Monday, June 18, 2012

A Literary Indictment

Hilary Mantel

'Wolf Hall,' 'Bring Up the Bodies,' and the Historical Evidence Concerning Anne Boleyn

Wolf Hall:  Prequel to Bring Up the Bodies, a Literary Indictment of Anne Boleyn

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Print edition: Picador, 2010, 640 pages. 

Hilary Mantel’s work of historical fiction Wolf Hall is a popular, nuanced take on the drama of Henry VIII and the Reformation. Anointed by the literary establishment, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize for 2009. Acclaim for the novel is due in part to its modern feel: written almost entirely in the present tense with accessible passages of dialogue, Mantel’s story captures the Tudor court at a time of upheaval and suspense. While Mantel has been recognized for her contrarian re-imagining of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, however, her portrayal of lady of the court Anne Boleyn is conventional, drawing as it does on a historical stereotype unsupported by the evidence.

Wolf Hall might be subtitled A Tale of Three Chancellors. Mantel's narrative, which gives an informative account of Thomas Cromwell's tutelage by his patron Cardinal Wolsey, and dramatizes the story of Wolsey's fall and Cromwell's subsequent rise to power, ends with the persecution of Thomas More. Indeed, the novel emphasizes court politics over romantic intrigue. The ladies of the court – Queen Katherine and Princess Mary, Anne Boleyn, soon to be queen, and her attendant Jane Seymour, next to occupy the throne – are represented more indirectly than their male counterparts. The ladies appear in scenes with Cromwell and other courtiers, but also become known to us as subjects of rumor and speculation. We see Anne Boleyn on stage, as it were, but our image of her is formed primarily by the way other characters speak about her to Cromwell and to one another. Nevertheless, this is still the same old story of how a king, desperate to beget a male heir, divorces both his queen and the Roman Catholic Church, becoming head of the Church of England.

Wolf Hall has been justly praised for its unconventional portrayal of historical figures Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. The author corrects the modern stereotype of Thomas More popularized in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, and challenges More's iconic status as the principled martyr who stood firm for his faith in refusing to accept the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. More is portrayed as a cold family man and a cruel torturer of heretics, the latter on the basis of historical evidence. Even More’s idealism is seen as obstinate and narrow-minded. Indeed, Mantel suggests that More’s self-sacrifice is a willful kind of suicide.

Thomas Cromwell, by contrast, is a kindly paterfamilias, highly intelligent, adaptable, and unassuming – perhaps because he has risen to power from humble origins, the son of a drunkard from Putney. In the central, most fully dramatized portion of the novel, Cromwell is contrasted to the aristocratic Sir Thomas More. Earlier comparisons to his predecessor Cardinal Wolsey are muted. Wolsey's origins are not left obscure, but his humble past is lightly referenced, and we meet him as a scarlet-clad high official, fond of pomp and splendor. In fact, Wolsey – capable, highly intelligent, and perhaps too firm in his convictions (he seemed reluctant to secure an annulment for the king) – was the son of a butcher, and rose to power through the ranks of the Church to become Henry’s most trusted minister. Ostentatious, proud, a schemer: Wolsey’s personality profile is distinct from that of the reticent Cromwell, though the two men were similar in respect to class background. In the world of historical fiction, however, all is relative, and Cromwell shines brighter next to Mantel’s entitled Sir Thomas More than he would next to another exemplar of humble origins.

While Mantel develops the story of Anne Boleyn's brief reign most fully in Bring Up the Bodies, readers of Wolf Hall will already have a sense of Anne’s character from Mantel’s drawing of her in volume one of the projected Tudor trilogy. In Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn’s portrait is refracted through the lens of Cromwell’s experience of her, and through hearsay provided by various other characters.  It is not a flattering portrait. Mantel’s Anne Boleyn is an unattractive young woman on the make, tall, sallow, and bug-eyed. It is rumored that she is morally lax. It is said that she learned to perform fellatio at the French court. She is hot-tempered. She will stop at nothing to gain power. Mantel says of Mary Boleyn contemplated by Cromwell: “She will get another child by Henry, he thinks. Anne will have it strangled in the cradle.” (p. 435)

Was Anne Boleyn a lascivious woman, a ruthless schemer whom her contemporaries might easily have believed to be a witch? The accurate representation of Anne Boleyn matters in and of itself, since Anne Boleyn is a significant figure whose marriage to Henry VIII ushered in the Reformation. Moreover, what we think of Anne Boleyn in the world of Mantel’s novel affects our evaluation of Thomas Cromwell’s character and credibility. In 1536, Cromwell disclosed to Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador and friend to the recently deceased Katherine, plans to charge Anne Boleyn with treason. Did Cromwell bring about the death of an innocent queen, or had Anne Boleyn been compromised by lewd behavior and ruined by ambition?

Hilary Mantel’s unattractive portrait of Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall derives from the tradition of Catholic writers hostile to Queen Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn’s daughter. The first such writer, a priest called Nicholas Sander, stated in a book published posthumously in 1585 that Anne was tall with protruding teeth, six fingers, a sallow complexion, and a wen on her throat – a witch in very fact. The campaign to slander Anne Boleyn, however, went beyond references to her appearance. In his book on England’s break from the Catholic Church, Sander charged that Anne Boleyn had sexual relations with Sir Thomas Wyatt. Other Catholic writers concurred. Wyatt for his part was imprisoned and released, implying his innocence, and hers.

In 1536, Anne Boleyn was charged with adultery with five men. She was tried by a panel of twenty-six noblemen. The witnesses against her were her attendants. Anne Boleyn was found guilty and executed, as were the five men charged. According to historian Retha Warnike [History Review, March 2002] it can be proved that Anne Boleyn was not always present at the times and places attested by her accusers. Warnike further demonstrates that the conventional historical picture of Anne is full of errors.

Why, then, was Anne Boleyn falsely accused, tried by a kangaroo court, executed, and subsequently misrepresented by history? Warnike suggests that Anne, though having given birth to a daughter, Elisabeth, became alienated from Henry’s affection following the miscarriage of a male fetus, whose deformities were likely attributed to witchcraft. Demonized by Henry and his advisors, Anne Boleyn became further demonized by Catholic historians who resented the role she played in bringing about the schism with the Church of Rome.

Given the historical role of Anne Boleyn, Hilary Mantel’s representation of her character in Bring Up the Bodies is doubly significant. What are the indications, then, that Mantel consulted and incorporated the full range of historical evidence in her telling of the story of Anne Boleyn’s accusation, trial and execution, and in her rendering of Thomas Cromwell’s part in Anne Boleyn's downfall?

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