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?

A very conservative Renaissance

Posted in British Renaissance interest, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 23 March, 2014

I am not in the habit of shouting at the television.  In part, that is because I am not much of a TV-watcher: until my then partner, now wife, moved in, there was no box in the house. When I do sit in front of it, the programmes on offer are usually not the sort to arouse violent reactions: I find it hard to get angry with Inspector Montablano. But a documentary has had me not just emitting expletives in a raised voice but also searching for suitable objects or pets to throw at the screen (lucky, then, that there are no animals in the house). The programme was the BBC’s ‘flag-ship’ arts phenomenon, ‘A Very British Renaissance’, presented by James Fox – not the actor but brother of Edward Fox, but ‘Dr James Fox’ (nowadays those who have written a dissertation can only appear on TV accompanied by the title, as if it were a mark of their trustworthiness in all matters).

I did not come to the programme cold: already this week I was put in training for the new sport of yelling in frustration and ire at the small screen. I had caught a few moments of another offering from the BBC, its ‘How to Get Ahead, at Renaissance Court’ – clever title, pity about the content. When I joined it, the presenter, Stephen Smith, was standing in the cortile of Florence’s Bargello, in front of Cellini’s bust of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, with its all’antica armour and ducal features finely realised in metal. Smith explains, however, that the Duke hated it because it presented him as a medieval prince while – cut to the Uffizi, with Smith next to Bronzino’s portrait of the Duke in armour – this is how he wanted to be presented, as a Renaissance prince. Smith went on to explain ‘Renaissance’ by evoking (in not so many words) Castigilione’s idea of sprezzatura but by then I had bawled at the screen and scrambled for the remote control. It was not simply that it had been assumed that two objects could encapsulate the contrast between ‘medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ – it was the very presence of that discredited dichotomy, expressed with no reservation or recognition of its problematic nature, that made choice words fall unbidden from my lips.

I must admit I did expect ‘A Very British Renaissance’ to give me more opportunities to put my lung capacity through its paces. My prediction that the fifteenth-century Renaissance elements about which I write would be entirely absent quickly proved true. The Renaissance arrived, apparently, in 1507, when Pietro Torrigiano set foot on English soil (or mud, the dominant metaphor for ‘medieval’ Britain in this programme).  No time, then, for Poggio Bracciolini or Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, or for the likes of Pietro Carmeliano, secretary and scribe to Henry VII. Indeed, according to the presenter, while ‘the Renaissance had been raging in Italy for two hundred years … here there was absolutely no sign of it whatsoever’. As you might imagine, at this point in the programme, rage was not confined to trecento and quattrocento Italy. The reason given for this laggardly showing? There had been so much in-fighting that Britain ‘hadn’t had time for a Renaissance’ – not (Dr Fox might have mentioned) that the struggles for power in Florence or the rivalry with Milan or between Milan and Venice had put a brake on ‘the Renaissance’. Neither, having been softened up by Mr Smith’s performance earlier in the week, did the recourse to the simplistic medieval / Renaissance division catch me completely off guard. So, we had Nicholas Kratzer with his ‘formidable mind – a genuinely Renaissance mind’, since he was interested in scientific observation. Likewise, we had his friend Hans Holbein, over whose drawings at Windsor Fox rhapsodised in eloquent fashion, introducing his peroration with ‘I think they’re even more important’ – it was part of the style of the programme that when a point required emphasis it was introduced by a first-person comment, even though the thought that followed was never original or particularly insightful. In this case, it was the claim that in Holbein’s drawings there were ‘the seeds of a new idea – the moment when people stopped thinking about themselves as types … and started to think about themselves as individuals.’ And so was brushed away over a century of scholarship spent dismantling the dubious concepts provided by Michelet and Burckhardt and we are again mired in talk of ‘the birth of the individual’.

It is a moment like this that you want to stop the presenter and interrogate him. In precisely what way is the remarkable draughtsmanship of Holbein associated with a new individualism? Is it that he made his sitters aware of their own selves? Did they walk in thinking of themselves as a type and leave realising they were unique? Or was the fact that they were willing to sit for him evidence that they already had a sense of their own individuality which they wanted captured on paper by this artist for hire? If so, then their sense of self did not need Holbein; it gained expression through him. But also, if so, did not the fact that these courtiers and merchants chose to call on Holbein’s services group them together as a type – the sort of person who would waste some of their expendable wealth on the conspicuous consumption of having their portrait done? They could chant in unison ‘we are all individuals’.

Yet, even the muddle-minded, half-baked historical thinking that underpinned the presentation was not what should concern us most. For one thing, there was also a disturbing politics at play. I realise the BBC is sensitive to the accusation of left-wing bias and maybe they worried about the fact that their presenter is a leftie – in the sense that David Cameron is. And Barack Obama. And me. Did they decide they needed their left-handed presenter to be not just right-on but also right-wing, so much so that the attitudes he was required to spout could warm the heart of Mr Farage (if he watched such cerebral stuff)? Did they require Dr Fox to give lines like the British ‘didn’t simply copy Europe, they would do things differently’? ‘Europe’ was consistently used in the sense of ‘the continent’. The assumption that the British Isles is not and has not been part of Europe is depressing politics based on bad history: it was certainly not how contemporaries in the period Dr Fox was discussing would have envisaged their civilisation. Meanwhile, in this year of the Scottish referendum, it might have been thought appropriate to make the case for a shared identity between Scotland and England. So, a section was included on Stirling Castle, but it would be understandable if those north of the border felt the programme stank of Sassenach arrogance. The terms ‘British’ and ‘English’ were used interchangeably; the overarching narrative was one provided by the political history of that part of the British Isles that centred on London. Thus, the Reformation discussed was that experienced in England, admittedly with notable omissions — no Break with Rome or Dissolution of the Monasteries — and ample space for anti-Catholic righteous indignation at the Marian persecution of Protestants, those ‘innocent people’ whose only crime was their religious difference from their monarch. The purpose of those lines was to introduce John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in which (the author’s near-namesake claimed) the true genius lay in its illustrations. At this point, we might have expected some discussion of their artistic skill but the only association made with the apparent theme of the programme was that the book was produced using a ‘Renaissance invention’ by which printing was presumably meant. Let us leave aside the re-write of history that implies, and concentrate on the conclusion of the section where it was asserted that the Book of Martyrs was not just ‘a monumental work of the Renaissance but also the beginning of a distinctly British tradition of graphically exposing injustice’.

And so we have the British (for which read mainly English) ‘genius’. The relative influences of Hegel and Herder on Burckhardt have been debated; the shadows of both fall across this programme but it turns out that the noun in the title is less significant than the adjective: this is less about the supposed Zeitgeist of the Renaissance than about the mythical Volksgeist of ‘the British’. Sir Arthur Bryant would be proud. What it is to be ‘British’ was not entirely pleasant: without the effete ‘elegance’ of the Mediterranean, ‘our’ Renaissance would express ‘solid, earthy reality’, and while there was a sense of fair play, there was also dislike of Catholics, and of foreigners, despite Britain’s debt to them. It was a construction of ‘Britishness’ in which England’s one intellectual of European standing in the early sixteenth century could have no place: Thomas More was conspicuous by his exclusion.

Perhaps, though, even a little Englander mentality is not the most worrying element in this programme. What was most depressing was that the information was presented not as a point of view, open to debate, but as a set of unquestionable facts: ‘I think’ used as an expression not of humility but of certainty. It presented a mindset in which the past can be easily categorised and judged. ‘How good a poet was he?’, Dr Fox asked about Thomas Wyatt (you can guess the answer). Standing besides the portrait by John Bettes in Tate Britain, he commented ‘I must admit this is not as good as Holbein but it’s pretty darn good’. We were given a history defined by league tables, in which Renaissance is certainly better than medieval, and in which Britain is separate from and implicitly better than ‘Europe’.  Who constructs these league tables? The presenters, the doctors, the ‘experts’ – even when their expertise is patently doubtful. You, the viewers, have no part in that construction, you are the passive recipients of what is claimed to be established knowledge. You cannot see – to return to Stephen Smith – that Bronzino is Renaissance and Cellini medieval? That is because you are no expert. What unites the two programmes is that they are not intended to develop the watchers’ critical faculties or their ability to analyse the objects being displayed: it is, rather, to remind us that, we, on the wrong side of the screen, lack those faculties. This is not about liberal education but about indoctrination. It is this, even more than its recourse to a tired, demonstrably mistaken historiography, that makes these programmes deeply, depressingly conservative. Is this really in the spirit of the mission of the BBC?