bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Glimpses in The Mirror and the Light

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 20 April, 2020

‘Dead men are at work’ (p. 615). The final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy is a book of ghosts. It opens only a second after the previous instalment, Bring up the Bodies, ended, as life leaves the now truncated queen. The world, however, has changed in that twinkling of an eye. Both the main protagonists — Thomas Cromwell and his master, Henry — have aged. Henry has always been plagued by dreams: one of the bravura moments of writing in the earlier parts of this saga saw Cromwell and Cranmer stand over the king, moulding a positive construction for the nightmares that had woken him from his royal sleep. Now Cromwell, though still a man of action, is in his fifties and he broods, recalls, regrets. He finds the darkness sometimes haunted.

Leemput after Holbein Whitehall Mural

A 1667 copy of Holbein’s lost Whitehall Mural, by Remigius van Leemput (Royal Collection).

The Mirror and the Light moves backwards as it moves forwards. It fills out Cromwell’s back-story, giving more details of his childhood and fathering on him a daughter from his Antwerp years. It also cannot forget his former adversaries: Thomas More casts his shadow across these pages. There are new enemies and there are new traitors. Some friends gain new prominence: Mantel has fun giving a more prominent role to Thomas Wyatt (who was Cromwell’s political protégé), and likewise to Hans Holbein. In particular, she provides an ekphrasis of the Whitehall Mural, which is doubly suited to her purpose as it is itself now no more than a reflection in mirrors, known only via copies, the original having been destroyed by fire in 1698. Cromwell is immersed in this cultured milieu and can act his own part within it. Mantel’s invention retains something of the inventiveness seen in previous instalments and now he also becomes an author, with Mantel endowing her creation with drafts of a ‘Book called Henry’. The title teases with a hint that this was to be like Thomas Elyot’s Book named The Governor (first printed in 1531), or rather the mirror image of that work of political advice addressed to the king; what we learn of Cromwell’s opus is that is a set of reflections on how to deal with his monarch. We can only wish we could read it. This is a book about ghosts of books.

Mantel has talked of these 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 appearance in The Mirror, in a depiction of event which accords with the historical record, the gift to Cromwell of a copy of the book by Lord Morley. Cromwell reflects that his ‘king has nothing to learn from Niccolò’s book. But it may pass an hour for him…’ [p. 646]. Machiavelli is not a defining influence on this older, less confident Cromwell. Indeed, if a contemporary work by an Italian holds resonance for this novel, it is one which is not mentioned by name but which we know the historical Cromwell owned and which may have influenced the creation of this Cromwell’s own book of reflections (as it did Elyot’s Governor). It is Castiglione’s The Courtier.

While the central character of Mantel’s trilogy is the royal servant, through whose eyes we are meant to see the politics of the later 1530s, her most remarkable construction, it seems to me, is the portrayal of the king. It is Henry VIII who is alluded to in the title of the novel, in a phrase used of him in the historical Cromwell’s diplomatic correspondence. What Mantel does so well is to depict the unknowability of a king to even those close to him — and the way in which the monarch, a changeable man by nature, becomes inscrutable to himself as he attempts to continue to be unknowable to his courtiers. Cromwell, for all his skill as an efficient bureaucrat, is no less a courtier than the landed nobility who despise him. Though he never alludes to Castiglione, he has learnt some of his lessons. With his mastery of detail and his subtle manipulation of political intrigue, he has achieved his own style of sprezzatura, but his superiority is becoming ever more effortful, his grasp ever more tenuous.

As should be already clear, The Mirror and the Light is a tour-de-force in combining historical research with human sensitivity. The first part of the trilogy, Wolf Hall, felt at times weighed down by the note-taking that sat behind the writing, but the assimilation of research to narrative was perfected in Bring up the Bodies. The knowledge displayed is yet deeper here; it is so steeped in wide reading of the available primary sources and of historical scholarship that I can imagine the publisher is already preparing to commission a ‘reader’s companion’ or ‘scholar’s edition’, chronicling the influences and their transformations. Indeed, I see another publisher already has one on its way, by Lauren Mackay. I wonder what Mantel thinks of volumes like this. After all, any attempt to endow her fluid narrative with certainty would surely be inimical to her intentions. She wants to breath life into the past for us, but is always conscious that the best anyone can do is to conjure fleeting mirages, which leaves us only being better able to embrace our own ignorance.

In the context of her meticulous preparation, there is one element I find particularly notable. She is willing at times to have her Cromwell speak of ‘the Tudors’ [e.g. p. 240]. This might seem unsurprising, given that it remains the popular term for the period 1485-1603, but, as C. S. L. Davies demonstrated, it was not a contemporary one, at least if one wanted to avoid being accused of traducing the monarchy. Naming the kings by that surname signified their low-born origins, rather than their place in the long pedigree of rightful, anointed rulers. We might object that the Whitehall Mural which Mantel so well evokes could be taken as Holbein projecting a Tudor royal identity but this is a family portrait not a dynastic one. The inscription on the central monument celebrates the virtue of father, man and son, emphasising that the commissioner, Henry, is the eighth of that name to hold the sceptre. The prime importance of legitimacy means that Henry VIII could not claim that the tradition in which he stood began just the generation before him. Beyond him stood so many spectres of so many centuries waiting to whisper in his regal ear.

‘Tudor’ may be a useful shorthand but it misguides us if it allows us in any way to imagine that it describes a world that came into being fifty years before the action of this novel. If it did that, it would lead us naturally to underestimate how radical the fissure was which we know as the Break with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The second of these is part of the backdrop to the action of The Mirror. Backdrop is merely what it is, not its perpetuum mobile, as it could plausibly have been. Mantel’s choice here helpfully reminds us how gradual the process of the destruction of the old order, and many (apart from those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace) might have been unable to detect when the point of no-return occurred. Its relegation to an occasional reference means that it is not allowed to preoccupy the mind of Mantel’s Cromwell. He might wonder how his family can profit from the closure of certain abbeys but, strikingly, he is not burdened with worry about its long-term consequences, nor does he feel the need to justify to anyone its rationale. What was once called ‘the age of plunder’ passes here for the custom of the country.

‘Sometimes it is years before we can see who are the heroes in an affair and who are the victims’ [p. 432]. Mantel is the business of remaking reputations. If by the end of Wolf Hall, Thomas More seemed a little less like a martyr, at the final page of The Mirror, Cromwell seems no closer to being one. Her Cromwell would not have described himself as a victim or wanted to be remembered as one. He would also, I think, not considered himself a hero and I wonder whether, by the end of her writing, Mantel thought him to be that. What she has portrayed is something more interesting, more complex, more human than a hero. Yet, Mantel underplays the enormity of what her protagonist achieved. He had his time in making others victims —  not just humans, but also major buildings and traditions. They were so many that one wonders that his nights were not haunted with more ghosts.

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?