Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell; James Wood on Thomas More

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

I’m coming to the end of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant treatment of the Tudor saga, Wolf Hall. Sign of a great book: when it’s finished, I will miss her characters, particularly her hero Thomas Cromwell, presented here as a self-made harbinger of the Renaissance, a complicated protagonist who was loyal to his benefactor Cardinal Wolsey even though he despised the abuses of the Church. Mantel’s Cromwell reminds us that the adjective “Machiavellian” need not be a pejorative, applied only to evil Iago or crooked Richard III. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall presages a more egalitarian–modern–extension of power. Cromwell here is not simply pragmatic (although he is pragmatic), he also has a purpose: he sees the coming changes of Europe, the rise of the mercantile class signaling economic power over monarchial authority. Yet he’s loyal to Henry VIII, and even the scheming Boleyns. “Arrange your face” is one of the book’s constant mantras; another is “Choose your prince.” Mantel’s Cromwell is intelligent and admirable; the sorrows of the loss of his wife and daughter tinge his life but do not dominate it; he can be cruel when the situation merits it but would rather not be. I doubt that many people wanted yet another telling of the Tudor drama–but aren’t we always looking for a great book? Wolf Hall demonstrates that it’s not the subject that matters but the quality of the writing. Highly recommended.

Cromwell’s greatest foil in Wolf Hall is Thomas More, who is also the subject of the first essay in James Wood’s collection The Broken Estate. I got my review copy in the mail late last week, so it was pure serendipity that I should read “Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season” after a full day of listening to Wolf Hall (did I neglect to mention that I listened to the audio book? Sorry). Wood is harsher on More than Mantel; whereas she lets us despise him within the logic and framework of the Tudor court, Wood aims to find a contemporary secular standard from which to judge him. He finds license to do so through the work of John Stuart Mill, citing the influential essay On Liberty. Wood writes:

So it is enough for secular criticism to argue that More should have acted differently, and in asserting only this, secular criticism gives birth to itself. It is enough for the secularist to say that there are categories and modes of being which possess a transhistorical and universal status equivalent to sainthood’s, and by which it is therefore permissible to judge More’s actions.

I think in some ways Mantel’s work performs a kind of transhistorical secularist critique of More, albeit one that steps outside of historical or literary criticism or philosophy, one that remains in the logical limits of historical fiction. Mantel does not ask her Thomases to be something that we in the 21st century want them to be, but by centering on Cromwell, she engenders a sharp critique of More’s hypocrisy, a hypocrisy endemic to his time. Cromwell is a humanist (who does not know that he is a humanist, perhaps) and his complicated view of More forms the thrust of any critique we might choose to find in Wolf Hall. Cromwell admires More’s erudition but despises his arrogance; he respects More as a family man but resents his attitudes toward women. In Mantel’s London, Cromwell works to save More’s life not because he wants to avoid creating a martyr, but because he feels genuine compassion and pity for the man’s family. More’s selfishness is all the more apparent in light of this. Further reflection Wood’s book to come; this second printing (the first in a decade) of Wood’s essays debuts in June, 2010 from the good folks at Picador.

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5 thoughts on “Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell; James Wood on Thomas More

    1. Thanks, for your kind words–and thanks for linking to your review, which I think is very insightful, particularly your observation that we read the book by essentially looking over Cromwell’s shoulder.

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