When I first read Wolf Hall and watched the TV adaptation (actually it was the other way round for me), I looked on the internet for reviews of both, and I quickly discovered that a lot of ink had been spilled in particular on the portrayal of Thomas More and his relationship with Thomas Cromwell. The general tenor of these reviews is neatly expressed in this headline: ‘Thomas More is the villain of Wolf Hall – but is he getting a raw deal?’ Let me give you a few more examples, just to show that this attitude in a review is not an isolated case.
Paul Lay in History Today thinks that Wolf Hall shows More as ‘a vile and despicable tormentor of the blacksmith’s boy made good [meaning Cromwell]’. Peter Stanford, in the Daily Telegraph, writes that Hilary Mantel portrays More as a ‘ruthless schemer’. Historian Tracy Borman, whose opinion is cited in the same article, believes that ‘because she is writing a novel, Hilary Mantel obviously feels she needs a goodie and baddie. And so she tees Cromwell up as the goodie by making More the baddie.’ Melanie McDonagh, in the Evening Standard, claims that the novel is doing More ‘a grave disservice’ by showing that his ‘world view is simple religious fanaticism’.
Joan Acocella in The New Yorker thinks that More comes off badly in the novel, with his ‘milky piety’, and although Mantel ‘acknowledges that he was a renowned thinker and writer’, she ‘turns this to his discredit’ by giving him an attitude of arrogant superiority towards his intellectual inferiors.
In short, reviewer after reviewer sees Thomas More portrayed in Wolf Hall as a scheming villain, a religious fanatic, Cromwell’s mortal enemy or simply the baddie.
I don’t see it. I have read the book twice (I’m half-way through my third turn), and I have watched the TV series four times (actually I’m one episode short of the fifth time), and I still don’t see it. Several questions now arise.
One: am I just obtuse and unable to see what is right in front of my eyes, what is obvious to others who read the book and watch the TV series? Or (as I like to think), is there a reason why I might possibly have a clearer view?
Two: where do all these reviewers think Hilary Mantel gets her characterisation from? What are her reasons?
Three: how do I think, then, Thomas More comes out of Wolf Hall? How does his character appear to me?
To the first question then: the main reason why all these reviewers jib at Mantel’s portrait of More seems to be that it goes against what they learned about him at school. (See also my possibly at some point forthcoming post ‘Why does everybody hate Thomas Cromwell so much?’) Even if you are not Catholic and therefore maybe not care so much that More is a Saint, he is clearly one of the heroes of English history. A thoroughly good guy, someone to be admired, to look up to – ‘an example of integrity for all times’ as the Bishop of Shrewsbury put it, ‘the historical equivalent of a national treasure’. And people are curiously reluctant to abandon the views they learned at school. As Hilary Mantel herself put it during the Q&A at one of her Reith lectures:
The problem is that people are very loyal to the first history they learned. They are very attached to what their teachers told them and they are very resistant to having this subverted…
This is exactly the problem that I see with all these reviews. People have been told ‘More = good, Cromwell = bad’ for decades, with those teachings compounded by ‘A Man for All Seasons’, and they greatly dislike having this entrenched picture in their minds challenged. What’s more, they react to this challenge by simply seeing Mantel’s version as the opposite (More = bad, Cromwell = good), and it completely blinds them to the subtleties of the fiction, which is never as simplistic as that. So where does my advantage come in? Well, I went to school and I studied history in Germany, where no one is much concerned with the heroes and villains of English history. I first encountered More in my first semester at university, when I wrote an essay (my very first essay at uni!) on three ‘Utopias’, one of which was More’s. (The others were Plato’s Republic and Campanella’s The City of the Sun.) I wasn’t aware of Thomas Cromwell’s existence at all. So when I watched Wolf Hall I had no preconception of either character. I have since read a great deal about Thomas Cromwell, less about Thomas More, but this post is not so much concerned with their lives and relationship with each other in history, but in the novel and the TV adaptation. And how I see that will be the answer to my third question. First the second question, though:
Why (in the reviewers’ opinion) is Hilary Mantel so down on Thomas More? I think they mostly put it down to anti-Catholic prejudice. Mantel was educated at a Catholic school, and has since apparently said a few critical things about it. I knew nothing of this when I read the book. I have since read the book she wrote about her life, and it appears that she wasn’t exactly happy at the school, but to infer from that a motivation to make Thomas More a bad guy – well, that seems a bit much. Perhaps she has said more things critical of the Catholic Church, I simply don’t know. Although some of these Catholics appear to have very dainty toes that she seems to have trodden on – one bishop (I forget which one) even wrote that to see Thomas Cromwell in a more positive light is ‘the new acceptable face of anti-Catholic prejudice’.
Anyway, all this stems from a major fallacy, and that is to think that Wolf Hall reflects the author’s own viewpoint. More is portrayed not as a saint, but as a very fallible and sometimes disagreeable human being (they say), therefore Mantel doesn’t like him. Wrong. The whole book (and its sequel) are told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell. Any of the other characters appear not as Mantel thinks they might have been, but as she thinks they might have appeared to Cromwell. Everything in the book is seen through Cromwell’s eyes and is therefore at one remove from reality (whatever reality means when we are talking about the 1530s). And no, Cromwell is not simply Hilary Mantel’s mouthpiece. Again, the book is far too sophisticated for that. It seems to me also that people overlook that More is not a one-dimensional character. If you read the book, you will see that he appears as stern, mocking, gentle, caring, all possibly on the same page and within the same piece of dialogue. If you read the conversations Cromwell has with him and the thoughts that run through Cromwell’s head, you will see how Cromwell’s attitude towards More shifts and changes. He is infuriated by him, but in the next paragraph he is concerned about his well-being. Attitudes and relationships don’t stand still, and characters change, shift, show different sides of themselves. To say that ‘More is portrayed as this’ is to deny the complexity and, I repeat, sophistication of the writing.
Just to emphasise the point, here is how Hilary Mantel makes it herself (in an interview on the blog thecreationofanneboleyn.wordpress.com):
After Wolf Hall was published, I was constantly being asked ‘Was Thomas More really like that? We thought he was a really nice man!’ I could only answer, ‘I am trying to describe how he might have appeared if you were standing in the shoes of Thomas Cromwell: who, incidentally, did not dislike him.’
If you keep that in mind, much of the criticism levelled at Mantel falls flat, but it seems most people have missed that.
And with that, on to my third question: how did More appear to me, and how did I see his relationship with Cromwell when I read the book and watched the TV series?
First I would like to point you back to what Hilary Mantel said above: Cromwell did not dislike More. They do not appear as mortal enemies. To see one as the goodie and the other correspondingly as the baddie is a false dichotomy. There is no reason assume that as a reader you need to choose between one or the other. More is not Cromwell’s ‘vile and despicable tormentor’ (seriously, where do they get that stuff from?), nor is he a villain. And he’s not scheming either.
When I say ‘how did More appear to me’, I really should say ‘how did I read More through Cromwell’s eyes?’ And with that in mind:
I think they know each other quite well. They visit each other’s houses. They invite each other for dinner. There is a scene where Cromwell comes into More’s house, and More says to his daughter Meg: ‘leave us, I won’t have you in this devil’s company’. But she does no such thing, she smiles at him and talks to him. It is clear that Cromwell is well-known in More’s household (this comes across particularly clearly in the TV version), that he at least knows Meg well and is on a friendly footing with her. It is also clear that More’s words sound much sharper than he means them (he makes no further attempt to send his daughter out and clearly accepts her contact with Cromwell). That is one of More’s foremost flaws in Wolf Hall: he can’t keep his sharp tongue in check. (By the way, Mantel’s Cromwell is not the only one to notice this. In C.J. Sansom’s Sovereign, one character says ‘A man of rare invective, was he not?’ and another replies: ‘Yes, he was not the gentle saint some people paint him.’) When Cromwell says something friendly to him, he can’t resist saying something pointed back. He can’t resist exercising his wit. I think on the whole Cromwell likes More more than More likes Cromwell, but that is not to say that he is Cromwell’s sworn enemy and schemes against him. They are not friends, that would be going too far, but I think in a way they enjoy each other’s company. They have opposing views, they are antagonists, but they spark off each other, and I think they enjoy that. ‘I have always respected you’, Cromwell says to More, and there is no reason to doubt it. So why does he appear as ‘a charmless prig, a humourless, alienating nasty piece of work’, as one critic put it? Because, respect and even a degree of liking notwithstanding, there’s something about him that rubs Cromwell up the wrong way. And remember, it is Cromwell’s viewpoint that we are dealing with here. Sorry to keep harping on about this, but it is very important, and yet it seems to be something that all these critics seem unable to get their heads round.
The one thing that makes More a ‘national treasure’ more than anything else is that he stuck to his beliefs – this is why he has been held up as some kind of role model. And that is exactly how he comes across in Wolf Hall. He has his principles, and he won’t give them up, and he ultimately dies for them. I don’t see that this is portrayed in any kind of negative way, neither in the book nor on TV. And yes, he is inclined to be somewhat haughty and arrogant, but there are many moments when he is not. I’ve said it before, More is a multi-faceted character, just like Cromwell, and you can’t reduce him to ‘fanatic’ or ‘scheming villain’ or whatever. So what about the nasty things he does in the story? The heretic-hunting? Well, that’s historic fact. It’s hardly to ‘demonise’ him when this is put into the story. But wasn’t he one of the foremost scholars in Europe of that time? Yes he was, and that’s in the book as well. So which is he, a torturer of perceived heretics, or a forward-thinking Renaissance man? The answer is both. He was a lot of things, perhaps even a lot of contradictory things, and they are all in the book. Like I said before, you can’t reduce him to a couple of words.
So, next time someone bemoans the appearance of More as the ‘baddie’ and Cromwell as the ‘goodie’ and tries to persuade you that they are somehow polar opposites, remember this:
And answer them by quoting this classic book title:
I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Featured image: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Anton Lesser as Thomas More in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. Name of the rabbit unknown.