambridge, addressed a packed University Church in Dublin last week on the topic: The Two Thomases, namely Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. In particular, he examined the portrayal of both in Hilary Mantel’s best-selling and widely-praised novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Professor Rex, who lectures in Reformation and Tudor history, offers a wry, learned and ultimately devastating analysis of how Mantel essentially reversed the personalities and characters of both men.

As Professor Rex . . . says: “They are two of the emblematic figures of English history: More, the defender of the Catholic Church in England against the tyrannical pretensions of Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England; and Cromwell, the pliant instrument of tyranny. Robert Bolt’s
A Man for All Seasons cast More as a liberal hero of freedom of conscience and Cromwell as the ruthless agent of State pragmatism. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has reversed those polarities for a new age, with Cromwell now the apostle of humanist tolerance and More the hate-filled prophet of religious fanaticism. My aims this evening are to investigate and document this reversal, to show how it was achieved, and to speculate on why it has enjoyed so much success. The key to this final aim is the idea that Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell have, in one little cultural niche, served to embody or represent the changing position of the Catholic Church in modern – or postmodern – western culture. But before we come to that we must unpack and unpick the role reversal and comment on its rationality and plausibility.”

Or as Professor Rex says elsewhere in his address: “To destroy More, the symbol of Catholicism, More must be diminished to the scale of an ant, that Cromwell may trample upon him. Mantel’s fiction shows us a nasty man getting his Tudor come-uppance. History shows us something rather different.”

You may watch video of the presentation here. The Iona Institute website also provides a link to the text of the presentation (which contains some additional material). One of the more interesting insights to me was Professor Rex's analysis of how "Thomas More changed the course of the narrative" that is, changed what Hilary Mantel planned to write:

According to the author, Wolf Hall was originally conceived as a single novel, retelling the rise and fall of its hero. However, as she got to grips with the events of 1534-35, in which Thomas More was targeted and ultimately destroyed by the regime for his refusal to go along with Henry’s assumption of the title of Supreme Head, under Christ, of the Church of England, she found the duel between More and Cromwell irresistibly dramatic. One sees her point. This duel became the dominant theme of the narrative, with a natural end in More’s execution. Thus the original novel was therefore recast as a trilogy, each closed by a beheading: Thomas More in 1535, Anne Boleyn in 1536, and, presumably, in the final volume, which has now been promised for next year, Cromwell himself in 1540. What you should note is that Thomas More changed the course of the narrative. In a sense, I would argue, he took over the story, despite his allotted role as a merely secondary presence within it. More’s impact on the story itself serves to undermine the author’s intentions and assumptions and assertions. Crucially, it was the portrayal of More, not that of Cromwell, which accounts for Wolf Hall’s early vogue.

The bold emphasis is in the text as downloaded. He later comments:

As one review of Wolf Hall put it, ‘you cannot back Cromwell without spitting on More’. If you can’t back Cromwell without spitting on More, can you back More without spitting on Cromwell? You certainly can’t back both horses. But you can esteem and praise More, even making room for appropriate criticism, without really having to take Cromwell into account at all. Bolt and Mantel once again offer a useful contrast. In A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell is definitely down among the ‘minor characters’ in the credits. But in Wolf Hall, Thomas More is central to the action. This imbalance reflects reality, despite the author. Thomas More has never been forgotten. People fell over themselves to write his biography, even in the Tudor era. The biographies by William Roper, Nicholas Harpsfield, and Thomas Stapleton all survive. The one written by William Rastell is preserved only in a few stray fragments. There have been more editions just of Roper’s Life of More than there have been biographies of Cromwell. Not a century has gone by without its share of biographies of More. No one rushed to write the life of Cromwell. . . .

And Rex concludes with Mantel's own comments about Holbein's portrait of Cromwell at the Frick:

And in the case of Cromwell and More, the pictures are there for us to see. They can be seen in the Frick Collection in New York, where More and Cromwell gaze at each other across a fireplace, captured by the hand of the sixteenth century’s greatest portraitist, Holbein. The author of Wolf Hall herself describes his Cromwell as an ‘incredibly dead picture’. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak more memorably labels Cromwell ‘the least attractive sitter in the whole of Holbein’s art’. The picture is the evidence. A great painter, they say, paints not just the face but the soul. And Holbein’s More is famously and sublimely living. This is the evidence: Cromwell – dead, dull; More – alive, alert. Holbein got it. Seeing is believing. But there’s none so blind as them that will not see.

A full quote
of Waldemar Januszczak on the contrast between the portraits: 

That is why I recommend a visit to the Living Hall at the Frick Collection, and a good gawp at Holbein’s portraits of More and Cromwell. Holbein was there. He knew them both. So what does he make of them?

Of More, he makes one of the most noble presences in the whole of British portraiture. Determined. Handsome. Resolute. With his velvet sleeves and his gold chain, More is a man of rank, but there’s something kindly about his face, too. And in the exact capturing of his five-o’clock shadow, Holbein has produced one of his finest records of the true textures of humanity.

On the other side of the fireplace, the new hero of
Wolf Hall, Cromwell, has none of those qualities. Indeed, with his piggy eyes and his veal-like complexion, he is one of Holbein’s least appealing sitters. He’s shown at a desk, writing. A death warrant, perhaps. Or further instructions for the destruction of a monastery. As soon as I saw him, that famous observation by Hannah Arendt about the “banality of evil” flashed into my thoughts.

So, who to trust? Holbein, who was there? Or Hilary Mantel, who is a great writer, and a worthy winner of the Booker prize? Over to you.

"Over to you" is a weak conclusion!

Rex, in contrast, presents a devastating critique of Mantel's vaunted historical accuracy and how people have fallen for her anachronistically "nice" Thomas Cromwell.

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