bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Cromwell on the Box

Posted in British History, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 25 January, 2015

What would Geoffrey Elton’s reaction have been to Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies? He most likely would have treated them with the disdain of professorial silence – even in his most rabid character-assassination of Thomas More, he was able to avoid mentioning A Man for All Seasons, though the success of Robert Bolt’s play surely rankled with him. But if, as we are dealing with fiction anyway, we are allowed to imagine for a moment a meeting between the don and the novelist, I do wonder what they would have had to say to each other. Mantel takes up the challenge of making Cromwell a sympathetic figure but what she provides is hardly The Tudor Revolution in Government: the novel (the cruel could say there is already enough fantasy in Elton’s thesis). Her Cromwell is rarely seen working as a bureaucrat – a master of detail, certainly, someone who can sense how to use the inner workings of the machine for grander political ends – but the genius with which she endows her character is a heightened ability to read humanity. And the human was hardly central to Elton’s histories; for him, the march of civilization was surely greater than any detail of an individual. He felt no need for a biography of his hero, let alone story-telling about him. Before, though, he emits a gruff snort and walks away from Ms Mantel, perhaps she would have a chance to explain her deeper agenda: Wolf Hall (in particular) is not only about an imaginative creation of Henrician politics; submerged beneath that, there is struggle in which Mantel pits Cromwell against More and in which what is at stake is modernity and Englishness. Perhaps, if she had chance to explain that, a smile would have curled Elton’s whiskers.
Mantel’s concept of modernity is revealed by a minor factual slip. In the days after his wife’s demise (in the narrative of Wolf Hall, it is elided with the later deaths of his daughters), so, in 1527, Cromwell ‘has got Niccolò Machiavelli’s book, Principalities; it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands’ [p. 105] – which is impressive, considering that Il Principe was, in the year of Machiavelli’s own death, not yet printed, let alone in a Latin translation. The first printed edition was that of Filippo Giunti in Florence in 1532; Silvestro Teglio’s Latin version did not appear until a couple of decades after Cromwell’s death. The text certainly did circulate in manuscript in Machiavelli’s own lifetime, so we might say that Mantel’s error is a matter of detail, of no consequence to her larger tale. It seems to me, though, that her determination that her hero should know Machiavelli’s most notorious work – not just at this point but also later in the first novel [pp. 488, 501] – is revealing of her construction of her hero. We might infer that her sense of Machiavelli is like that of Burckhardt: a man without hypocrisy who describes things as they really were, stripped of all comfortable pretence. And her Cromwell is a man in his image; a worldly man, who returns to old England a foreigner, enriched by his experience and by his brush with the modernity that is the Renaissance. There is something yet more Burckhardtian about Mantel’s Cromwell, at least in Wolf Hall: he is not just acquainted with new thinking – be it Machiavelli or Luca Pacioli [pp. 363-4] – but he is himself so endlessly inventive, it reminds me of the visual gag in the film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the main characters are repeatedly seen accidentally inventing Leonardesque machines. Cromwell has something of the l’uomo universale, the man not many-sided but all-sided who, for Burckhardt, epitomises the Renaissance.
So, this Machiavellian, Leonardian Cromwell returns to the land of his birth; he has seen the future and he lurks in the shadows until he can impose it on his unwilling, ungrateful countrymen. A future defined by the Renaissance and, of course, the Reformation. Cromwell is not just ready to question tradition, he is determined to stamp on its face. There he stands pitted against Thomas More, depicted by Mantel as a man so ensnared in his conservatism that he cannot tolerate modernity. By some paradoxical twist, that cosmopolitan scholar becomes a parochial stick-in-the-mud, suspicious of Cromwell’s well-travelled career: ‘you are an Italian through and through, and you have all their vices, all their passions’ [p. 567]. Except, of course, for Mantel, Cromwell is also the future of Englishness – a new England (for ‘England is always remaking itself’ [p. 649]), modernised by being receptive to foreign ideas. That sounds encouragingly liberal: the low-born Cromwell takes on privilege and established power and shakes it to the foundations. In the process, let us remember, he helps destroys the fabric of a church that he sees as corrupt. If we were to look for a modern parallel for Mantel’s Cromwell and think of an outsider who used every wile to challenge tradition and to break the accepted way of doing things, then the closest may be Margaret Thatcher.
Mantel, of course, would hate that, her bête noire morphing into her hero in the black cloak. Perhaps she would not recognise such parallels and, even if we can find them, perhaps they do not matter – after all, these are only novels. Except that they are not: they have somehow become a cultural phenomenon. I am not sure how that has happened: I still am perplexed at the decision to have a painting of Hilary Mantel at the top of the stairs to the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. How has she become such a household name? Has she filled a gap left by the end of J. K. Rowling’s time as favourite author? If so, it still cannot explain the hyperbole by which Mantel has taken on the mantle of being ‘our greatest living novelist’ – even ‘our’ most accomplished historical novelist might be excessive (Robert Harris provides strong competition). However, though, it has come about, the cult of Mantel and, in particular, of her Cromwellian novels, demands further questions: are they so loved simply for their evocation of character and context? Or is their attraction deeper and is there an affinity with its projection of ‘Englishness’?
This is where, finally, we come to the television adaptation of the novels which began this week. I will admit that I am in the lonely position of not yet being a fan. There are some fine actors in the production but I cannot help thinking there is serious miscasting: it is always good to have Jonathan Pryce on screen but he has nothing of the smooth-skinned corpulence needed for Wolsey – like Shakespeare’s Cassius, Pryce is a lean man; I would he was fatter. Yet more of a problem is that Mark Rylance simply looks too old to be Cromwell in his late thirties and early forties – the actor is the age now that Cromwell was when his head parted from his body and, even given the changes in aging, he looks too world-weary. This, though, is a small difficulty alongside the greater problems of transferring novels with so much internal monologue into an ensemble performance in which the eyes are on Cromwell rather than our seeing the world through his eyes. What surprised me most was that writing which can be so visual seemed not to survive the move from page to screen. Many of the scenes and the words are there, but not the aura of the work. The dull palette used – presumably in conscious contrast to The Tudors – created an ambience which, at worst, was lacklustre or, at best, homely. And it is that homeliness that concerns me most.
The homely is unthreatening. So, we are invited to view a ‘Tudor world’ as we know it or, rather, as we would like it to be. For instance, I was struck by how classless the society was – social gradation seemed to have disappeared both in the interactions and the interiors. There was little sense (as there is in the novels) of the heavy distaste for a man of such lowly birth as Cromwell’s; there was limited hauteur in a Norfolk or, indeed, the king. Meanwhile, the buildings which were home to Cromwell – still, at this point a lawyer in Wolsey’s service – seemed to lack none of the late-medieval conveniences afforded to the higher born and bettered housed. This is a world which has been domesticated for us so that it is tame, familiar and quintessentially English. Wolf Hall, in other words, as heritage product – ‘our’ great novel depicting ‘our’ Tudor forefathers. The battle of conceptions of Englishness that drives Mantel’s telling of the tale is wiped away by television’s evocation of a world we think is ours. But if the battle has gone, who won it? The arch-modernisers like Mantel’s Cromwell, full of dangerous and destructive if revivifying new ideas, or something more traditional? Is this Henrician politics showing how we can break the mould or is the BBC offering us a vision of how we should be happy to be moulded by ‘our’ inheritance? Is, by some convoluted route undertaken in the process of move from book to programme, Wolf Hall, the TV adaptation, a sort of revenge for the conservative, that is, for Mantel’s Thomas More? Cromwell’s on the box but is he also back in his box?


7 Responses

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  1. Judith Loades said, on 25 January, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    Never thought I would be writing such a comment… BUT did you KNOW Geoffrey Elton? Do you know Hilary Mantel.? I knew Geoffrey (great sense of humour!) and I know Hilary . My husband, Professor David Loades, was Geoffrey’s third research pupil after Jack Scarisbrick and Claire Cross. You clearly do not know Hilary with whom David had a very successful discussion in London on the difference between historical novels and academic history. Strong mutual respect. In his paperback for me on Thomas Cromwell ( Geoffrey showed how he had altered some of his views from the days when he was famously ‘the man they love to hate.’. There was, of course, a volume resulting from a symposium on him.. which I think Chris Haigh called ‘Oxford’s revenge’. Geoffrey would have enjoyed talking to Hilary (I wonder if you know her academic background?) He always said there was little material for a full work on TC. SInce then David has published a biography and Diarmaid is completing his own magnus opus. Geoffrey did not have the advantage of the internet and easy access to source material. Have you read Lehmberg? Have you read of the immense kindness and personal interest he showed in the Dissolution. My forthcoming book Ladies of the Tudor Court shows his helpful and kindly communications with the lesser known.
    I am disappointed in your comments.
    Judith Loades

  2. bonaelitterae said, on 25 January, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    Dear Judith,

    Always good to hear from you, though I’m sorry to read that you are disappointed by my thoughts. I’m not sure whom I am supposed to have insulted – Elton, Mantel, Cromwell or all three. My intention – which clearly did not come across as it should have done – was to consider some of the implications of Mantel’s novels: I think it would be hard to deny that there is something present-minded about them – and, indeed, it would diminish them if they did not have that element. I do enjoy the idea of a meeting between Elton and Mantel and, from what you say, you think that they would have enjoyed each other’s company. What, of course, this is not about is the ‘real’ Thomas Cromwell – whether that is Sejanus to Henry’s Tiberius, a ‘Tudor’ Margaret Thatcher, or an enlightened and principled reformer (more Colbert than Clement Atlee?). It is about the construction of him in those novels, what he stands for there, and how that is transformed by the transfer to the medium of television. Surely you would agree that there have been some notable changes from book to screen?
    I hope you are well.

  3. Hilary Mantel said, on 26 January, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    If I had really mistaken the date of The Prince, that would not be a minor error. But perhaps my use of the older, less familiar title for Machiavelli’s book might have alerted David Rundle that something a bit tricksy is going on here. It can be hard to say what ‘publication’ is. It is not the same as printing. As he says, the work was circulating in manuscript for many years before 1532. As Cromwell had Italian contacts, he would almost certainy have known about it. It would have been easy for me to suggest a kind friend had sent him a manuscript.
    But I wanted to do a bit more. What is this text that Cromwell is reading? What integrity has it? Is it what he thinks? Is it Machiavelli, or some sort of mash-up? A plagiarist’s take on Machiavelli? Or a critique of the original? Perhaps it is actually an unauthorised, opportunist printing of Agostino Nifo’s De Regnandi Peritia: given the date, it could be. The state of the book suggests a pirated, illicit edition. It’s already in poor condition. It’s unmaking itself as he reads. That’s why you’re not going to find it in a library or auction room. It’s gone. Or it’s in the chest with other lost books you’d like to read: Andrew Boorde’s treatise against beards, or Christopher St German on Islam.
    Why suggest there is an edition we’ve lost sight of? Recall that Reginald Pole stigmatised Cromwell as an early adopter. (If indeed Pole, in his famous anecdote of his early meeting with Cromwell, did mean to refer to Machiavelli’s book, and not some other book.) When did he think Cromwell had read the Italian? In what possible edition? Were the dates adrift in that saintly noddle, or did he know something we’ve lost sight of?
    A constant theme of the Cromwell books is the rewriting and overwriting of memory and texts. We build the great edifice of our historical certainties on what happens to survive, and confidently slap those certainties between hard covers and sell them to each other.
    The erased texts exist only in our imagination; but that is a powerful place to hold them. Imagination is what saves us from arrogance and stultifying literalism. I do not know the girth of Cardinal Wolsey. I do not know the age of Thomas Cromwell. Not all the technological wizardry available can spring the Holbeins from their frames. The producers got the best actors they could lay hold of; the originals are busy being dead.
    Though if I get the hang of raising them, the results will be obvious in the third book.

  4. bonaelitterae said, on 27 January, 2015 at 10:49 am

    First of all, thank you for taking the time to respond in such a thoughtful manner. I have huge sympathy for what you say about recognising the limits of the surviving evidence – in dealing with the past, we all too often underestimate the level of loss and the level, therefore, of our ignorance. Imaginative thinking is essential, which also requires guiding our imagination so that it work out from what we know, humble in the recognition of what we don’t. So, to take the case of Machiavelli: your description does say it is printed, and the later references in Wolf Hall to Niccolo’ – particularly to unarmed prophets – suggest Cromwell is holding the real thing. If, in 1527, the volume was already dog-earred, and as it had travelled from Italy as well, we are looking back two or three years to publication. That would suggest something striking about Machiavelli’s literary reputation in his lifetime – all the more so, if the book was, indeed, printed in Naples, though, of course, a pirated edition may have intentionally misled in place of production. Certainly, scholars had to accept their work might be pirated or texts put to their name without them knowing it, but the invention of a mid-1520s Latin edition of De Principatibus involves not a single step but several further assumptions. Why I find this interesting is that, a decade later, in the mid-1530s, the availability of a printed copy of Machiavelli’s Italian text in England would be notable but plausible – in other words, the intellectual context in which Cromwell works is shifting. Does he, then, become more Machiavellian or, indeed, more ‘Cromwellian’?
    Historians are perhaps timid when they step beyond the surviving evidence – the Ariadne’s thread they use is made of elastic and pulls them back all too quickly. But we do need to respect what is known as well as what is lost. To take another point you make, we do not know the precise measure of Wolsey’s girth, but we can, from the images that survive, have a fairly good guess: we cannot unknow what is known. That, of course, is – as you intimate – in conflict with how television has to work. My concern there is (to repeat) that in the process of creating a complete image, it has tamed your books and made their depths shallow. From what you say, I take it, though, the adaptation meets with authorial approval.
    Thank you again for writing – though your avid readers (including myself) would not want to distract you for a moment from completing the third book.

  5. […] Historical Royal Palaces is using it to showcase Tudor architecture. Academic historians are having late-night blog-debates with Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall has even made it into GQ Magazine, for goodness’ sake. Of […]

  6. Wolf Whistle | Kitty Calash said, on 8 April, 2015 at 11:50 am

    […] There are other arguments about the material details: […]

  7. […] ghosts as ‘erased texts’, which in their illegibility invite us to read more deeply. She made this comment in response to a post I wrote with reflections on her use of Machiavelli in the first two volumes. The Prince makes a guest […]

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