February 13, 2015 4:23 pm
Simon Schama on ‘Wolf Hall’, taking liberties with the truth, and what historians and novelists can learn from each other
ry dropping the words Wolf Hall into a room full of historians these days and you’ll find out pretty quickly what they think of historical fiction. There will be those who make clucking sounds, roll their eyes and generally behave as though they’ve been introduced to Clio’s flighty little sister who has all of the fun and none of the responsibility. But then there are those who are happy that Hilary Mantel’s prodigious storytelling has drawn millions into the realm of the past where, once captive, they can be informed about what really happened.
Me, I’m with the relaxed crowd, though it grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks who got precious little thanks for doing Henry VIII’s dirty work other than the earldom of Essex — about five minutes before being marched to the scaffold as a result of Anne of Cleves turning out to be a dog rather than the pussycat of Holbein’s portrait.
I don’t pretend to be an authority on the Tudor Reformation, but when I was doing research for A History of Britain, the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture. He also unleashed small-minded bureaucratic “visitors” to humiliate, evict and dispossess thousands of monks and nuns, not all of whom had their hands up each other’s robes or were passing off pig bones as holy relics. On at least one occasion he had the fake relic and the custodial friar burnt side by side. Witty, that. The fact that Thomas More (who could use some help right now) was likewise not averse to burning people as well as books, if they strayed from sound doctrine, does not mean that Cromwell, in comparison, was a paragon of refreshing straightforwardness. Sure, he was a good family man. So was More. So was Himmler.
But, as I say, I’m relaxed about all this. I don’t much mind that historical novels and films take liberties with the facts, commit sins of omission or make imaginative interpolations provided they do not pretend to claim the same kind of authority in telling you how it really was as accounts based on documented fact seek to do. When I wrote my own historical novella, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations(1991), about the making and writing of history, I didn’t expect it to be held to the same standards as a work of non-fiction. Before publishing a review, the New York Times asked me whether it should treat it as fiction or non-fiction. “Fiction,” I told them. “I made up dialogue, monologue, all sorts of things.” It went into non-fiction.
Even though Leo Tolstoy refused to callWar and Peace a novel, fiction should candidly rejoice in its inventions. It is when a polemical point gets made through shifting the evidence around to suit some preconceived opinion that it gets morally murky. The film Selma, which I have yet to see, has been criticised for its representation of Lyndon Johnson as a wily procrastinator rather than the president who urged Martin Luther King to confront the worst outrages against civil and voting rights so that the country would be shocked into supporting legislation. Ava DuVernay, the film’s director, expressed surprise that so much was made of this emphasis but she must have known the stakes were high. For the film’s critics, an uninformed audience might confuse a movie interpretation with the documented truth: a rare instance of mutually interested partnership between presidential politics and the civil rights movement is in danger of being replaced by a model of conflict and deception.
Invention may compromise authority but then we don’t go to great historical fiction or feature films for hard documentary truth. What they deliver, instead, is an imaginative impression but when that impression emerges from rich research it is often capable of delivering a much more vivid sense of the past than an arrangement of unimpeachable data. No military history of the battles of Austerlitz or Borodino is ever going to transport the reader into the ferocious and chaotic reality experienced by both officers and ordinary soldiers better than War and Peace.
The mindset of historians and historical novelists is not all that divergent. Both strive for what Oxford philosopher RG Collingwood exhorted as the imaginative “re-enactment”; the getting inside an event. Without a grip on evidence, the historical novel is empty fable; without imaginative empathy, history is all bones and no flesh and blood. For some historians, who see their work essentially as the political science of the past, this may sound like a dangerous flirtation with romance. But then there are some who don’t mind admitting we were drawn to the subject in the first place precisely because of that romance.
. . .
I was born in 1945, into a Britain scarred and charred by the war. My personal histories, Jewish and British, had taken a beating but had somehow endured. The present was austerely rationed like the barley sugar twists I craved (and actually nicked once or twice from Woolworths); the future was atomic in a way that both excited and terrified but the past was a romance of inexhaustible splendour and I spent as much time there as I possibly could. My first “book”, created when I was eight, was a history of the Royal Navy consisting mostly of cigarette card pictures of battleships: Golden Hind to Ark Royal. Walked through the Tower of London by my dad, I thought I caught on the riverside breeze the whimpering cry of one of Richard III’s inconvenient nephews. I was the only boy I knew who liked Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae better than Treasure Island; Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company rather than Sherlock. I couldn’t get enough of Walter Scott (something that on rereading amazes me): not just Ivanhoe, but the lumberingWaverley, the novel that on publication in 1814 became the first international bestseller and inaugurated a mass market for historical fiction.
I remember being vividly struck by one scene in Waverley. The eponymous and somewhat drippy hero follows his own dreamy romance into the Highlands in 1745, the year of the Jacobite rebellion, which he duly joins. He is brought to a clan feast in which the main course is “a yearling lamb . . . roasted whole. It was set upon its legs, with a bunch of parsley in its mouth . . . The sides of this poor animal were fiercely attacked by the clansmen, some with dirks, others with knives which were usually in the same sheath with the dagger so that it was soon rendered a mangled and rueful spectacle.”
These were the table manners I hoped to imitate at home but I also remember Scott’s learned footnote explaining Scottish aversion (“till of late years”) to pork. These clansmen were apparently kosher; och oy! But it was the scene’s close-up physical detail that made me feel I was there with clan MacIvor.
You would suppose that the condition of becoming a working historian is to leave this kind of thing behind as fable: a genre not just distinct from a history but the antithesis of it. The distinction could not be clearer, some historians argue. On the one side stand the interpreters and analysts of documented evidence; on the other, the fabulists, free to come and go from the realm of truth as their literary fancy dictates.
Yet in the Edinburgh Review in 1825, the young Thomas Babington Macaulay thought that, while true historians must never invent, there was something they could learn from novelists. He knew that Scott was greedy for archival research into anything that might help him reconstruct a lost world: ballads and vernacular poems; games and diet, costume, furniture, weapons and architecture. It was the fabric of everyday life that “high” historians disdained as unconsidered trifles — their noses deep in state papers and the correspondence of the mighty — that Macaulay thought should be snapped up by any writer wanting to make his reader live richly in a different time and place.
Both Scott and Macaulay were beneficiaries of a wave of writing that began in the later 18th century by the likes of the costume historian Joseph Strutt and the eccentric vegetarian radical Joseph Ritson, a great anthologist of folk ballads and resurrector of Robin Hood. But they also felt instinctively that they were embarked on a common endeavour of storytelling from which historical truth could emerge. For Macaulay, it was the unfolding of the epic of British liberty. Walter Scott, the product of Enlightenment Edinburgh, also believed this to be the great motor driving British history, though the sunlight of progress was darkened by a sense of what was being lost: cue the plaid, the pipes and the standing lamb with parsley.
There was another bond connecting the novelist and the historian: their shared belief in the power of literary narrative and their healthy respect for its complexity. The instruction was not all one way. When he published A Tale of Two Cities in 1859, Charles Dickens openly professed how much he owed to the narrative genius of, as well as the learning behind, Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (1837), a work that charges along like a bolting horse in the historical present. “See Camille Desmoulins, from the Café du Foy, rushing on, sibylline in face; his hair streaming, in each hand a pistol! He springs to a table: the Police satellites are eyeing him; alive they shall not take him; not they alive, not him alive. This time he speaks without stammering: Friends, shall we die like hunted hares, like sheep hounded into their pinfold; bleating for mercy where is no mercy but only a whetted knife? The hour is come.”
Before scholars brushed off historical novelists as dubious entertainers, there were many such fruitful collaborations. Victor Hugo could not have written his phenomenal (and absurdly unread) 1793 (1874) without the help of the histories of Jules Michelet, head of the Archives Nationales, and a virtuoso of storytelling. The greatest of all the historical novelists, Tolstoy, was himself a compulsive trawler through the archive. An unexpected treasure trove of Masonic papers led him to make Pierre Bezukhov flirt for a while with the mysteries of the Craft. His own experience of a military raid on a Chechen village bloodied the young Tolstoy in the cruelties of war. This did not stop him immersing himself in every conceivable historical source, in many languages, on Napoleon and the history of Russia 1805-1812.
. . .
To be sure, there are significant differences in working methods. Because historical novels use conversational dialogue, their inventors have to think very carefully about voice: the tonal music of their writing. There are many ways to get this disastrously wrong. If characters are made to speak in a modified version of the diction of the past, they risk pastiche. “Brook your ire!” one character says to another in Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner. On the other hand, it was probably preferable to Turner telling him to “chill”. For if historical figures speak pretty much as we now do, only kitted out in breeches and farthingales, the alien strangeness of the past, wherein much of its magic lies, goes out of the window. In an essay on this problem, Marguerite Yourcenar, author of one of the most compelling historical novels ever written, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), explains that the challenge of catching a reliable tone for Roman conversation from elusively scattered fragments of prose made her decide to make her book monovocal. After pondering the choices of voice for Hadrian, she plumped for a version of oratio togata, toga-speech: elastic and personal in ways in which a voice drawn exclusively from Cicero’s rhetoric could not have been. The result is a distinctive kind of address: poetic and ruminative; by turns brutal and sensual; a million miles from the studied disingenuousness and naked self-vindication that usually pass for non-fiction memoirs.
Lately there have been interesting voice inventions. Martin Amis’s tone for the SS inThe Zone of Interest — the heartiness of nonentities; (“but this is fucking ridiculous”) man-to-man pub talk translated to Auschwitz — is somehow more credibly horrible than lunatic ravings or the Hannibal Lecter-speak of evil geniuses. For the characters in his forthcoming The Buried Giant, set in post-Roman, half-Saxon Britain, the author Kazuo Ishiguro has chosen a mysteriously formal speech, full of stiffly exchanged courtesies, whether spoken by monks, knights or peasants, entirely stripped of the poesy of epic or legend. “Excuse us Master Wistan while I walk them to the longhouse. Then if we may sir I’d like to resume our discussion of just now.” But, as seems apt for the book, it undoubtedly casts a spell.
. . .
This is not the historian’s problem. We must content ourselves with the voices given to us by diaries, letters and speeches, which are audible enough without our having to put words into the mouths of the unprotesting dead. But there is one calculation we have to make that, from the first sentences, will set the tone: the manner of our own narrative voice. Most historians just go with the flow of what comes naturally; slightly popularised editions of their academic voices. Others make a great performance of their own presence, though none as operatically booming as Carlyle: “O beloved brother blockheads” — that’s us, his readers. Others still disappear into the action; just opening a door into the past and crooking a beckoning finger to the reader to follow.
Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England
Those who start in the thick of it, I like best of all. The writer who made me want to be an historian was Columbia University professor Garrett Mattingly. In 1959, he published The Defeat of the Spanish Armada, which has the imaginative grip of a novel but is grounded on the bedrock of the archives. It begins with a name the significance of which we, as yet, have absolutely no idea; with an exactly visualised place. Through the repetition of a single word “Nobody,” we hear the tolling of a bell ringing the doom of someone or other.
“Mr Beale had not brought the warrant until Sunday evening but by Wednesday morning, before dawn outlines its high windows, the great hall of Fotheringhay was ready. Though the Earl of Shrewsbury had returned only the day before nobody wanted any more delay. Nobody knew what messenger might be riding on the London road. Nobody knew which of the others might not weaken if they wanted another.”
What is this? Who is this? Where are we? You want to read on, don’t you? So you do so with the intense excitement of knowing every word is true.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor
Illustration by Toby Whitebread
Photograph: Giles Keyte
“Try always,” says the worldly Cardinal Wolsey in “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s turbulent court, “to find out what people wear under their clothes.” Katherine of Aragon, the queen who can’t produce an heir, wears a nun’s habit. Anne Boleyn, the tease eager to supplant her, won’t let the king know what she’s wearing until their wedding night; she says “yes, yes, yes” to him, “then she says no.” Thomas More, willing to go to any lengths to prevent the marriage, wears a shirt of bristling horsehair, which mortifies his flesh until the sores weep. As for Thomas Cromwell, the fixer who does the king’s dirty work just as he once did the cardinal’s, what is he hiding under his lawyer’s sober winter robes? Something “impermeable,” Hans Holbein suspects as he paints Cromwell’s forbidding portrait. Armor, maybe, or stone.
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Cromwell is the picaresque hero of the novel — tolerant, passionate, intellectually inquisitive, humane. We follow his winding quest in vivid present-tense flashbacks, drawn up from his own prodigious memory: how he left home before he was 15, escaping the boot of his abusive father, a brewer and blacksmith who beat him as if he were “a sheet of metal”; how he dreamed of becoming a soldier and went to France because “France is where they have wars.” Cromwell learns banking in Florence, trading in Antwerp. He marries, has children and watches helplessly as the plague decimates his family.
In short, Cromwell learns everything everywhere, at a time when European knowledge about heaven and earth, via Copernicus and Machiavelli, is exploding. At 40, he “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” He knows the entire New Testament by heart, having mastered the Italian “art of memory” (part of the inner world of Renaissance magic that Mantel drew on in her comic novel “Fludd”), in which long lines of speech are fixed in the mind with vivid images.
Cromwell is also, as Mantel sees him, a closet Protestant, monitoring Luther’s battles with Rome and exchanging secret letters with Tyndale, the English translator of the Bible, about the “brutal truth” of the Scriptures. “Why does the pope have to be in Rome?” Cromwell wonders. “Where is it written?” Historians have long suspected that Cromwell harbored Protestant sympathies, even before Anne Boleyn’s “resistant, quick-breathing and virginal bosom” caught the king’s eye. Mantel, with the novelist’s license, draws the circle more tightly. As a child, Cromwell is present when an old woman is burned at the stake for heresy: “Even after there was nothing left to scream, the fire was stoked.” Years later, he watches in disgust as Thomas More rounds up more heretics to feed to the fire. For Mantel, who acknowledges her debt to revisionist scholars, Henry’s divorce is the impetus for Cromwell’s “Tudor Revolution,” as the historian Geoffrey Elton called it, by which the British state won independence from foreign and ecclesiastic rule.
In “Wolf Hall” it is More, the great imaginer of utopia, who is the ruthless tormenter of English Protestants, using the rack and the ax to set the “quaking world” aright. “Utopia,” Cromwell learns early on, “is not a place one can live.” More’s refusal to recognize Henry’s marriage was the basis for his canonization in 1935, as well as his portrayal as a hero of conscience in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” and its 1966 screen version. To Mantel’s Cromwell, More is in love with his own martyrdom, his own theatrical self-importance, while Cromwell, more in keeping with the spirit of Bolt’s title, seeks a way out for his old rival.
There’s a tense moment when More, locked in the Tower of London awaiting trial for treason, claims to have harmed no one. Cromwell explodes. What about Bainham, a mild man whose only sin was that he was a Protestant? “You forfeited his goods, committed his poor wife to prison, saw him racked with your own eyes, you locked him in Bishop Stokesley’s cellar, you had him back at your own house two days chained upright to a post, you sent him again to Stokesley, saw him beaten and abused for a week, and still your spite was not exhausted: you sent him back to the Tower and had him racked again.” Tortured, Bainham names names, who happen to be friends of Cromwell’s. “That’s how the year goes out, in a puff of smoke, a pall of human ash.”
In her long novel of the French Revolution, “A Place of Greater Safety,” Mantel also wrote about the damage done by utopian fixers. And surely the current uproar over state-sponsored torture had its effect on both the writing and the imagining of “Wolf Hall.” Yet, although Mantel adopts none of the archaic fustian of so many historical novels — the capital letters, the antique turns of phrase — her book feels firmly fixed in the 16th century. Toward the end of the novel, Cromwell, long widowed and as usual overworked, “the man in charge of everything,” falls in love with Jane Seymour, lady-in-waiting to Boleyn, and considers spending a few days at the gothic-sounding Seymour estate called Wolf Hall. What could go wrong with such an innocent plan? Perhaps in a sequel Mantel will tell us.
Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. “Wolf Hall” has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike. Trained in the law, Mantel can see the understated heroism in the skilled administrator’s day-to-day decisions in service of a well-ordered civil society — not of a medieval fief based on war and not, heaven help us, a utopia. “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power,” Cromwell reflects. “Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” is both spellbinding and believable.