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Paul Vallely: What the tributes to Hilary Mantel miss  

14 October 2022

The late novelist distorted historical fact in the service of fiction, says Paul Vallely


Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC2 adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC2 adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

IN HILARY MANTEL’s novel Fludd, a preternatural stranger arrives in a northern moorland town and turns its drab Catholic community upside down. But is Fludd the devil, or a kind of angel? The ambiguity is intriguing.

Sadly, in the recent flood of hagiographical tributes to the late novelist, ambiguity is a quality that is sadly lacking. Fine writer though she was, the praise for her “impeccable research”, “dedication to the sources”, and “historical accuracy” quite overlooks the fact that she was a partisan polemicist. The eulogist who said that “she understood the nuances of history, power and politics better than many an academic historian” might have been better comparing her dark arts to that of a political spin doctor.

In her celebrated Wolf Hall trilogy, Mantel rewrote Tudor history according to a distinct set of prejudices. Thomas Cromwell became a cautious, prudent, tolerant statesman, and Thomas More a grim, misogynistic, religious bigot, and sadistic torturer, reversing the roles traditionally assigned to the two men.

In this, she drew on the work of G. R. Elton, who was the doyen of Tudor studies when I did my A-level history, half a century ago. Elton saw Cromwell as an administrative genius with a high concept of national sovereignty, Parliament, and the law, whose realpolitik masterminded the Tudor “revolution in government”.

By contrast, in Elton’s world-view, More’s adherence to the old religion was an obstacle on the path to England’s becoming an enlightened secular liberal democracy. Elton’s writing, on the four years that More spent in a Carthusian monastery deciding whether to become a monk or to marry, indulges in what Eamon Duffy has called some “highly suspect cod psychology about More’s sexuality” which Mantel swallowed hook, line, and stinker.

In this, she chose to ignore the corrective set out by later historians such as Duffy, John Guy, and Brendan Bradshaw, whose scholarship refutes Elton’s verdict on the saintly More. Why? The explanation lies perhaps in her unhappy childhood experience of Catholicism, reflected in Fludd. More recently, she branded the Catholic Church as “not for respectable people”, and called transubstantiation “a great training in doubleness”.

In A People’s Tragedy, Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity in the Cambridge Divinity Faculty, takes a scalpel to the Mantel vision of More — dismantling it, point by point, where it departs from historical fact. More was a man of his time in his attitude to heretics, no doubt, but it is Cromwell who was actually the torturer.

He then conducts an interesting discussion on More’s depictions in fiction, starting with Shakespeare and his collaborators, who portray Sir Thomas More as a man of good humour, good sense, decency, and justice. What unites them all — Robert Hugh Benson, Ford Madox Ford, Hilda Prescott, and Robert Bolt — is that they do not depart from the historiographical consensus of their time. Only Mantel chooses to ignore it.

Her vision, or perhaps Mark Rylance’s compelling television portrayal of Cromwell, has produced a generation who have inherited her wilful distortions as historical fact, as university dons interviewing potential undergraduates testify. Good fiction can make bad history. And, as our present grows out of our past, that can be a disservice.

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